Monday, May 18, 2009

The downsides of tapering

“The hay is in the barn” coach Worful always said toward the end of the season. The morning runs didn’t feel that early any more. The speed work didn’t leave us limping around after the ride home anymore. The long Sunday runs didn’t require a full day reclined on the couch snacking and hydrating anymore. And now he wants us to take it easy? Early in the season, when I was chasing Jeff Birt up the steep hill behind the school in the middle of a mile interval, I focused desperately on the back of his shirt. My legs were becoming leaden with lactic acid while the air ripped through my respiratory tract. Coach just stood at the finish with his stopwatch. He certainly didn’t exhort us to “take it easy.” A part of me wanted to stop. The grass looks soft, a part of my mind said to me, just lie down. You could have a cramp, it suggested.

The Highland Fling was a cross country race put on by coach Worful in the middle of the season. It was a two-person relay for varsity runners, and a 3K race for the junior varsity. My freshman year I ran several JV races, the Highland Fling included. We ran at Joe Creason Park in Louisville. The steep climb along Trevilian road toward the zoo caused everyone to labor mightily. That day was particularly bad for me. I felt exhausted from early on. My shoulders and arms began to feel almost immobilized. As we returned from a turnaround at the flagpole, we descended a short steep hill adjacent to Beargrass Creek. The inner voice rudely suggested that a fall here would be completely understandable. A runner could easily spend several long moments recovering after such a fall. Fortunately my feet knew well enough how to stay under me. I finished like I was running through a foot of honey. Where was the break then?

“No rest for the weary” is one of my favored sayings. Late in the season, when rest is well-advised, many runners resist it, because they no longer feel weary. They have made the adjustment to heavy training. Additionally, the goal is in sight. Anticipation is high, and it is much easier to motivate for a long or hard workout. Yet, as many coaches have said, “the hay is in the barn.” It is conventional wisdom that the last few workouts of the season can’t help get you fitter, but they can cause you to be fatigued, and so hurt your performance. The solution most often embraced by coaches, and accepted by athletes, is to reduce the length and intensity of workouts in the 5-20 days before the “big race.” In other words: to taper.

And why not? Is there any way a hard workout on Tuesday or Wednesday could help a runner to compete better on Saturday?

Here is some of my running lore that isn’t so pleasant to recollect. Cross country season my junior year in high school I stacked up well compared to my competition. One Kentucky runner finished ahead of me at the first meet of the season. After that none did. Until, that is, the state meet. The one race that really mattered. The meet toward which all our energies had been applied. The race for which I had tapered. I came in 21st. The year before that I came in 24th. In both cases I did much worse, relative to the other runners, than I had previously in the season. Just before and during the races I didn’t feel well. Like I was coming down with something.

When big events approach, I become anxious. It occupies my thoughts. I notice little pains, or a sore throat, and worry that it will develop into a problem for me. I worry that I’m worrying too much. What I need to get my world back in order is a good hard run, but I’m supposed to be tapering! (the hay is in the barn). I don’t think of running as just a mental health modulator, though. The mind-body dynamics of a taper can be hard to decipher.

It may help to anchor our thoughts around two key elements of the taper. First, we’re running less. We’re burning fewer calories. Second, we know that a big event is eminent. I don’t mean “know” in some mysterious thinking way – but in a visceral bodily way. We’re alert and poised, our nervous system on standby, all mediated by very real neurotransmitters coursing through our cells.

I can get keyed up for a hard workout that is coming up. Heck, I can get keyed up by someone looking at me wrong. In the case of a workout – I run it. All the “winding up” beforehand comes unwound with the effort. I am always at my most relaxed after a good hard run. The intense sessions follow on top of each other, so that a cycle of build-up and let-down is established. During the season it is hard to keep up with the calorie expenditure. What little fat we accumulate in the off season is quickly burned away. The body is always hungry for carbohydrates, and quick to stockpile them when it can. The system is in a state of continual stress.

The taper is a let-down. We continue to eat similar amounts, but we burn fewer calories. Extra calories are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. The fatiguing stress of long or hard workouts is diminished, and the body may change into repair mode. We may feel more lethargic, and sensitive to cues about injury or illness that had been “waiting in the wings.” With the resources freed up by a taper the body may begin to respond to these lingering problems.

And we do think differently as the season comes to a close. We don’t get the satisfaction of watching our times improve over a given distance, like we did early in the season. The big race isn’t somewhere in the distant future, many weeks out. It is upon us. We shift gears; where we had felt excitement at our own unrealized potential, we know feel threatened by the possibility that all will be lost.
Indeed we may lose. We may fail, as I did at the state meet, to live up to our own expectation. We may get sick.

We still taper, though. To some degree we have to. Training tires us out, and we need to be rested to perform well. We work out a strategy that meets the necessity of rest with the downsides of tapering somewhere in the middle. For me, I like to rest two weeks out, and then start to ramp back up the week before the event. Some avoid tapering too much – running enough to sleep well at night.

What works for you?

1 comment:

  1. I suppose I should first qualify my comments by stating that I am not a high mileage runner. I’ve never run more than 55 miles in a week and average somewhere around 25 miles a week.

    I once read that a runner will retain excess fluid in the blood stream and when the runner stops training he begins to lose the extra fluid. This loss of fluid reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. I wish I could remember where I read this. I don’t know how rapidly this process happens or how long it might take to restore the fluid. There have been a few times in my own experience when I have not run at all in the week prior to a race. I seemed to tire early in those races and didn’t do as well as I have in races where I continue to run up to a couple days before the race, albeit at lower intensity and fewer miles. Maybe it was all just in my head. I’m not a particularly fast runner, but last November I set marathon PR November 1st, finished 10th out of 316 in a 5 mile off trail run November 8th, set a 15k trail run PR November 15th, set a 5 mile road PR November 29th, and then again lowered my marathon PR on December 7th. Being rested is probably good, but it can be overdone.

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