If marathon training is full of contradictions, then it should be no surprise that rather than building relentlessly towards race day, the last three weeks actually comprise a taper of easing training levels, designed to build up strength before the race itself.
It’s certainly good to take things a little easier after the exertions of some tough training weeks.
But sometimes I feel that it’s taken fifteen weeks to get progressively fitter, and that these three weeks will simply be enough to lose all that fitness again.
Fortunately, I know that this feeling places me right on track. The taper may not be the hardest part of a marathon training programme, but the experts say it is definitely the most important. If you don’t take enough rest, then it almost doesn’t matter how you’ve trained, since you’re likely to underperform.
How much should you taper ? The rules of thumb suggest running 75 % of peak mileage in the first taper week, then 50 %, and then 25 %. At least initially, much of this difference comes from reducing the length of your long run down from its peak of 20 miles three weeks before the race, to 12 miles and then to 8. Since the schedules call for shaving just a mile or so off each of the mid-week runs at first, the start of the taper is not all that different from a step-back week. It’s now, in the second week, where things really begin to change, as every run starts to get significantly shorter. It may not seem that much of a reduction in effort to run 3,4,3 in mid-week rather than 5,6,5, but believe me, it really is.
And yet, funny things start to happen. Bad runs begin to appear out of nowhere. Those legs were tired two weeks ago, but at least they were still grumpily co-operative, capable of somehow staggering around 20 miles at the weekend. Even after a regular pounding for days before. But now, strangely, they’ve become stiff, heavy, and weak. Lungs which were uncomplaining on tough runs suddenly are poor companions even on the short ones. Monday’s easy four miles was a particularly grim affair – I seemed to be out of breath all the way, despite running slowly, and that sore, stiff-legged feeling which normally recedes after the first quarter mile simply stayed with me all the way round.
Some call this ‘taper madness’, citing the effects of pre-race nerves. And it’s true that the compulsive-obsessive aspect of marathon training can reach new heights during the taper. I find the final week to be particularly perfect for dreaming up transport nightmares on the way to the start line. Anything which can go wrong, probably will go wrong, although hopefully only in my mind’s endless screenings of the race day trailer.
Two weeks out, I find that it’s shoes which dominate the dallying. Which shoes to run in on race day? Should I buy new ones? If I do change, will there be time to wear them in first? Will a fortnight’s gentle running leave them too old, or too new? The ideal range is probably 50 to 150 miles, but will it really make a difference? I know full well that I’ve got a fast pair reserved for London with the perfect mileage on them, yet still I’ve been drawn into sports shops several times by an alluring pair of turquoise Nikes. They looked fantastic in the window, but proved uncomfortable. Naturally, I had to try them on in three different shops to make sure, but fortunately I talked myself out of it. Only just.
As I’ve gradually become a more experienced (if not necessarily faster) runner, so I’ve also become aware that the mental side of running and racing is very important. But still it seems to me that these petty psychological niggles, for that is what they are, do occupy an entirely different space from the physical problems besetting the process of actually running (or trying to run) during this time.
Certainly I do worry about all these things, and lots more besides, but strangely I don’t worry at all when I’m actually running. Maybe I worry because I’m running badly. But I don’t think I run badly because I’m worrying. At least, I don’t think I do, although it’s very easy to get mixed up at this stage (as you can see).
My own theory is that the body is simply feeling the effects of all the punishment over the past few weeks. And much like you may not feel a cut or a bruise that much on the day you do it, often the pain is worse once the healing is underway and things begin to knit back together. The taper finally gives the legs and lungs time to begin recovering, and they complain like crazy if you disturb them now.
Another strange thought is that any training from now on is unlikely to make much difference. It takes two weeks for training to have an effect, so why not stop running altogether? Because if I did, it’d probably send me completely loopy. When you’re used to running ten miles on a midweek run, it’s deceptively hard to force yourself to run only three or four, and to do them slowly. For once, during the taper, sloth is a lesser temptation than one of running too far and too fast. That feeling of running poorly makes this worse, since you feel that maybe just one more good, stiff workout is all you need to restore your running form.
As for resting – that can be harder than running. Many runners are active people, and I’m no exception. It’s easy to overdo things, even if you’ve fallen worryingly short of the required mileage until now. Before my first marathon in London, I ran thirteen miles just seven days before. Then, in the final week, bizarrely I travelled to Scotland for practice in escaping from upturned helicopters in swimming pools, and to the Canary Islands for a vessel mobilisation.
Before my second marathon, I flew the Atlantic and then walked twelve miles around Chicago the next day. Last year I ought to have been wiser, but in the midst of changing jobs, I found myself running steep hills on a ski trip hastily scheduled inside the last fortnight. Flying to Spain to recover for the final week looked like a great idea, if only I hadn’t run along the beach too much when I got there. None of this was remotely sensible, but somehow I find it hard to avoid.
Even when I resolve to avoid excesses, still they contrive to catch me out. This week I’ve already been playing evening soccer in the garden with the kids (stiff legs afterwards). Then last night, following some ridiculous nesting instinct, I found myself cleaning all the windows (sore shoulders today). I’d say that life was to blame, but I know seek it out, because my energy levels are peaking.
So much for discipline, then. For all sorts of reasons, running less can take more energy than running more. It’s daft to risk wasting all that training. Which is why I’m definitely going to take things easier from now on. I’ll start tomorrow, even if that’s exactly what I said yesterday.
Taper on. Ten days and counting. There’s still loads of time to fret about socks, and still leave a whole week to study the train timetables for Greenwich …