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Tapering’s for Suckers: How to Peak for the Austin Marathon

Bell Wealth ManagementIf you’re one of the thousands of Austin runners training for the Austin Marathon or Half marathon on February 16th, congratulations on all the long runs and training efforts you’ve put in the past several months. Most of the really hard training is behind you and marathon day will be here before you know it.

Still, these final few weeks before the marathon are absolutely critical in your preparation for the big event. In terms of pure training, it should be the easiest part of your schedule. The volume of just about every aspect of your training is reduced, including those weekend long runs. All that should be behind you. The hay’s in the barn. Or at least most of it is.

Ironically, this final, easy three-week phase of training as it leads up to the marathon is the most difficult part for many marathoners. Our bodies are so used to the routine of hard training that any deviation from it, feels weird and awkward. Instead of feeling pumped up and energized by the reduction in training, we tend to feel uneasy, antsy and uncertain.

This final marathon training period is commonly called the tapering phase. But I’m here to tell you tapering is for suckers. Peaking is for winners.

There’s a major difference.

As Greg McMillan, the top-notch, on-line running coach from Flagstaff, Arizona (www.mcmillanrunning.com), hates the idea of any of his elite runners tapering for a marathon, Instead, McMillan says, “One of the great examples of the difference between tapering and peaking is something I read about the great golf coach Harvey Penick. He never wanted to put a negative thought into the mind of a golfer he coached. So rather than tell someone to ‘choke down’ on a club for a certain shot, Penick told them to ‘grip down’. There’s a subtle difference.”

Swimmers taper for an important meet; runners peak. We’re different. Or should be. Think about it. At the end of some of your biggest training weeks this fall and winter, you probably ran a race. Chances are you ran pretty well without tapering—i.e., a huge reduction in training–for it.

I know I did. One of my best races last fall was a half-marathon I trained through. Instead of cutting way back of my mileage, I maintained a normal training week (speed, monster hills, fartlek) except that on Sunday, I ran the race—and ran pretty well. I didn’t get into a dither about the race because I took it like just another Sunday.

Same with the marathon. A few years ago after I decided that since I was so terrible at this tapering garbage, I wouldn’t even bother with it. Instead of the typical three-week reduction in mileage (and the staleness and indecision that went with it), I just ran what I normally would and had a good marathon.

“I work with hundreds of marathoners,” says McMillan, who lived in Austin for several years before moving to Flagstaff where he coaches, “and 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. Which isn’t true at all.

“I much prefer to have my runners peak for the marathon,” continues McMillan. “I want my runners to go into any race on the upswing. I want them to think, ‘I’m on the rise. I’m going to run my best race.’ ”

McMillan isn’t suggesting that marathoners continue to maintain a normal training volume in the final three weeks. What he is suggesting is that many marathoners taper way too much—reduce their training too radically—and rather than bring their body to a peak, they fall into a mental and physical rut which they can’t climb out of on marathon morning.

“I’ve seen it happen so often,” says McMillan who as an exercise physiologist knows the science behind it. “Marathoners are in this wonderful training rhythm and all of a sudden they switch it off before their most important race for no reason at all other than they’ve heard it’s a good idea to taper.

“They get stale and when race day comes, they can’t switch it on again. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t reduce your overall mileage, but what you need to do is switch your mindset from a training mode to now is when I am ready to race.”

What McMillan suggests is to do some workouts faster than marathon pace in the final 10-12 days. He suggests running several short workouts at 5-K or 10-K pace which are designed to bring the body to a physical peak.

“This isn’t heavy training,” says McMillan. “This is just exposing yourself to faster training to keep the engine revved up.”

McMillan’s peaking plan is astonishingly simple: Reduce the long run miles and easy day volume. Instead of going 20, two weekends out from your marathon, run 13-15 miles. The following weekend run 9-12 miles with five or six of those miles at your marathon goal pace.

This last “long run” is a very important final workout because it will keep you in your training routine of a weekend long run and it will also remind your body and mind that you’re a marathoner who is just about ready to roll for 26.2 miles.

Gilbert Tuhabonye of Gilbert’s Gazelles coaches hundreds of competitive marathoners in Austin. Ten days out from their marathon, he has his serious competitors do 10 x 800 meters at a pace a little bit faster than their marathon goal pace. With two minutes in between each 800, this should be a fairly easy, but quick workout. Their final long run is anywhere from 7-12 miles the weekend before their marathon.

Maintaining the speed and at least a few hard workouts in the final weeks allows marathoners to maintain their training rhythm. Marathoners are so used to the hard training routine that when they are told to rest, they tend to rest way too much. They aren’t used to resting and it throws them off.

Clearly, one of the primary advantages of peaking for the marathon is mental. As McMillan suggests, peaking is a more positive way to go into the marathon than tapering. Peaking isn’t complicated either. Basically it means maintaining your speed work and stamina through quick workouts, while reducing the miles on your long runs.

As for the routine of the easy, recovery runs, these should be gradually reduced by possibly eliminating one day entirely and taking a walk instead.

A little more specifically, McMillan advises reducing the volume of the daily easy runs by 10 to 25 percent. Instead of running easily for an hour, go 45 minutes. If you normally run an easy 45 minutes, make it 30. And so on.

Keeping the workouts relatively fast, will keep your body (and mind) in racing shape. Rather than feeling lethargic and wondering whether you can run even one mile at marathon pace, you’ll feel sharp and ready to roll on marathon morning.

Remember: Peak don’t taper on February 16th for the Austin Marathon.