Friday, October 4, 2013

The Taper: Where Our Demons Hide

"When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on." ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Ahhhhh. Autumn: Fresh, crisp air blows in from the summer swelter. A new crop of crunchy-sweet-tangy apples replace the sweet-smooth peaches. The green landscape begins turning into the color of the sun-setting sky. The air itself looks almost yellow.


For those of us who ran cross country as kids, the smell of the leaves and their crackle under our feet is almost enough to make us feel 15 again. The smells of fall wafts past our noses - and our pace quickens. As we get older, many of us move on to road racing, then marathons. And so the autumn which was the season of mud, and trails and long yellow bus rides to Van Cortlandt park (for me anyway) now morph into long training runs along yellow tree lined roads.

For those newer to running, perhaps running a first fall marathon,  they learn that the dawn of fall and cooler temperatures seems to miraculously speed up their paces. Slogging through all those grueling miles through the hot summer yields fruits unimaginable during the August swelter.

Those final long runs are a gift from the root children, going back to sleep for the cool, dark months. And we can run FOREVER!!!!

And then IT happens, for all these roads lead to one dreaded place: THE TAPER -  (queue "blood curdling scream")

The Taper is what we long for, until we are in it's midst. Those last few weeks of training, where we feel that anything, especially our sanity, can snap at any time, is made tolerable by the very thought of 'the taper'. And then 3 days into it, we start going nuts.

There's gobs of advice out there for why tapering is important and why we all hate it:

Common Taper Maladies Include:                          Taper Adaptation:
* lethargy                                                                  * Increased blood volume
* crankiness                                                              * Increased muscle glycogen storage
* Uncertainly                                                             * greater neuromuscular strength
* New aches and pains                                              * improved running economy
* all runs feel HARD
* Sore throat
* Moderate depression
* Heartfelt belief that you have forgotten how to run!!!!!!!!!

Tapering is a relatively new thing - Endurance runners picking it up from swimming during the middle of the 20th century. Arthur Lydiad incorporated a 'Taper Phase' in his four phase system following on the success of Czeck runner Emil Zátopek who stumbled onto it after 2 weeks flat on his back in the hospital prior to the 1950 European Games - a tactic Zátopek continued to use as he rose to running prominence winning three gold medals in the 1952 Olympics. When the reputed 'best runner in the world' does something, others take notice. And now we have the TAPER - which is just the status quo today.

There are even entire books written just on tapering such as  Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance by Iñigo Mujika. And you can 'google' all day, everyday, for your 2+ week taper and find plenty of advice on dealing with tapering. There are many tapering protocols out there, and to some extent we must each learn through trial and error to find what works best for us - though the studies seem to be pointing at the greatest benefit seen with reduced mileage while intensity stays steady.

Now - the thing I wonder though, is WHY we suffer taper madness/blues/antsiness/etc. in the first place. What's REALLY eating at us?  Why do we have a love hate relationship with the taper? So here's my theory:

What fills us with angst is that we've done all we can do. We've done the training, now we sit and wait for it to gel at just the right time! But wait! Did I run long enough?? Did I run enough long runs?? Were my tempos too fast...or too slow?? Should I have done Yasso 800s for all 20 weeks of training?? OMG, I only ran one week at 50 or 40 or 30 or 100 miles!!!! I should have done MORE...MORE...MORE!!!! Ugggggg. What can I do now?  Okay. I'm 14 days out from my marathon. Maaaaaybe, just maybe, I should do just one more 20 miler. THEN I'll know I can do this. Or, maybe just one more longer tempo...some repeat 800s???? Something?????

When I feel that either I or someone I coach is going through this thought process, when I see myself or someone else do a run that looks like maybe, just maybe, they're trying to test their fitness, I ask two questions:

1) During your 18 weeks or so of training, do you believe that you COULD have done more?
2) What do you hope to gain from the test?

Most will answer, on reflection, that they worked as hard as they could have during the training. Most of us walk a fine line in marathon training between training hard enough but not too hard. And what we must understand during the taper is that the principle of supercompensation negates any benefit of "the test" run.

Optimal timing for stimulus application

  Applying  training stimulus before supercompensation is complete
These two graphs illustrate: a) why training is so difficult - you must introduce a new proper stimulus at just the right time; and b) Why a hard last test run during taper will do you no good. At that point, in order to gain the benefits of the taper PLUS the time frame needed for supercompensation, means that a last test run fails on every count. You may lose some of the benefit of the taper and you gain nothing because there's just not enough time to allow for supercompensation.

So, what's a crazed, anxious, exhausted, depressed, crankipants runner to do??? Acceptance is the only answer. Understand that this is just how it may be. Try to be kind to yourself. Sleep more. Get a massage. Drink lots of water. Eat good nourishing food. Spend time outside going for easy walks. Read a book. Re-watch Spirit of the Marathon

And always remember - there's always more...
"We may train or peak for a certain race, but running is a lifetime sport." ~ Alberto Salazar

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