The Art of the Taper - Letting Go of the Workout Urge

4:59 AM

There are times when I hate working out – when my alarm goes off early so I can fit in a run before heading off to work I groan and stuff my head under the pillow.  As I head home after a frustrating day I can come up with any number of excuses to not workout – too many errands to run, no clean techie clothes, a complicated dinner plan that will take more time, and I’m so hungry now!

But then when I plan a reduction in my quality workouts as I prepare for a peak in the season, suddenly I cannot seem to let go of the urge to get out there and crush it on the bike.

It is time for the taper, and I never feel more unfit as when I’m in one.

I’m not alone.  Joe Friel calls athletes the “ultimate believers in the Puritan work ethic.”  But while we may want to keep pushing the intensity as we near the close of a season, it isn’t what is best for us.  A well designed taper will give the body the rest it needs, protect it from additional trauma that comes with intense training, and allow your form to come to the forefront.  And while you may feel like you are simply getting out of shape, the gains you make from rest will outweigh any fitness lost.

This takes a bit of faith. 

Back when I was running marathons I would look forward to the taper, circle it on my calendar, and count down the days until it arrived.  Three weeks before race day my taper began – a sharp reduction in mileage and intensity.  I would go from running 40 to 50 miles a week to 30, then 20, and finally 15 that last week.  And while I would anticipate the taper with the nervous energy of a six year old at Christmas, once the taper arrived I would feel awful.  I would swear I could feel my muscles atrophying every minute.  Aches and pains would magnify, and I inevitably arrived at the start line feeling flabby and out of shape (silly, I know, it was only 3 weeks…).

It turns out I was doing it wrong.   

Since moving over to a structured cycling season I’ve done a bit more reading on the taper, and it turns out that exercise science has refined how athletes approach this part of the season.  While running I implemented a sharp reduction in volume, intensity and frequency, which is taking the taper too far (no wonder I always felt just a bit out of it by the end).

Today’s advice, summarized over here at Bike Radar, says that while you should decrease your volume by about half, you should not sacrifice your frequency or intensity.  So a good taper will have you on the bike the same number of days a week, still doing some good (but shorter) quality intervals, but keeping your total distance down.

It turns out that the taper isn’t such a radical change in the season, just a more subtle shift.  The reduction in volume is welcome now that it is dark all the time and we are consistently experiences more winter temperatures.  But I still feel a bit guilty when I add up my hours at the end of the week – a bit like skipping school.  But then I remember how I feel when I hit my intervals – powerful and rested - and I know that tapering is gooooood.

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