I'd be hard-pressed to identify any aspect of my life with which I have a more love-hate relationship than tapering. (Chocolate? The Mets? My progeny?) As I start approaching the end of a big training block, the cumulative effect of volume starts to take its toll, and there are days when I long for a reduction in mileage. Last week, finishing up an eight-week, 850+ mile buildup for Cayuga Trails, I had at least two days where I barely had the motivation to put my shorts on. On those days, the idea of a taper feels like a godsend.
Invariably, though, a few days into the taper, doubts start to creep in. Sleeping seems to get harder. Little aches and pains that otherwise would have been dismissed as the byproduct of hard, sustained training take on an outsized importance. Every physical sensation is dissected and analyzed, usually with depressing conclusions. Rather than feeling energized, I often start feeling more sluggish. Even good days, where energy levels are high, leave me feeling twitchy and on edge.
This is certainly not new, and I'm certainly not unique in this way. Almost everyone who's been through a taper for a big race has similar complaints and conflicted feelings about it. Much of the problem is that there is no single formula for tapering. Everyone reacts differently to a reduction in training, and every individual taper is a little different, based on the length and intensity of the preceding training block. Some people like a three-week taper, some one or two. Some even eschew it altogether. Personally I prefer a 10-14 day taper; anything longer than that for me and self-doubt really starts to creep in. Some other general rules I try to follow:
Drop the volume by about 30% each week. In a two-week taper that means cutting mileage to about 2/3 of what I had been running previously, then about 1/3 in the week leading up to the race. This has to be adjusted sometimes, particularly if the volume has been high. The last three weeks of my training block this time around were 115, 130, and 115 miles; a reduction of 1/3 would take me from about 120 miles to 80 miles. Eighty miles is still a fair amount, though, and I'll probably wind up with more like 65 or 70 this week, before dropping down to about 35 the week before the race.
Cut back on volume, not intensity. In my younger days I would reduce not only the workload but the "quality" of my runs as well, sometimes eliminating hard workouts in the ten days leading up to the race. I can unequivocally say this made me feel much, much worse. Now I'll continue to do workouts during the taper of similar intensity to those previously, usually just with less mileage or fewer repeats on the track. I like the concept of "race-specific" workouts as I get closer to an event, but this is difficult for an ultra, where goal pace is aerobic and not terribly taxing in short intervals. Instead I'll run a low-volume, moderate intensity marathon-pace workout in the week leading up to the race. Last night Laura and I ran 4 x 800m with 200m easy jog recovery:
(and if you think this whole post wasn't just an excuse to show that video, you're crazy.)
Hydrate. I don't eliminate caffeine--I'm not sure how functional I'd be, particularly on overnight shifts at work--but I'm more cognizant of drinking water in the several days beforehand.
Don't do anything stupid. This mostly applies to overdoing it from a running perspective. Now isn't the time to chase KOMs on Strava because I want to take advantage of my fitness, even if they are short ones. It also refers to the myriad other ways I can damage my race without thinking about it. I remember injuring a toe playing barefoot volleyball in a neighbor's yard a week before the Vermont 50 in 2010.
Don't overreact when you feel bad. This is the hardest one to follow, since invariably several times during the taper I'm going to have runs where I feel sluggish and out of sorts. It's very easy to let the self-doubt creep in. You have to keep reminding yourself of the training that preceded the taper, and that you're not all of a sudden out of shape. It sounds easy but it isn't.
Right now, for example, I'm actually freaking out over how I felt this morning on my last "long" run (a relaxed 14-miler with Phil). My legs are fine, but over the second half of the run I got very achy, in all my muscles, particularly my back and arms. I'm trying not to overreact, but this is how I've felt in the past during my two episodes of Lyme disease, and the achiness has persisted throughout the day. Hopefully it's just the taper blues. I know my fitness level is very good; my confidence in my training is high. But you can bet your ass I'm on doxycycline right now. Fingers crossed.
I should have "get extra sleep" on this list, but I can't in good conscience include it. Not because I think it isn't important--it's likely more important than anything else I have on here--but because though I'd like to make this a focus of my taper, the unpredictability of my work schedule means this is usually out of my control. Working a mixture of 12-hour day shifts and night shifts with a 35-minute commute, with the kids' activities crammed in, means that 8-9 hours of sleep in between shifts is often an impossibility. Instead I'll try to increase my nap frequency when leading into a race, which isn't ideal but at least makes me feel like I'm being mindful of my recovery.