An unconventional start to the taper

As outlined in my recent post, I have been able to train consistently, and largely according to plan, for over a year. I have done virtually all the planned key sessions in preparation for the Robin Hood half marathon on 30th September – the main problem is that my pace has been well below the target which I set in April.

The target was optimistic.  My 5Km performance a year ago indicated that my target HM pace should be around 115 minutes but I was sure I could do quite a lot better.  108 to 110 minutes might have been a sensible guess.  However, I decided to go with my dream and planned a training schedule aiming for 100 minutes.   The chance of achieving this wild dream depended on how well my aging legs could cope.  My muscles had atrophied not only with age but also as a result of a protracted bout of arthritis early in 2010.  During the Keyworth Turkey Trot HM in December of that year, my legs had let me down.  In the subsequent months I had to abandon my attempted program of plyometrics because of an exacerbation the arthritic pain.  However when I planned my preparation for this years’ Robin Hood HM I included a program of trampolining that I hoped would strengthen my legs sufficiently. As described in the recent post, the trampolining was not enough.  My brief experimentation with lifting free weights in early August has given me reason to expect that a systematic program of lifting weights after the HM is the best medium term plan.  But for now I have a little less than two weeks of tapering to make the best of my current situation.

In fact the two weeks taper period is perhaps the most important two weeks of a HM program.  Done correctly, it can potentially produce improvements of 4 or 5 minutes. This is mainly due to a recovery of the strength and coordination that has been impaired by the rigours of training.  The general principles of what must be done are fairly well established:  decrease training volume rapidly in the first week and more gradually in the second week; maintain intensity while decreasing volume; aim to polish the required neuromuscular coordination by short repetitions at race pace; get enough sleep and eat healthily.

These principles have largely been established in studies of younger runners.  It is reasonable to expect that they also apply to older runners, but the details of how they are to best applied have to be worked out taking account of one’s own strengths and weaknesses.  My major weakness is manifest in my clunky, aching legs.  My potential strength is my aerobic capacity and my fairly economical running style.   So this week the priority is balancing the need for recovery with the creation of the sharpness that comes from running at race pace or a bit faster, while avoiding injury.  Every step that I run this week must have a clear purpose directed towards these goals.  Almost every step I run will be either: warm-up, moderate tempo at around HM pace; striding-out for distances of 50-100 m at around 75-80 % maximum effort with floating between the stride-outs; or cool down.  This week and next I will not run a single step for the sake of achieving either distance or total accumulated volume.

But there is one other thing I will do.  After 36 weeks of fairly consistent running at slow or moderate speeds, there are dormant muscle fibres that need re-awakening and fine-tuning.  So my plan includes a weekly session of Pete Magill’s drills for older runners.  These are mainly playful skipping and similar movements that engage the various muscles required for fluent running.  There are 10 drills but it is not necessary to do all 10.  Six require relatively simple movements starting with  school yard skipping, moving on to high skipping, marching, foot shuffling, butt kicks and high knees.  The seventh in order of difficulty is ‘skip and kick’, which requires moderate hamstring flexibility, but I can do it reasonably well. Three of the exercises are quite demanding: long skipping in which the length of the hops is taxing; bounding which produces a hefty eccentric load on impact with the ground; and carioca, which involves exuberant hip swinging. In the video, carioca is demonstrated by Pete’s youthful, lithe and glamorous partner, Grace Padilla.  In the interest of minimizing risk of injury I decided to omit long skipping, bounding and carioca during this pre-race period.

After a rest day yesterday, today I did the first of the two drill sessions planned for this taper.  One crucial aspect of the drill session is interleaving the drills themselves with stride-outs to encourage incorporation of the recruitment of the muscle fibres awoken by the drill within a fluent running action.  So, after a 16 minute warm up that included 4 stride-outs, I did each of the seven selected drills, following each with a 50m stride-out.  After the completion of the drills and stride-outs, I then did 15 minutes of running at a relaxed but steady pace, not far below my intended HM effort, finishing with an easy cool down and gentle stretching of calf, hams and quad muscles.

It was a very satisfying session.  My legs are still a little clunky, but during the 15 minutes of steady paced running at the end, I could start to imagine myself running fluently again.  I feel that the taper has got off to a good, though perhaps unconventional start.


8 Responses to “An unconventional start to the taper”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Hi Canute. I hope the taper and drills are continuing to go well. I like those drills (have done them in the past & plan to do so again now that it’s warmed up). The double hopping I gave a miss. The carioca was quite fun & not dangerous — it demonstrated well any left/right imbalances. Another I like is ‘forwards/backwards’ where one runs forwards with slightly exaggerated springing movement & switch to backwards running with the same shape, then continue alternating.

    With the weight training for the legs, I presume it would be possible to overdo this. One doesn’t see too many muscle-bound weight lifter types at the front of running races.

    • canute1 Says:


      Thanks. I agree that carioca is fun, though I tend to feel a little out of control with it. Perhaps I should practice more, but I have no illusions that I will ever match the gracefulness of Grace Padilla. I made my selection of drills for the present taper largely on the basis of focus on exaggerating the movements that are part of the normal running action, while avoiding too much eccentric loading.

      I do not want to gain much bulk with my future weight workouts. Carrying muscle, especially on the lower legs, definitely increases the energy cost of running. However at present I do not think I have enough power in my legs to fully utilise my ability to deliver oxygen (and fuel) to the muscles. I have been interested to note that my current body weight is actually a few Kg lighter than in my youthful marathon running days. If anything I am carrying a little more fat nowadays, so the loss is probably due to the loss of several Kg of muscle. I hope I can add one or two Kg to the combined mass of core, glutes, hams and quads, with only slight addition to arms and lower leg. I think that deadlifts and squats will achieve this. Nonetheless, I was delighted to note the reduction in wrist joint pain, apparently as a result of forearm strengthening during my few weeks of preliminary workouts with free weights, so I will be happy if there is further improvement in the resilience of my arms and lower leg, without appreciable bulking.

      Increased muscle mass should increase VO2 max per Kg, largely by increasing the proportion of oxygen extracted from arterial blood during passage through the muscles. I sometimes wonder how large a role decreased muscle mass plays in the decrease in HR max with age, and I hope that increased muscle mass might actually increase my max heart rate, though I am not sure what mechanism might produce this – perhaps there might be a beneficial resetting of hormonal levels.

  2. Robert Osfield Says:

    Hi Canute. Great to see you back posting about running. Just like you I’m embarking on a taper for an up coming race – I signed up for the Kielder Marathon, just under two weeks to go now.

    I mostly train on my own doing a mixture of hills, easy, tempo and long runs but without any strict structure found in typical Marathon training plan. I’ve been back into running for three years now and the thing I’ve had to battle most with is injuries of various types, I think spending several decades working at a desk day job is a big component of why I’ve struggled. Now I’m in my forties I do seem to take longer to bounce back from injuries as well, or perhaps I’m just more impatient!

    Your own struggles with loosing muscle strength/mass due to Arthritis might parallel me working at a desk too much without any big physical stimulus outside of work for long. For me it’s been muscle, bone, tendons, muscle fascia and coordination that all suffered from lack of stimulus. Now I’m back running I’m getting fitter each year and getting all round strength back but it’s been case of lots of stops and starts with injuries due to different parts of my body adapting at different rates.

    In your last couple of posts you’ve focused on loss of muscle mass and in particular the aerobic fast twitch fibres. I do wonder how the rest of your body has coped with the time off/lack of stimulus – have you had issues with other soft and hard tissue atrophy? Now you are back training how are your tendons/muscle fascia and bones coping?

    I also wonder if you have looked at diet as way of giving yourself and extra boost during taper.

    For my own taper I’m planning to do the majority of my runs at around marathon pace and with a similar elevation/descent per mile as I’ll be doing around Kielder Water. My thought is that I want to practice the pacing as doing such a hilly course it’s hard to just set a single pace as one minute you are doing 10min/miles, the next 7min/miles, breathing and HR will be what I’ll try to maintain at an even level. Dietary wise I’ll experiment drinking beetroot juice each day. I haven’t considered doing drills though…

    • canute1 Says:

      It is good to hear from you again and to hear that you are tapering for the Kielder marathon
      I had noted that you recorded a creditable 10:46 in the Highland Fling in April; well done. With regard to nutrition, I agree it is important, but hitherto I have not been very precise about it. Perhaps just as important as replenishing muscle glycogen before a marathon is ensuring that the intake of various trace elements and vitamins is adequate. Beetroot juice is a pretty good source of many of these, even relatively obscure trace elements such as manganese. My approach to getting enough of the trace elements and vitamins is to include nuts and quite a lot of both green vegetables and the brightly coloured vegetables in my diet. However I will be interested to hear the outcome of your use of beetroot juice.
      With regard to tissues other than muscle, I think that quite a lot of the clunky feeling in my legs is actually due to the strain suffered by the various connective tissues in addition to muscle. I hope that working with free weights will also strengthen these tissues. The trace elements and vitamins probably play an important role in this as well.
      Good luck in the Kielder.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        “I had noted that you recorded a creditable 10:46 in the Highland Fling in April” Thanks 😉 An epic day was had, thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.

        With beetroot juice, I believe it’s the nitrate may be the main active ingredient w.r.t athletic performance. A quick search on the web reveals plenty of discussion on it including the academic papers. The research suggests it may help with generating more power from the muscles it could be something useful to yourself.

        I am also thinking about trying to add a little bit of hot taper as well. I don’t have a steam room in which to exercise so I’m wondering if just running togged up with hat and thermals might be sufficient. However, it’s rather a lot of effort for a small gains though, it’s rather more tempting to just go out an enjoy my runs 🙂

    • canute1 Says:

      The evidence regarding beet-root is very interesting. Of the various studies, that by Lansley et al at Peninsular Medical School appears the most impressive. Although the number of participants was small, the methodology was carefully planned. The comparison between beet and beet depleted of nitrate is fairly strong evidence that nitrate is the active factor, though the question of whether the beneficial effect is only seen when nitrate is taken in beet juice (or even whole beet) remains to be determined
      In general I am not in favour of taking non-dietary supplements to enhance performance, but it can scarcely be argued that a vegetable that is part of a normal diet (or juices extracted from such a vegetable) is an unnatural additive.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Eating Beetroot is something I grew up with, as kid I loved picked beetroot. When we get beetroot in our organic veg box we cook it up as spicy beetroot soup which makes for a really hearty soup. So it’s part of my normal diet, albeit in a rather seasonal way.

        When looking to supplement this intact specially for training and races I have started drinking beetroot juice. I like the flavour of beetroot but I find drinking it straight at bit overwhelming so have found mixing 2/3 beetroot juice with 1/3 cherry juice is more palatable. The nitrate isn’t the only aspect of the drink that is useful, it’s full of lots of other vitamins and minerals that help with general health.

        I have even experimented with using this combination as a energy drink during the Glen Ogle Ultra last autumn and the Fling this spring. For the short Glen Ogle race it worked well but for the longer Fling I didn’t find it sat well in my stomach. Beetroot juice is seriously staining though and looks like an extra from a zombie film if you spill it on yourself…

        I do wonder about how best to use beetroot juice – when in training might it be useful. In particular I wonder if my supporting the body too much with nitrates that adaptations you want from training might not occur as readily. The other side is you might be able to push yourself more in training so gain more that way.

        For my prep for Kielder I’ve decided to not train with beetroot juice and have only just started reintroducing it this week so I’ll have two weeks to build up my nitrate levels. It’ll be interesting to see if I notice any change in efficiency in the taper with the addition of the beetroot juice. I have record my HR and calories per mile of almost all my runs this year so have a good record of how things have gone. I really need to write it up on my new blog…

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for that. I also enjoy beetroot but only rarely buy it and I have never eaten it in the quantities employed in the various scientific studies. On the principle that a balanced diet is most likely to provide a good mix of all nutritional requirements without risk of unknown adverse consequences of an excess of any one item, I would not eat a very large amount of beetroot on a regular basis, but I will seriously look into the desirability of eating an increased amount in the two weeks preceding future ‘target’ races. I will not try it this week though on the principle of avoiding major last minute changes in diet to avoid an upset gut during the race.

      Your blog looks wonderful. The Trossachs are enchanting.

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