Getting Through Taper Week Without Tantrums

Taper week can do some crazy things to runners.  Some people feel nervous and anxious about the big day.  Without as much running scheduled to ease the mind, nerves can get a bit frazzled.  We worry about losing fitness and gaining weight, we obsessively stalk the weather forecast, and we stress about making sure every last detail is taken care of.

We get the taper tantrums.

As a running coach for Runners Connect, I get a lot of questions about taper week.  Every individual responds to taper a little differently, but there are some basic rules that may help the time go by a little easier, without losing your mind.

What should you eat?  How do you carbo load?

This is one of the questions I get the most.  As a general rule, you do not want to change things up too much in the week before your race because it is not enough time for your body to adjust.  Taper week is not the time to experiment with a radical new diet or stuff yourself with pasta.  You should eat a normal, healthful diet of whole foods, especially plants, just like you should all year round.

Because you are running less during this week, you are not exhausting your muscles’ glycogen stores so they will stay full from a plant-rich diet.

If you are data-driven and need some actual numbers, Runners Connect recommends that you eat 3-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight during taper.

Every morning, I eat the exact same thing: 2 slices of my homemade whole wheat sourdough bread, lightly slathered with almond butter and jam.  Making homemade bread is something that I just love to do and it’s a great way to fill some restless time during taper that I normally would have spent running.

Fresh loaves of whole wheat sourdough

But I’m careful not to go overboard with the bread.  The main sources of my carbs this week are starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bananas), fruits and veggies, legumes, and whole, unprocessed grains.  The day before the race, I’ll choose those with a little less fiber for easy digestion, making sure that my biggest meal is lunch and not dinner.

When do I back off strength training?

Again, you should not be trying to change things up too much from normal during taper, just back off the length and intensity.  So if you normally strength train twice a week, you should still do that, but your routine should be shorter, with fewer reps and lighter weights (if any).  You should never lift to fatigue during taper.  Remember, you will not gain any fitness taper week.  You are simply going through the motions so that your body is tricked into thinking everything’s normal.

 

 Should I be this tired? I thought taper was supposed to make me feel better!

Some of us just don’t feel good during taper.  Some people even start to get sick because the immune system lets its guard down after months of hard training.

Not feeling great happens to a lot of us because it take 10-12 days to fully recover from hard workouts, which means you are not going to suddenly feel fresh and peppy.

If you do get sick, here are some great tips from elite marathoner and my colleague, Tina Muir.

Should I schedule a massage?

Be careful with this one.  If you normally get weekly massages (lucky you!), then staying with your routine is probably the best plan, as long as you let your therapist know to take it easy on you this week.

But if you do not have a regular massage routine, this is not the time to start.  Massages are wonderful, but they can also leave you sore, which is the opposite of what you want.

What should my goal pace be? 

You should already have determined your goal pace at least a couple weeks before your race so that you get a chance to practice and perfect it.

As much as we runners love round numbers and big goals, that’s not the best way to choose your goal pace.  For anything but your very first marathon where you are simply trying to finish, goal marathon pace should feel a step harder than easy. The more experienced you are at the marathon, the more you can push the effort level.  If you’ve had a good 12-16 week build-up, the goal pace should be something that felt pretty hard the first few weeks, more manageable in the middle, and good (but still a little scary) toward the end.

If you’ve had a less-than great build up, you’ll want to be a bit more conservative.

I love this article that has an assessment about whether or not you are ready for your goal pace.

This is my seventh marathon taper and I’m feeling surprisingly calm and relaxed this time.  It’s as if I have nothing more than a long run on the books for this weekend.  It’s not that I don’t care about the race this weekend–I most certainly do–but this time, my perspective has changed.  For the better.

Part of this comes from experience.  I’ve been through this before and I know that allowing myself to stress about the race for an entire week does nothing but harm.  I am determined to run this race to the best of my ability which includes sticking to conservative speed limits in the first half and then just seeing where my legs will take me.

With any luck, it will be my best race yet.

Not So Safe and Effective

I have finally figured it out.  I know now what caused the race-ending stomach pain at the Richmond Marathon in November.  And it wasn’t just the acidic, burning cauldron in my belly that sidelined me.

I didn’t even mention the lightheadedness and the palpable pounding of my heart in my chest at mile 14.  I never talked about that part because I didn’t want to scare my family.

The culprit was caffeine.

Caffeine is the most widely-used, legal performance-enhancing drug in the world.  If you race and do not use caffeine, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage from your competition.  In short, caffeine is safe and it works.

According to Matt Fitzgerald, a widely known sports nutritionist and marathon exert, “it appears caffeine enhances performance in shorter events by stimulating the nervous system in ways that enable the muscles to contract faster and more efficiently. In longer events, caffeine delays fatigue by reducing the athlete’s perception of effort. Specifically, it increases the concentration of hormone-like substances in the brain called endorphins during exercise. The endorphins affect mood state, reduce perception of pain, and create a sense of well-being.”

Delaying fatigue while reducing perception of effort and pain?  Sign me up!

As a coffee drinker, I have always had a cup of black coffee on the morning of a race, just like every other day of my adult life.  But I can’t drink too much liquid before a marathon because I don’t want to have to stop.  So one small cup is all I have.

A few weeks before Boston last year, I started learning more about caffeine and performance and learned that taking a caffeine pill 90 minutes before a race was the most effective way to get the right amount of caffeine into your body to maximize performance.  I also learned that the caffeine in coffee might not actually help with faster times.  Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it might have to do with some of the other components in coffee blocking the ergogenic effects.  For racing, getting caffeine in a pill is cheap, convenient and effective.

So I tested it out before race day.  At the time, I had only one more long run to go, so I practiced my race day routine and popped a 200mg caffeine pill 90 minutes before my long, easy run.  I had no issues.  No jitters, no heart racing, no stomach issues, no problem.

Then I tried it in Boston.  As you can read here in my race report, I was doing really well for 19 miles, on pace to break (or get really close to) a 3-hour marathon.  But the heat, wind, and hills finally did me in.  I only mentioned briefly how sick to my stomach I was feeling but it never occurred to me that it could be from caffeine that late in the race.  I was trying everything I could to not throw up for the last 6 miles.

Barely lifting my feet up on Boylston, trying not to get sick.

I used the caffeine pills a few times before Richmond to practice everything for race day, but I don’t remember ever using them for a long, fast run.  I never bothered using them during hard workouts, because I didn’t want to overuse them.  I made a few caffeinated gels, but each one only had a quarter of the potency of a full pill, so I never felt any ill effects.

In Richmond, my stomach was nearly empty at the starting line due to several missed points in my pre-race plan, but I did remember to take the caffeine pill 90 minutes before the race.  When I took my first caffeinated gel at mile 4, my stomach instantly revolted.  I had thought I had made the gel too concentrated with salt, but I now know that wasn’t the real issue.

How did I figure out it was the caffeine pill?  Because the exact same thing happened to me on my last fast long run for this cycle.  Excruciating, burning sensation in my stomach.  Uneasy dizziness. Mild, but scary heart palpitations.

And it only happens when I’m running long and fast.

I decided to do some more research.

The effect of caffeine during high-intensity activity is dramatically different from its effect at rest or more moderate paces.  I naturally (and due to my training) have a low heart rate, so I am suspecting that at high intensity, or at sustained marathon pace, the caffeine was causing my heart to race much higher than it normally does.  So much so that I could actually feel it in my chest.

But how could I be taking too much?  I drink coffee every day!  I’m used to caffeine!  It’s safe!  It’s effective!

Not so fast.  On race day and on the day of my fast 22 miler, I drank my normal cup of coffee in the morning.  There’s no way to tell exactly how much caffeine is in a home-brewed cup of coffee, but it’s anywhere from 100-200mg in an 8-ounce cup.  Then I’d take the 200mg pill.  That means I could have been ingesting as much as 400mg of caffeine.  Is that a lot?

Most studies on caffeine have shown that a dose of 3-6mg/kilogram of body weight improves performance and higher doses do not produce better results.  I weigh about 50-52 kilos, so my optimum range is 150-312mg of caffeine.

I went way overboard.

The negative side effects of too much caffeine are nervousness, gastrointestinal distress, heart palpitations, dizziness or lightheadedness, vomiting, and rapid heart beat.  It’s been shown that caffeine reduces the amount of blood flow to the heart while exercising, which can be a particularly dangerous scenario for those with coronary disease or heart abnormalities.  It can be a compounding factor in the rare cases of heart-related deaths while running.

The over-caffeination of marathon runners is a fascinating topic as more and more companies produce gels, drinks, gums, and mints promising performance.  But there can be a downside that is not talked about much.  If you are curious, this is a very interesting article that surveyed marathon runners about how much caffeine they are ingesting for a race and the responses are staggering.

For my next race in Charleston, I will still drink a small (very small) cup of coffee when I wake up.  I’ve also been practicing with caffeine mints that only contain 40mg of caffeine and mainly get absorbed in the mouth, bypassing the digestive system.

It’s still a bit hard to wrap my head around the fact that a tiny pill that was supposed to make me go faster with less pain caused so much of it.  I suppose I can take some solace knowing that it was not lack of fitness that sabotaged my race.

It was lack of practice.

 

Fireball Anti-Cramp Gels

I don’t get cramps very often when I run or race, but when it happens, it can quickly turn a nice run into a miserable suffer fest.  I started doing a little research online about what works to stop them.  Pickle juice, mustard, salt, water were all touted as cures, but I wasn’t really sold on filling a gel flask with mustardy pickle brine for my next race.  Stuffing a pickle in my pocket during a race, while an amusing image, is not exactly the route I want to go.

A couple of entrepreneurs came up with a product called “It’s the Nerve,” which is now called Hot Shots.  Their research found that it’s not dehydration or lack of salt that causes cramping; it’s the nerve controlling the muscle that causes it.  The key is to trick the nerve into calming down and for some reason, spicy or vinegary foods does the trick.  Apparently, Hot Shot is a concoction made of cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne.

So of course, I had to make my own.  Putting it into a gel that I would be consuming anyway seemed like the best choice.

At Boston this year, I started cramping at mile 2, much earlier than I ever would have imagined.  I took a Fireball gel and the cramp was literally gone in a few minutes.  It worked!

20160604_140111-1

I had been experimenting with gels for a while and still like the real food gels like make like the Brownie Batter gel. They have a thinner consistency than many store-bought gels, they taste great, and they are real food.  But there were two issues that I didn’t like.  First, it’s hard to blend the fruit perfectly and little bits would clog up my gel flask.  Second, these gels are brown.  That might sound trivial, but imagine spilling a little brown goo on your shorts, your leg, or your shoe while racing.  No matter how much you tell people, “it was my gel!  I swear!” your race photos will tell a different story.

The ideal combination of sugars during racing seems to be 2:1 glucose to fructose.  Dates are 50/50 glucose to fructose.  Honey is 31% glucose, 38% fructose, and 20% water.  Maple syrup is 60% sucrose, which your body has to spend energy converting into glucose and fructose.  Plain corn syrup (not high-fructose) is 100% glucose and agave syrup is 85% fructose.  A 2:1 corn syrup agave mixture seemed like a good place to start.

But wait a second.  Was I really thinking of using highly processed corn syrup and agave for a homemade gel?  What about my whole foods philosophy?  I run and eat for my health!  This is exactly opposite of that.  Yes.  It is.  But I’m okay with that.  One of the reasons I race is to bring the best out of myself and on race day, and simple sugars are the best way to achieve that.  Matt Fitzgerald explains it better than I can here.

The gels I came up with turned out even better than I’d hoped.  With the addition of salt and a tablespoon of fruit juice, I created gels reminiscent of my favorite cocktails:  Limoncello, Margarita, Cherry Bomb, (I’ll post recipes to those variations soon!) and the anti-cramping Fireball.  Instead of being thick and pasty, they slide smoothly down in one or two swallows.  Each 92-calorie gel has 23.5 grams of carbs and 54.3mg of sodium.  That’s comparable to the Citrus Clif gel which has 100 calories, 24 grams of carbs, and 90mg of sodium.  (I am not a particularly salty sweater, so I prefer my gels to be not so salty.  If you are, double the salt in my recipes or add some baking soda.  An eighth of a teaspoon contains 157mg of sodium.

A gel flask is a good way to carry your gels.  I like Ultimate Direction’s 4oz gel flask, but if you are flying to a race, remember that you can only carry 2 ounces of liquid on a plane.  There are some good food-friendly silicone travel bottles on the market that are inexpensive and work well.  But an issue with flasks is that they are bulky and you might want something lower profile.  You can use Ziplock bags and bite the corner off, or you can get super fancy and make your own gel packets with a FoodSaver.  This has been my method lately.  I’ll mix up a big batch of gels and create small packets, fill and seal them (no need to vacuum) and label them.  Then I make a small cut in the side, being careful not to cut through the seal, and mark the cut with the Sharpie.  That way I can see at a glance where to tear open the packet.

These are obviously a bit spicy, sort of like a Fireball candy, but they work!

.

Serves 8 one ounce

Fireball Anti-Cramp Gels

5 minPrep Time

5 minTotal Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup pure corn syrup (not high-fructose)
  • 1/4 cup agave syrup
  • 3 tablespoons tart cherry juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients and stir until well combined. This makes a big batch of eight gels. Pour into 2 4oz gel flasks or pour desired amount into Ziplock bags or FoodSaver bags. I prefer to make FoodSaver bags that are about two inches wide and six inches long, seal on three sides, fill, and seal the fourth side. Then I make a small cut on one end being careful not to cut through the seal and I mark that spot with a marker so I know where to rip the gel open. These will probably last almost indefinitely at room temp, but to be safe, I store extras in the freezer.
Cuisine: Race gel | Recipe Type: Anti- Cramping
7.6.4
4
http://theplantedrunner.com/fireball-anti-cramp-gels/

 

Making Strides with Strides

My 5K training plan calls for most of my easy runs to finish with four 20 second strides.  The idea behind strides is that you are not too fatigued from your easy run to run fast with good form.  It’s a dose of speed work on your light days that is short enough that you don’t need recovery like a true speed session yet it wakes up your fast-twitch muscle fibers on days when they are normally dozing off.

During marathon training, I had some easy days with strides and some without so I pretty much forgot about them by the time I was done with my run.  I was also a lot more tired in general from the heavier running workload than I am now, so I am itching to do a little extra these days.

So in the last mile of my run home, I focused on my form.  First, I thought about my ankles.  Maybe that seems like a strange place to start, but I find that when I concentrate on getting a full range of motion in my ankle by pointing my toe almost to an exaggerated degree right before I pull the leg forward, my entire leg flexes while in the air and acts like a tighter spring when it reaches the ground again.  If you watch videos of elite sprinters (or little kids), the back heel rises almost up to the glutes before the knee comes forward.  That would require too much energy from me to sustain very long, but I’ve read that the hang time gives the leg a split second of rest before it pounds down to the ground again.  I don’t attempt to butt kick when I run, but I do think about letting the heel rise a touch longer before I bring it forward.

Then I mentally move up to my knees.  Raising the knee too high spends a lot of energy, but some knee lift is essential for good speed.  The key for me is to think about driving the knee in a forward motion, rather than up and down.  All motion forward creates quickness so I also think about my knees moving straight and not inward as they tend to do when I’m tired.

At my hips, I think about my forward lean.  It’s true that you really need to run leaning from the ankles instead of the hips, basically using gravity as you fall forward, but my hips and glutes are where the power comes from.  So my hips are more like the fulcrum of a seesaw, with my straight leg and pointed toe trailing behind and my straight chest leaning forward over the opposite bent knee. If you’ve ever seen me run in person, you’ll notice that I’m not a natural forward-leaner.  Maybe it’s because I’m short that I’m used to standing up tall, with my shoulders back.  That works great to save energy in a marathon, but it’s not great for speed.  So I’m working on it.

Best shot at Chicago (2)
Good example of my lack of forward lean at the 2015 Chicago Marathon

Once my easy run was done today, I stopped for a couple minutes to let my heart rate slow down. I made sure my watch was set to time my intervals and then hit the start.  The cool thing about strides this short is that you really don’t start breathing hard until halfway through and then in ten breaths, you’re done.  All of the form focus on the last mile really seemed to help today because I just felt fluid.  I missed hitting the button on the first one, so I don’t know how fast that one was, but my next three were 5:34/mile, 4:47/mile, 4:54/mile.  Obviously, there’s no way I could run those last two paces for a whole mile…or could I?

 

Shut Up, Nancy!

I’m skipping track this week.  My schedule called for my speed work to be done today on a Monday and for Tuesday to be easy in preparation for the 5K race on Saturday.  I knew if I went to track it would be a lot of shorter, faster segments and at this point, I need to be as race-specific as possible.  I decided to go to the park instead.

The workout was 3 miles of warm up, 2 x 1 mile at 5K pace (6:10-6:20) with 4 minutes of rest in between, then 2 x 400 meters (a quarter mile is close enough) 10 seconds faster than 5K pace (6:00-6:10), then 2 mile cool down.

I took the long way to the park and got there right at 3 miles.  I stopped to get a drink and do some dynamic stretching, which is moving through a stretch rather than holding a stretch (static stretching).  The loop I chose for the mile repeats is somewhere between .4 and .5 of a mile and I know from experience that GPS is a little wonky in that section, but it’s flat and shaded and has a bathroom with a water fountain.  I figured two laps around was better than 4 laps on a hot track.

I began the first mile and quickly started breathing very hard.  I glanced at my watch and it said I was going 7:30 pace, which could not possibly be true.  A few seconds later, it said 5:55 pace, which also wasn’t true.  Sometimes GPS tries to correct itself when it makes a mistake, so I just focused on running hard and getting through it.  Halfway around the first lap, my quads started burning and the negative voice in my head starting telling me it would be fine if I stopped and caught my breath.  I knew I could do it despite how hard it was starting to feel, but each time I looked down at my liar of a watch, I lost a little bit of confidence and almost felt a sense of panic.  I was running as fast as I could manage and it was telling me I was going marathon pace!  I knew it couldn’t be true, but what if it was?  Had I really lost that much fitness?  Yes, I’ve gained 6-8 pounds since Boston, but was marathon pace (6:50) really a wind-sucking effort now?

As I finished the second lap, my watch told me I still hadn’t made a mile so I kept going.  When it buzzed, my split read 6:51. Ugh.

After my rest break, I decided to run the second mile in the opposite direction.  Maybe counterclockwise was better luck?  Turns out it was.  I ran the second mile with the same effort–maybe even less–and I clocked a 6:21.  That was better.  I concentrated on relaxing and not letting the panic creep in. And I had validation that GPS was off since the mile alarm went off just before I completed two laps.

For the 400s, my goal was to just run a touch faster than the miles.  Since it was hard to tell exactly where a quarter mile was, I ran hard for 90 seconds instead and used my lap button.  Those two came in a 6:13 pace.  Good enough for today.

I am getting better at controlling the negative voice in my head during hard effort.  Perhaps I need to give that voice a name.  Give it a personality so whenever she talks, I can just say, “Oh, that’s just Negative Nancy trying to sabotage you.  SHUT UP, NANCY!”

The other lesson learned?  Always run counterclockwise!

 

The Lowest End of Healthy

I am the type of runner that gains weight while marathon training.  Out of the 5 marathons I’ve run in the last two years, I gained weight for 3 of them.  Not a lot, but 4 to 5 pounds.  Once I started really trying to figure out how to get better at the marathon, the issue of weight came up.

I have always been a healthy weight, both before going plant-based and before running, but I was usually at the higher end of normal.  Initially, I started running to lose some weight for vanity, but once I starting running to become a better runner, the way I looked in the mirror became secondary.  I just wanted to become faster.

So for my third marathon, Boston 2015, I lost 12 pounds and PRed by 12 minutes.

I’m not saying that losing a pound and a minute go hand in hand. I put in a lot of training and got much fitter for that PR, but it is clear that carrying less weight makes running easier.  At a certain point, however, if you lose too much weight too fast, you will become weaker, slower, and more injury-prone.  Elite runner Sarah Crouch and running journalist Mario Fraioli warn about the dangers of calorie restriction that they’ve seen first-hand in the running world.  That is not the type weight loss that I am talking about.  To race at your best means to be have the lowest healthy amount of body fat while also being at your strongest and fittest.

I think a lot of typical running articles shy away from a deeper discussion of weight in relation to racing.  Sure, there’s no shortage of weight loss articles for people who need to lose weight for health reasons, but when it comes to marathon training, the big message seems to be fuel.  Going for a run?  Make sure you fuel up!  Just back from a run?  Fuel up with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio within 30 minutes or else!  Running for more than an hour?  Bring snacks!  Fully grown adult runners are essentially being treated like toddlers. And a lot of us are gaining weight.

As a beginning runner, I hungrily and happily listened to that message and packed on the pounds despite how much I ran.  It was not until I tracked what I ate every day on MyFitnessPal, did I realize how much I was over-feeding myself.  And no, I was not the type of person who justified eating an entire pan of brownies because I ran long that day.  I gained weight because I ate too much healthy food.  My mid-day smoothie habit, for example, full of nutrient-rich plant foods like greens, chia seeds, a banana, some oats, walnuts, almond milk and berries weighed in at nearly 700 calories!  Once I could get an accurate picture of my intake, I made changes and adjusted my portion sizes.  I set the app to lose between a half pound to a pound a week and was able to get to my goal weight on race day.  I’m not going to say it was easy, but running isn’t always easy either.

Food is deeply personal and powerful.  Many people’s lives are destroyed because they eat too much and others because they eat too little.  Some runners who meticulously log every mile, workout, and heartbeat, would think it frighteningly neurotic to track their calorie intake. I think that is a mistake. Calorie and nutrient intake is a critical component of racing and training well so it should be obvious that logging what we eat is yet another data point on the path to a PR. I am not suggesting that every runner record every bite that they swallow for the rest of their lives, but it can be very enlightening to track for a few weeks to see if you can pinpoint ways to improve your habits.  I do not track my intake daily anymore, mostly because I’ve learned what foods and portions work for me.  But when I’m getting ready to start a training cycle, food tracking is a great way get back into the habits that keep me lean.

So what is your ideal race weight? Matt Fitzgerald has a calculator but it requires that you know your body fat percentage.  You can estimate it with some cheap calipers, but the accuracy is not great. I chose to get my body composition analyzed in a BodPod at my local university for $35.  The results in 2015 showed that I was moving in the right direction and was not getting too skinny.  I went back a year later two months before Boston 2016 and was happy to see that although I was about the same weight, I had lost 2.4% body fat and gained 2.5 pounds of muscle.  Even though I ended up adding a couple more pounds by race day, I ran the course more than 15 minutes faster in 2016.

My next challenge is to figure out how to maintain closer to race weight when I’m not racing to avoid the 6-10 pound swing I’m experiencing.  Leaning up for this year’s Boston was harder than the first time and I suspect it will get harder each time.  Some of that will be due to simply getting older of course, but I’m also starting to think about the effects of a slowing metabolism from the weight loss itself.  This article about former contestants from The Biggest Loser regaining all their weight and more is a very interesting look at how hard your body fights to regain weight loss.  I suspect that the very unhealthy way these reality-show contestants lost their weight has a compounding effect, but there may be some good lessons to learn for everyone.

Body weight is an important part of being your fittest and your fastest.  Training and experience will trump being light weight every time, of course, and that only comes with time and hard work.  But I don’t see the long wait as a negative.  It means that I have the capability to continue to improve for a long time, even if my weight isn’t at its lowest.