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One month checkpoint: On the razor's edge

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One month checkpoint: Walking on the razor's edge

Only 32 days to go until the 2012 edition of the world's most beautiful marathon, and by now a clearer picture should be emerging of what you can expect from your race. With good planning (and the odd slice of luck), you've managed to build your training volume over the last two months, you've bagged those long runs, you've tested yourself over shorter distances, and you can see the shape of your race starting to take form.

I spoke previously about the importance of awareness in your training, of how it was essential that you understood the implications of your training performance, your racing results and your body's various signals to you. Now is the time to make use of that understanding. The final month of training will make or break your race. Pretty much anything can happen from this point onwards, but generally, you'll fall into one of three broad outcomes in the last month:

  1. You capitalize on the gains you've made to date, on the foundation you have laid, and you launch into race day feeling strong, fast and well-trained. In order for this to occur, it's essential that you plan the last month of your training very carefully. You have earned the right to "taper" off both the volume and intensity, but you're on a tightrope where pushing too hard can easily push you off the edge (see point 3 below). I'll discuss that taper below, but you need to avoid a few very common pitfalls in order to make the most of all your hard work so far.
  2. You maintain, or even build slightly. There are worse things than this, of course, provided you're maintaining at a level that will allow you to meet your race goals. If your training has been solid without being spectacular, then maintenance at this stage is probably the best goal to pursue. The problem is that sometimes, people haven't quite done what they wanted to or should have done, and they try to "cram" it into the final 4 weeks. These runners often end up in the same place as those who've trained really hard and who overdo it as a result of how good they feel - tired, listless and overtrained! So be cautious here - if you only maintain your current level, it's better than pushing too hard, and that's a mental compromise you'll have to grapple with in the last four weeks.
  3. You push a little too hard, for whatever reason - perhaps you've left it too late and you try to cram it in as mentioned above, or perhaps you just get carried away with how well training is going. It's important to recognize that being well-trained to this point is a double-edged sword - it's fantastic for you because your confidence should be high, you'll feel strong in training and you'll be running well. The danger is that you'll be sucked into pushing that little bit too hard on your training runs, doing a little too much, and you'll go over the edge of the very high cliff you have climbed to date! We'll talk a bit about avoiding this shortly

The taper - getting the balance right

The idea behind the taper is that you reduce the volume of training between now and race day in order to allow your body to recover. I know it's a full month to race day, but you have to begin planning those last 3 to 4 weeks now in order to hit them just right. The logic behind tapering is that it's better to be well rested than well trained, but this is only true if you're well trained before the taper starts. If not, then too much rest can negatively affect your race, and this is the balance you need to figure out.

The taper concept is based on a well known physiological observation that we adapt to stress only when we are allowed to recover AWAY from stress. In other words, we train, making ourselves tired (you know the feeling!), but once we are able to rest, the body kicks in all kinds of physiological responses that make us more resistance the next time out. Your first long run, say of 16km, would have left you feeling tired for two or three days after, but that rest meant that next time, 16km could be managed much more comfortably, and so you added 2km and ran 18km. At some point, you pull back and allow your body to get to 100% by resting.

If you've been training hard, logging upward of 70 to 100km per week (particularly for Ultra runners among you), you're tired. Admit it or not, you are not quite at 100%. You may be managing the training very well, but physiologically, you are just below your best. The taper is there to help you get those final 5% improvements that you need on race day.

For example, if a runner has been doing say 100km a week, with a long run of a marathon, then what starts to happen now is that the volume comes down systematically - 80km, then 70km, then 50km and the final week before the race might have only three or four shorter runs, a total of 45km. The runner doesn't lose too much fitness, because they've built such a great base over the last five or six months, but they do gain performance because they're well rested and raring to go by race day. As a general guideline (I hate these, because everyone is unique with different needs, but they're necessary), your programme might drop in volume to 80%, then 70%, then 50% of your peak volume for the last two weeks before the race.

Is the taper for everyone?

Having said this, people do get carried away with the idea of a taper, and I think that many people probably overdo it, or do the taper unnecessarily, and end up losing more as a result of how much fitness they lose than they gain from being well rested. Some of you don't need a taper at all, all you need are three or four days before the race, and one weekend without a really long run. That is enough to recover, but it allows you to keep training, to keep going with those 8 to 12km runs that you've been doing and will need to handle race distance. If you are still uncertain about your race, and if you haven't reached those peak distances, particularly of the long run, then I don't think there is any benefit in tapering.

For example, take a hypothetical case - Linda. Linda began training in mid-January after an injury, and because she was sensible about starting slowly and short, she ran only 5 to 8km each time. By mid-February, she was doing a few 12km runs, and now, in early March, she is aiming for 15 km. That means she has four weekends left, and probably needs to build to 18km by the third weekend in March. That would put her in a good place by the end of the month, where she is able to run 18km, and can afford to take ONE week before the race to drop down. She doesn't have the luxury of dropping distance now, and nor does she need it. Her goal over the next 32 days is to continue to build, slowly and systematically, and then rest in the final week.

Now, consider Karen, the polar opposite case. Karen had already run a half-marathon in December, carrying her winter fitness into her running. The whole of January and February, she kept it going, doing two or three half-marathon races, in addition to another 30 to 40km during the week. She has a very solid foundation, and in February, she began adding one session a week of speed or hill work. As it stands, she has never been fitter. She recently bagged a PB over 10km, and this coming weekend, will do a really hard 15km where she'll test her legs out at close to her race speed. For Karen, the risk is that she's in such good shape that every training session becomes a race, and she is in danger of pushing too hard, falling off that edge. Therefore, Karen would do well to taper, and drop her weekly volume, the length of her long run, and to be cautious about doing too much too fast. I think it's really important to understand which of these extreme cases applies to you.

For Ultra runners, you're far more likely to fall on Karen's end of the spectrum, because you're forced to run a marathon to qualify, and that kind of pulls your training volume up. So you're almost certain to have been doing fatiguing training. Take the last month as a chance to sharpen up. For those doing the half marathon, many more will be on Linda's side of the equation, so you face an important decision - you can choose to build the volume of your running over the next 25 or 26 days, or you can shorten the build and plan to rest. My advice is that unless you meet the following two criteria, you don't need to worry too much about a long taper:

  1. Your long run is at least 80% of the race distance. That means 18km, or around 2:00 to 2:30. I think it's more important that you aim to hit this long run by the fourth weekend of March (the 24th or 25th) than it is to rest at the expense of doing it. You'll still have another weekend of rest before race day, and that's enough to stand on the start line both confident and rested.
  2. You're running PBs or quick times over shorter distances. Now is not the time to be racing yourself into the ground to set PBs over 10km and 15km, and so if you're in the kind of condition where you can race hard and set best times, then you need to be careful. For example, there may be a race on the weekend, plus a midweek time-trial and if both those are maximal efforts, plus you keep going with four other runs a week, there is no recovery, only constant stress.

    So whether it's in a club time-trial or an official race, over-racing is a recipe for burnout, so be very careful about these sessions - no more than once a week, allow full recovery after races, and set a cut off - no faster than race efforts after the 16th March, for example. Once you hit that date, then your weekly club time-trial must be at or slower than race pace, just to keep you from the temptation of gunning every session as though it's an Olympic final! ( you know who you are)

Walking the razor's edge

The take-home point of this blog post is to be aware (there's that word again) of what it will take in the last month to a) capitalize on everything that has gone before, and b) avoid overdoing it, which is a far more likely scenario than doing too little. By virtue of the fact that you've taken on this challenge, you have put your physiology "on the razor's edge", so to speak, and so you need to find the balance that suits your body, your schedule and your training so far. I've tried above to outline the two key questions that will tell you what you need to do - the long run and your shorter distance racing form.

If those are in place, then you've earned a last month of tapering and backing off the long runs. But even here, some people respond badly to less training, and if that's you, then keep the volume higher than I've suggested above. But for most, just back off, keep your legs ticking over, keep the pace of your runs at race pace and avoid the over-racing temptation.

Next time, we'll talk race-specifics - the route, the strategy and the last week, because now is the time to start rehearsing this in training!

Ross

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