The taper. No element of marathon training is more simultaneously exalted and feared. Taper madness. Jittery legs. That feeling that your fitness is fading away just when you need it most. That you are gaining weight, retaining water. Or even developing an injury.
There are dozens of articles on how to cope with the taper. Even this blog has provided advice on mixing up your training routines to make the taper more interesting. I don’t think anyone has exactly the right formula. Some argue to cut the mileage drastically, and make all the training easy. Others, such as Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running, argue for a less drastic taper, cutting mileage during a few key runs the first week, and cutting said mileage during such runs further the second week, but maintaining some focus on speed. The Pfitzinger program I’m now following mimics this approach, and I tend to agree that this is a better taper strategy.
Let me propose a mental switch that can help you turn the taper from a negative to a positive for your training. This switch involves considering what you can now “add” instead of what you are “subtracting” (i.e., miles). As runners, we are constantly seeking ways to add more to our training – more miles, more strength work, more speed work. The taper provides the perfect excuse to make additions to your schedule because it provides you with what is arguably the most valuable asset of all to the busy runner – time.
This is time you can invest in other activities – maybe even running related activities. You can invest in flexibility through stretching, mobility exercises, or yoga. You can invest in strength through weight training or body resistance exercises (though be careful, especially with the former, not to over exert yourself and increase your risk of injury). You can invest in recovery through massage (though, unless you have connections, financial investment is also a significant element of this decision).
But let me suggest one key element in which many of the early-morning runners who read this blog may want to invest. It is this concept called “sleep”. If you are like me, 6 to 7 hours per night may be your norm (confession: 6 hours is a long night of sleep for me, since I get up most days at 4:00 AM to run and it’s difficult to go to bed before 10:00 PM). This is well under the 8 or more per night that most health professionals recommend, and while that’s OK on a short-term basis, the long term effects may well offset some of the gains you see from running – increased stress, higher blood pressure, indecisiveness, etc. And, needless to say, this lack of sleep likely limits your athletic performance, as this study from Stanford shows (more on the limitation of studies, though, in a later post).
Obviously, there is only so much you can gain over a three- or four-week period. However, when you are significantly deprived, even baby steps on the way back to “normal” have to deliver some gains – even if only mentally (i.e., if you believe it will help, then it probably will). If you gain just 1 to 1-1/2 hours 3 times per week – say, on your recovery days, by shifting to running at lunch or late at night – this amounts to 3-4 hours per week, and around 12 hours over the course of the taper. That’s at least two nights’ worth of extra sleep. How can this not help you to show up refreshed and ready to go on race day and beyond?
Be warned – it may not be easy at first. Your body may still tend to get up early. Or you may find yourself more tired the first few days, as your mind gets a taste of that extra sleep and craves more. But stick with it. The beauty is that as the miles decrease further (or – say it with me – the time available to invest increases more), you may also be able to do the yoga, stretching, or strength training while also gaining sleep. But let’s agree to focus on sleep first, shall we? In both the short and long run, your body, and probably those people around you, will thank you.