"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

- George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Taper Trap

Take a look at your training program. When you look at your final two or three weeks prior to your big race, what thoughts go through your mind? If it's still months away it may seem like it will never arrive. If you're at the peak of your training it may seem like much-welcomed relief just around the corner. If you're currently in the final few weeks you're probably feeling like you've earned a reduction in miles after the months of grueling non-stop preparation. The Taper is a near-universally accepted principle and practice of marathon training. Yet, if done incorrectly, it can lead to disastrous results on race day. This is The Taper Trap.

Tapering advice is in no short supply, and for good reason. The final few weeks are important and should not be overlooked. While you may not be able to produce significant improvements in endurance and speed in the final few weeks, there is the potential to lose some of the built up strength you have worked so hard to obtain. Generally, advice on tapering falls into one of three categories:

1. What to do
2. What not to do
3. Warnings about what to expect

Warnings about how you're going to feel as you taper? Shouldn't you feel great? Have more energy? Heal from all of your pains? Get more sleep? Wouldn't this be nice. Unfortunately the list of warnings reads like the back of a bottle of prescription drugs:

"Be aware that tapering may cause the following conditions: weight gain, phantom pains, heavy legs, anxiety, depressed mood, an urge to run extra miles or to run harder, the urge to eat more than you need to and many other conditions you haven't felt during your regular training."

Assuming you've been training for months for your marathon, are these the sorts of things you want to be dealing with in the most important phase of your race preparation?

For months you will disciplined yourself. You'll stuck to your schedule. You'll listened to your body. You'll probably keep to a somewhat regular diet. You'll probably even have some aches and pains from time to time, but your body will adapt and became stronger. As your long run and weekly miles peak you'll feel great about how far you've come and where you are going.

Why would you suddenly discontinue this routine in the final few weeks of preparation?

Someone once said, "We are all creatures of habit. We can do most things without even thinking about them; our bodies take charge and do them for us." Doesn't that describe a long 20-miler to a degree? Certainly mental preparation is necessary. But what about when you "lose" a few miles here and there and your body takes over and does what you've trained it to do?

After weeks and months of adding a few miles at a time (never more than 10% per week, all the programs will make sure to tell you), why would you suddenly cut your mileage by a third or a half in one week? And then cut it by another third or half the following week. And then expect your body to be able to flip the switch the week after and run a distance it may not have ever run before. Crazy, huh? We are creatures of habit. We are what we do and we perform how we train.

Perhaps you should be "peaking" instead of tapering.

Austin-based online running coach Greg McMillan describes peaking by stating, "I never use the word 'tapering.' When people hear that word, they hear relax. To them, tapering means to reduce their training and that everything is done. The hay is in the barn. Which isn't true at all. I much prefer to have my runners peak for the marathon. I want my runners to go into race on the upswing. I want them to think, 'I'm on the rise. I'm going to run my best race.' "

Peaking should not be confused with setting new speed, distance or weekly total PRs up until the day of your race. Rather, it's keeping your body in the rhythm you have worked so hard to establish so that as McMillan says, you can feel like you're on the rise on race day instead of asking your body to do something it hasn't been doing for a few weeks.

Take another look at the final few weeks of your training program. Will you be peaking on race day? Or will you be asking your body to do something it hasn't been for a few weeks? It's not too late to reevaluate. When you're at the starting line, though, it will be.

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