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Ask The Coach: Tapering For Key Races

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This month, Coach Bill Hauser of Mid-Atlantic Multisport (www.midatlanticmultisport.com) answers a marathon taper-related question submitted by one of our readers.  Based in suburban Philadelphia, PA, Mid-Atlantic Multisport provides individualized endurance coaching services, training camps and clinics to athletes of all ages and abilities.

 
I am registered for the Philadelphia Marathon in November and hope to run a personal best time.  I have been training consistently since July, averaging 30 to 40 miles of running each week through a combination of long runs, tempo runs, track workouts and short recovery runs.  What changes, if any, should I make to my training routine in the final weeks leading up to the marathon to put me in the best position to achieve my goal?
 
The days and weeks leading up to a key race, often referred to as the "taper" phase, are a critical part of your training program.   The purpose of this phase is to give your body time to absorb the training stresses that have been placed on it over the past several months and to give you time to rest for the race without losing fitness or feeling "flat" on race day.  For a marathon, you will want to start your taper phase approximately two to three weeks prior to the race.
 
Like many athletes, you may be tempted to over-train during the taper phase.  This may happen for a variety of reasons - you will be at a peak fitness level and therefore accustomed to higher training volumes; you may be afraid of losing fitness; and you may have the urge to run simply to calm your pre-race jitters.  In order to avoid overtraining and other pre-race blunders, you need a well-thought out taper plan.
 
To properly taper for a race, you need to make several important adjustments to your training routine.  I like to think of these adjustments in terms of reducing, maintaining and increasing.
REDUCE VOLUME AND DURATION.  During the taper phase, you should significantly cut back both the number of miles you run and the time that you spend running.  Ideally, for the marathon, you should complete your final long run two to three weeks prior to race day.  If your final long run was a twenty miler three-weeks out from the race, you may want to do a long run of ten miles two-weeks out and no more than five to six miles the weekend prior to the marathon.  This reduction in volume and duration applies not only to your long runs but also to your other training sessions, including track workouts and tempo runs.
MAINTAIN INTENSITY.  While you should gradually cut back on the duration of your track workouts and tempo runs, you should not eliminate them entirely.  In fact, these higher intensity efforts are your key training sessions during the taper phase.  During the taper phase, you are much better off doing a few track workouts and tempo runs than you are doing short, easy runs every day.  These higher intensity efforts are what help you to maintain your fitness during the reduced training volume weeks and keep you sharp for race day.
INCREASE RECOVERY.  This applies in two distinct areas.  First, you should increase your recovery time between training sessions themselves.  If you typically run five days per week, perhaps cut back to four days per week during the taper and substitute an extra off day or possibly some low-intensity, low-impact cross training such as swimming.  Second, you should increase the recovery time between higher intensity efforts within a particular training session.  Aim for a recovery interval that is equal to or greater than the duration of the higher intensity effort.  For instance, if you go to the track and run a set of eight hard 400 meter repeats in two minutes each (8:00 minute per mile pace), you should recover with light running or jogging in place for at least two minutes before starting the next one. Remember - the purpose of these higher intensity sessions is to keep you sharp for race day, not to beat you up or tire you out.  You should not feel overly fatigued after completing one of these sessions.
While the adjustments described above apply to all tapers, the length of the taper phase will vary depending on the distance of the race.  While a two to three week taper is sufficient for a marathon, someone training for a 10k race may need only a few days and someone training for an Ironman Triathlon may need three to four weeks in order to properly taper.  When in doubt, go with the longer taper!
 
 
Bill Hauser is a USA Triathlon Level II certified coach and the founder and head coach of Mid-Atlantic Multisport. Mid-Atlantic Multisport (www.midatlanticmultisport.com) provides individualized endurance coaching services, training camps and clinics for athletes of all ages and abilities. You may contact Coach Bill at bhauser@midatlanticmultisport.com.

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