>3/13/13: The Smart Taper

A conversation on Twitter yesterday took place with a first time marathoner that looked something like this:
Smart Taper, Twitter Convo, Running, Marathon

Now, while the conversation began with the topic of buying a new pair of shoes for the marathon, we'll discuss that bit later...

The important piece to all of this is a very, very smart question from this rookie marathoner, and that's simply "Any secret tips for tapering?" 
Yes. In fact there are 3. A smart taper consists of 3 things: resting as prescribed, running less than you feel like you can, and STRECTHING.
Unfortunately Twitter's 140-character limit doesn't allow me to do them much justice, so here's the much needed elaboration.
1) Rest as much as is prescribed.
Chances are good that if you're running a marathon for the first time, you've done some good research and have found either a coach in whom you place faith, or a training regimen that has been battle tested. If you've made it to this point just by winging it, bravo; you're one of the lucky ones.
That said, if you've been following the plan of your coach or from your training regimen, simply put: now is not the time to go off the rails.

Your training will account for some very specific periods and types of rest activity during the final weeks before the big race, and these are very calculated to ensure a few key physiological factors are in place:
a) That your muscles have had adequate time to recover from the "last long run," and are sufficiently rebuilt to handle the strain on the big day.
b) That the cumulative effects of several weeks of intense training, base building, and speed work are allowed to magically coalesce into this thing we call "race shape."
c) That you're actually rested enough to run the damned thing.
What does that mean? Well, all it means is that when you see a blank day on your calendar, it means DON'T go out and run 5 miles. Just relax. If you get antsy, beat yourself up with a foam roller for a few; you'll thank yourself later.
2) Run less than you feel like you can.
That's pretty much exactly what it looks like. 
There's this unfortunate side effect of all the training you've subjected your new svelte body to over the past several weeks: you're fit, and you know it. The mental aspect of running at slower than race pace or for less duration than an hour can be very dissatisfying; like using your new Aventador to drive to the supermarket and back.
And that sense of dissatisfaction can be very frustrating. The toughest part about the taper is the self-control part, in which you have to actively manage your urges, and the only motivation you have to keep you honest about your training is this: the finish line. If you want to cross it exactly as your race plan dictates, you have to TRUST THE TAPER.

This last bit is the most oft-neglected part of any training regimen, and it's notoriously a source of consternation from coaches and sports docs the world over. Listen, if you've made it this far without stretching regularly after your runs, you're likely running on borrowed time. 
Muscles break down each and every time you beat on them when running. Hilly runs, speed workouts, and high intensity activity are incredibly valuable ways to increase your speed, stamina, and overall conditioning prior to your big race, but you need to take the time to properly stretch your muscles after your workouts to prevent injury.
We in the running specialty industry see an enormous spike in injuries like Iliotibial Band Syndrome and Achilles tendonitis at almost exactly the same time each year: taper time. Why? Because runners have suddenly downshifted from a peak in their activity levels to a much lower gear, and often have neglected their proper stretching maintenance along the way. It's like trying to shift from 5th to 3rd on the highway without using the clutch; that nasty grinding sound you hear is your muscles hating you. Enough with the automotive analogies, here's the skinny:
Spend at least 30 seconds per stretch per leg after each workout and you'll be doing your body a wonderful favor. 
Specifically, work in a routine of standing quad stretches, hamstring stretches, calf stretches, and some kneeling hip flexor stretches. And don't neglect your trunk; your core is equally needy when it comes to muscle condition, and a strong, flexible core can work miracles on your running posture, improving your respiration and your ability to fight fatigue over long runs.
A primer on stretching can be found in one of our favorite books, Sport Stretch, by Michael J Alter. Buy it online from the publisher, or come in and check it out in one of our stores; we're always happy to let you casually browse.