The Speedy Taper

I have almost completed my “speedy taper” for this upcoming Sunday’s Winter Series 10 miler.  Today, I did two 400-meter intervals on the treadmill at 6:11 minute-per-mile pace (an optimistic 5K race pace…) followed by walking 400 meters. I have to admit that the lack of quantity is making me a bit nervous, but I have been told to remember Bill Bowerman’s famous quote, “The hay is in the barn.” I’m hoping that Sunday’s race will be a good test of the “speedy taper” strategy, but I am also coming down with a cold, so we’ll see.

I have already made some important discoveries that should help my running regardless of what happens on Sunday. First, I think I am going to try a walking recovery between intervals when I do my speed work in the future. In the past, I have always tried to do slow recovery runs, but I find that I have to be in extremely good condition to manage ten quarters.  I would like to do more, but by ten, I am just beat. I found that when I did five quarters on Monday and walked a quarter as recovery, I felt great. I think that shifting to an easier recovery might allow me to use the intervals to work on my speed, rather than endurance, particularly towards the end of the workout. Second, I read that you might gain weight while doing the speedy taper. I didn’t think much of this warning; but, sure enough, I did gain several pounds, and it makes sense.  The very light quantity of running during this week has not required a whole lot of calories to fuel, but I have been eating the same amount of food. The article that I consulted concerning the speedy taper, told me not to worry about this, since it was basically an outcome of carbo loading and would help me in a longer race. We’ll see. I’m not thrilled with the weight gain (1 pound equals 1-2 seconds per mile), but we’ll see what happens.  I’m looking forward to the race, but I am also looking forward to getting back to doing some hard training next week.

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I’m Going to Intentionally Taper for a Race: You Heard it Here First

Looking back over my training log, I notice that I have never intentionally tapered for a race. I usually take a day off running the day before the day before the race – no running, for example, on Friday, followed by an easy 3-5 miles on the Saturday morning before a Sunday race.  This probably explains why last summer’s 5K PR was a bit of a surprise. I missed three days of running before the race and only entered at the last minute. In retrospect, it is obvious that not only did I accidently taper for the race, but that it was an effective taper – I took about 30 seconds off my best 5K time. You may ask why I didn’t look back over my training log and see this lead up to a big PR as something that should be replicated.  I blame training for a half marathon later in the fall. I was increasingly consumed with getting in my miles and was worried about being able to race the distance, and failed to notice that tapering actually seemed to help.  I have, therefore, decided to pursue a systematic taper before next Sunday’s 10 mile Winter Series race in the hope of capturing a few Grand Prix points, but also to see if tapering is something I should be doing.

In my research into tapering, I ran across an article, “Tapering: Short and Fast Is Best,” written by Chris Stockdale for the Washington Running Report (http://www.runwashington.com/news/1135/310/Tapering-Short-and-Fast-Is-Best.htm).  Stockdale’s article recommends tapering the week before a race with a series of short, yet intense, intervals and a drastic decrease in distance. This quality over quantity tapering method is based on the idea that “speedy tapering” will help to stockpile more carbohydrate fuel in leg muscles, will augment blood volume, enhance leg muscle enzyme activity, and will keep nerves and muscles “primed” for racing.  Muscle priming is crucial to maintaining muscle tension, which helps to prevent that weird, flat, feeling that one can experience if you take a day off immediately before a race.

Having experienced the benefits of an unplanned taper, I am now going to proceed with a systematic taper and report back next week about the results.  I felt I bit of destiny when I ran across Stockdale’s article, because the McMaster University study that it was based upon used subjects that were running 45-50 mile weeks – I have been doing 40-45 – and Stockdale’s model race for tapering is a 10 miler. Here’s the plan: on Monday, I will do 5 x 400 meters at 5K race pace with easy recovery between the intervals.  Stockdale recommends walking between the intervals until comfortable. I usually run 400 meters recovery at about 8:30-9:00 minute per mile pace.  I promise to try walking – I’m not going to like it.  Tuesday is 4 x 400; Wednesday is 3 x 400; Thursday is 2 x 400; Friday is 1 x 400 and Saturday is absolute rest from running.  This is all very straightforward. Just typing this out, however, makes me freak out a bit – this is not a lot of running and the walking between intervals makes this look rather easy.  The McMaster “speedy taper” results, however, were “dramatic” as Stockdale tells us that the “endurance times from the speedy taper improved 22%.”  I like those possible improvements, so I am going to follow this plan to the letter and report back next week. Here are some final questions: Has anyone else successfully pursued a “speedy taper” plan?  Any other taper plans that I should check out?  What types of tapering before races do you typically do?

A Concise Take on Lance Armstrong

It sounds like professional athletes and the followers of endurance sports are generally perturbed that Lance Armstrong didn’t come very clean in his interview with Oprah Winfrey. My immediate response was, “Really, are you surprised?”  Is Betsy Andreu surprised that Lance didn’t admit to providing his doctors with the details of his doping plan while he was being treated for cancer?  Is former U.S. Postal Team masseuse Emma O’Reilly really surprised that Lance didn’t apologize to her for calling her an alcoholic prostitute? Is Greg LeMond surprised that Lance hasn’t apologized about launching a vendetta against LeMond that was backed by the Trek Bicycle Corporation?  I have news for everyone: Armstrong is a classic sociopath.  He’s never going to give a meaningful apology, because he simply can’t recognize that what he did was wrong. This “interview” was about Armstrong’s cynical ploy to trade on his celebrity to rehabilitate himself and reingratiate himself with an easily manipulated and inattentive public: “Hey, all I need to do is tear up a bit on Oprah and everything will be OK.”  And, like all “interviews” conducted by Oprah Winfrey, it was ultimately about Oprah and her desire to jump start her flagging cable network, rather than any goal of lifting the veil on performance enhancing drug use in professional endurance sports. We might be disappointed about how all of this played out (and is playing out), but can we really admit to being surprised?

Running and Resentment: A Deeper View

I’ve been reading over the comments on New York Times health columnist Gina Kolata’s article from December 17, 2012 – “Recipe for Resentment: Claims of Running Prowess” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/a-running-bias-against-runners/) – to try to do some initial thinking about the place of running in U.S. culture.  Kolata wrote her piece in response to the recent dust up over the Wall Street Journal’s diatribe against running too much.  The experts quickly weighed in about why we should take the WSJ’s handwringing with several tablespoons of salt – faulty study, ridiculous assumptions, etc.; but, like Kolata, I was even more interested in why various media outlets were so quick to give credence to the report, as well as why the Wall Street Journal has been publishing a variation of the “running will kill you” article for years.  How many times have you run across an article, or talked to someone, who couldn’t quite suppress their glee that Jim Fixx, one of the prime movers of the late 1970s running boom, had died of a heart attack while running.  Kolata tackles this resentment head-on and asks, “Why does running arouse such passions?”

This is a tricky question, because the meaning of running in the United States has changed throughout the years.  During the late-1970s and even the early-1980s, I think there was a large proportion of the U.S. population that viewed road running as a cultural threat.  Runners unattached to college and high school programs were out there on the pavement, pursuing individual satisfaction by doing something rather arduous at the very time that the terms of technological, cultural, and social progress were couched in the latest labor saving advancements and recreation was the realm of the spectator.  Runners wanted to be within sport, rather than outside of it.  The threat of participatory action in a consumer-capitalist economy should not be underestimated.  Ultimately, people were finding new meaning in their lives not through work, economic, or social status, but through the simple, exhausting activity of running.  The only reason that there hasn’t been more pushback to the potential rebelliousness and radicalism that running holds is that corporations were quick to recognize the consumer possibilities of the growth and expansion of a participatory, people’s sport.  The running shoe companies became large and powerful when they realized that a vast new market was opening up.  By the mid-1980s, running shoes were ubiquitous on people’s feet (even non-runners) and the idea that one should run had entered the cultural mainstream.  They even broadcast the New York City marathon on network television, as the big city races rapidly expanded and everyone thought that they should run a marathon.  I think this might also mark the approximate time when the running boom started to diverge, branched out, and ultimately entered a new phase.

It wasn’t my intention to give a history of the running boom, so I’ll stop here, merely to point out that the 1980s’ split saw the emergence of the exercise boom as Yuppies, fueled by aerobics and Reebok, began to see being fit as yet another way to distinguish themselves as part of the economic and cultural elite.  Fitness was yet another thing that could be consumed and could reflect one’s status in society.  True believers probably retreated to their running clubs and winter series races and wondered if they remained special if everyone ran.  (I imagine that ultra marathoning may have experienced a boost at this point.)  If we are looking for a source of resentment, this might be it.  To distinguish themselves within the running culture, some people needed to make running, in all of its aspects, more a part of their lives.  What I am talking about here, is the tendency during recent times of economic uncertainty and stagnation for people to derive meaning in their lives not through their jobs, but through the challenge of changing themselves, both physically and psychologically, through running.  I’m going to refine this argument at more length in the future; but, it is hard to discount the fact that the first running boom peaked during the Reagan recession, popular interest in running flattened out during the sustained economic growth of the mid-1990s, and we are currently living through a new running boom during very uncertain economic times.

The source of resentment towards runners is deep and it has a history.  It is not based on the idea that runners can’t shut up about running.  Going on about stuff is merely part of the human condition. We talk about things in which we are interested.  Toy train buffs talk incessantly about their layouts, new parents tend to go on about child rearing, cat owners have problems talking about anything else.  Resentment because we discuss what we are passionate about is hardly unique to running.  At this point, it is probably legitimate to argue that runners experience resentment as much as anyone else in our society.  It’s one of those less attractive human emotions spawned by jealousy: hardly the province solely of runners.  I do, however, think there is something to this resentment and that it goes deeper than a frustration that runners just won’t shut up, or that they are unhealthily obsessed with their sport.  It is a frustration that runners have found a source of meaning in their lives that is almost entirely internal; it doesn’t depend on one’s economic or social status. It doesn’t depend on an occupation.  Running allows one’s success and contentment to be internally generated and individually assessed. Even the race, a place where commercialism and external assessment interact, is judged on the runner’s own terms. A good race might be finishing, setting a personal best, winning an age-group medal, running negative splits, or meeting some friends.  The measures of success are really up to the race participant. I wouldn’t argue that this is the only activity that meaning and success is almost solely scripted by the participant, but it might be one of the most accessible activities in which this is the case.  This is where the resentment and jealousy lies. Runners have found a straightforward, readily accessible way to derive meaning in their lives independent of the social and power disparities that are necessary for industrial capitalism to function.  The act of running in a western capitalist society is, at its very base, a radical (and for some) and a threatening act.

This was what academic historians like to refer to as a “think piece”: a lot of thinking aloud and writing without the hand of the editor.  Some of my arguments need further examples and I think it might take a grant and some graduate students to quantify what is meant by “running boom.”  I do, however, think that there is something more essential about running that explains the resentment that writers such as Gina Kolata identify that goes beyond the idea that runners are just insufferable when they won’t shut up about it.  What do you think?

The Hangover Half and More Calf Cramps

I started the New Year out with a bang.  During the latter stages of our all-day drive from Kentucky, where I had spent Christmas vacation, I decided around 7:30 PM that I was going to run in the January 1 edition of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s Winter Series Race.  I hadn’t really given the possibility of racing on New Year’s Day much thought earlier in the week, because I didn’t know how the driving would proceed and whether I would even be home to do it.  I had a choice of the “Hangover” Half Marathon or a 3.5 miler. I decided to do the half, start out slowly, and treat it as a tempo run. This would also be a good opportunity to test out whether mustard might be a good way to avoid leg cramps.  I hadn’t done any tapering for the race, and I had run 11 miles in the cold on Sunday. I also stayed up to watch the ball fall – luckily the race started at noon. I was able to get up late and have a leisurely morning.  I drank some water when I first got up, several cups of coffee, ate half of a chocolate chip muffin, a banana, and a piece of cinnamon raisin bread with some Nuttela.  I also, of course, had a spoon of yellow mustard.  It was 28 degrees Fahrenheit when I left the house. The hallway in the SUNY-Athletic building where we registered was packed – this is a popular way to start the New Year.  By the time I had signed up and gone to the bathroom, I didn’t have a lot of time for a warm-up. I wasn’t too worried, since I planned to start out around eight minute pace and warm-up for the first six miles. I almost, however, didn’t even get to the starting line, because my left calf cramped almost with the first step of my warm-up. Not a good sign. I decided to give it a try. I didn’t have enough time to take one of my mustard packets, but I put two in my pocket and managed to have a handful of gummy bears as I was heading off to the starting line.

It will eventually get warmer.

It will eventually get warmer. Spring 2010 in Upstate New York.

I was about six deep on the line and started out slowly. My legs were feeling good. It felt colder than 28 and I was glad that I was wearing my spiffy new CW-X compression tights that my wife had given me for Christmas.  I looked at my Garmin and realized that I was running too quickly. I got caught up in a pack of runners from the Kinderhook Running Club, looked down at my watch and realized that we were doing some racing at 6:20 minute-per-mile pace.  It was cold and windy – typical winter series weather on the SUNY-Albany campus. The course, itself, has some very gradual up and downhills and is fairly easy, aside from the wind, which, as the race proceeded, started to get a bit ridiculous. I took water at every opportunity. I went through 10K in 45:40 and was feeling good.  At 9 miles, however, my left calf started cramping. I consumed one of my mustard packets and watched some of the people I was running with leave me behind.  For the rest of the race, I tried to run in a very measured fashion and consumed an additional mustard packet at around 11 miles. During the last mile, I managed to catch up and pass some people who had gone by me earlier, but I had pretty much shifted to survival mode and was extremely glad to finish in 1:40:36. I was happy to crack the top 100 with an 83rd place finish. It was good to get in out of the cold.  Once I stopped, my legs didn’t feel all that bad and I wasn’t totally exhausted.  I had several pieces of pizza (I love the HMRRC) walked around for a bit and then headed home. It was a very motivational way to start the New Year.

Did the mustard work?  It sure didn’t offer the immediate relief for cramping that I was after.  It may, however, have delayed my cramping.  The last time I experienced leg cramping in a race was 4 miles into a 10K.  It is, of course, also possible that my compression tights helped. This is one of my problems, I often change several things, and so I am unsure what actually worked.  I haven’t yet given up on the mustard cure (If anything, it is fun to see people freak out when you suck down a packet on the run, or when you have a spoonful for breakfast.), but I suspect that my calf problems might necessitate some strengthening exercises – oh, snap!