Taper down, now

With two weeks before the California International Marathon, some runners are struggling with a decrease in training. This rest, though, is one key to success on race day.

The Sacramento Bee—December 2, 2008

You are two weeks out from the 26th California International Marathon. All your hard training is behind you, all those lonely, 20-mile runs endured, all that pasty Gu gagged down, those pesky shin splints and hamstring strains long iced over.

Now, blessedly, comes the taper.

The taper is that time when marathoners should exhale, kick their shoes off, put their feet up and seriously cut back on mileage in preparation for the Dec. 7 race.

By the final week, all but the most hard-core distance runners hoping to peak on race day have reduced workouts to half the duration though keeping up the intensity. Interval work, by this point, mostly means consuming that elusive carbs-protein diet balance.

Bottom line: You should be rested, fresh, ready to kick tail for that personal best.

OK, so why is it you're so miserable and edgy, as anxiety-ridden as a Woody Allen character?

Simple. You're tapering. It's one of the primary, if oft-neglected, challenges that marathoners face. Only this one is much more taxing mentally than physically.

Think about it: Runners tend to be obsessive. You can't routinely log 50- to 100-mile weeks and not be. Telling these people to throttle down is akin to asking a Maserati to go 25 in a school zone. The runner's engine or, in this case, psyche revs in complaint.

Moreover, Hospital for Special Surgery sports psychologist Jenny Susser stresses that the taper can mentally make or break a runner.

"Training gives the distance runner the confidence," Susser says. "Resting does not. But as your body recovers, your mind starts to recover, too. So you need to do it. You've got to deal with inner dialogue. Mental toughness is being prepared for whatever your little voice is going to throw at you."

Susser, a former competitive swimmer, says tapering for her sport often took as long as seven weeks before a big competition a period she called maddening.

"Even three weeks is a long time to bite your nails," she says. "So I understand what they go through."

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