For the past 2 months, runners have juggled the demands of training with work and family commitments, with some falling asleep at their desk at work (when I was younger, doing big mileages of 180-200km/week, I would sometimes sneak off to the toilet during work so that I could nap … my apologies boss). A long run on weekends has meant an end to an active social life, and going to the movies has just meant it’s a good place to catch a nap.
This final phase is the taper and it will ensure you have a good run on Comrades. Without a decent taper, you won’t get the benefit of all your hard training. Yet few runners understand the taper process, so let’s have a look at it.
There are two aims in the taper process:
The first is for your legs to recover fully from the muscle damage caused by the high mileage weeks and the long runs. A good rule of thumb is that the longer the race distance, the longer the taper required. A 10km specialist only needs a few days, a 21km runner needs about 10 days, a marathoner needs 3 weeks and for ultra-marathoners a 4-week taper is best. This is due to the increase in muscle damage caused by the higher mileages when training for longer races.
Secondly, peaking forms an important part of the taper process. In order to peak, two things are needed: a reduction in mileage and some quality sessions. Without the quality sessions a runner will taper, but not run as well as she could when peaking. Those doing shorter distances in races would have done speeds sessions throughout their big training phase. However most Comrades runners will have dropped speed sessions in the high mileage phase in order to cope with the increased mileages. Comrades runners often worry that they will have lost their speed in the slow, high-mileage phase, but the speed returns quickly. Comrades runners can start again with speed sessions in the 4-week taper and fit in six to seven quality sessions, which will bring them to their peak in time for the Comrades. Typical sessions in this phase would be tempo runs, intervals and hill repeats. When peaking you will feel full of energy, running feels effortless and you will run faster at any given effort than before.
The two biggest mistakes
Runners tend to go to the extreme in these past few weeks and either rest completely, afraid of an injury at this late stage, or they panic and try cram in as much training as they can to make up for training missed earlier. Both approaches only undermine the hard work done up to now and can cost you a good Comrades.
Some runners expect to suddenly feel strong after the big mileage phase and then start to worry when they aren’t running well, not realising that it takes about three weeks of reduced mileage before the legs have recovered. This is why the taper is so important and I expect my runners to only start peaking from about 10 days before the Comrades.
Resting completely sound good, but what happens is that the body goes into repair mode and shuts down. Suddenly all sorts of ache and pains materialise and the runner struggles when she starts running again. Instead you want a gradual reduction in mileage so that your legs recover while you keep ticking over. Short, easy runs help to fire up your neuromuscular system and keep your body ready for action on the big day. The exception is if a runner has overdone the training and then a week to 10 days rest can do wonders.
Cramming in lost mileages in these last few weeks is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes runners make. Many runners are fixated on the total mileage training done for Comrades and will add runs in the taper simply to make it look better. What is missed is missed, so accept it and move on.
Some runners use a formula for the reduction which is fine. For my runners the drop in mileage is quite big, for instance a runner who had a peak mileage of 100-120km/week, would drop to around 70km, then 60km and then 40-50km, with the last week being about 12km before Comrades. This drop in mileage is largely due to the shorter weekend runs and shorter midweek runs. The reduced mileage also makes it easier for runners to do the speed and hill sessions.
The last long run
The last long run (56-65km) can be done between four and six weeks before Comrades, with five weeks being the ideal. This means that the window of opportunity for this long run has gone. Runner who have missed this last long run could still do a 40km run three weeks before the Comrades, provided it is done slow and easy. Don’t do as I did in 1991, panic and do a 60km run the week before the Comrades! And then I couldn’t understand why I struggled on Comrades.
Strava can be a great motivational tool, but it can also backfire with runners doing too much, too hard, as they feel watched by others on Strava. Recognising this, one of my elite runners, Zimbabwean, Admire Muzopambwa, went off Strava once his big training started. A further problem with Strava is that runners will keep checking what others are doing and then stress about their training. You need to focus on your own training and trust in your plan.
Sort out injuries
Use the taper period to sort out niggles. Don’t just rest and hope the injuries will disappear. The taper is a great time to do that as you are running less. For most nagging injuries see a physio or a chiro. It often helps seeing both as injuries can be complex. If you are injury free, this is a good time to schedule sport massages. Do all of this NOW, and don’t do it in a panic in the week of the Comrades.
Cut out the strength-work in the last week
Core-work and strength training are good. But if you have never done it before, DON’T suddenly try it in the last weeks, as your legs will be sore from using muscles not normally used. If you do follow a strength training programme, then do the last session about 10 days before the Comrades. The above also applies to Pilates, Yoga etc. They are all good, but it takes time to adjust to it, so now is not the time to start with it. A good time to start this would be after the Comrades in your rest phase.
Sort out your gear
By now you should ideally have your Comrades shoes run in and set aside, waiting for race day. Make a check-list and don’t do as I did in 1987 and arrive at the Comrades with just one shoe. I had to borrow shoes, a size too large, from a friend. And remember your timing chip.
The same goes for running socks and make that two pairs n case you lose a pair. Don’t try run Comrades in new socks!
Yes, you can still get sick and be okay
With Comrades being later in the winter, I have noticed more runners get sick in the last weeks. Since you are in your taper and the big training is done, getting sick isn’t necessarily a train smash, provided it isn’t in the week of the Comrades. In 1997 I was so sick that I had to bail on a run a week before Comrades, and yet bounced back to run my 6.38 PB. Many of my runners will get a “vitamin bomb drip” in these last weeks and it does seem to help runners who are feeling flat and tired. Flu injections are used by some and not by others. I started having a flu shot before Comrades as I was invariably sick the week of Comrades, and was never sick again. Again, if you have a flu shot, then now is a good time, in case you feel any side-effects and get slightly sick. Don’t take a flu shot in the week of the Comrades. In all cases when sick, stop running and get to a doctor. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will recover. If you are sick in the last week then get medical advice as it can then be dangerous trying to run Comrades.
Beat the germs
We can learn from cyclists. The former doctor for the professional Sky cycling team, Dr Richard Freeman, found that they were able to reduce the number of infections once they introduced hand sanitisers for the cyclists. These were kept in the bus and their rooms. Cyclists were also encouraged to avoid hand shakes and instead used a fist pump … and then used a hand sanitiser afterwards. We are just as likely, says Dr Freeman, to get upper respiratory tract infections or gastroenteritis from shaking hands with someone who is infected, as from being sneezed on by an infected person.
The taper is a mind-game
I have 47 runners doing the Comrades this year and that means I have 47 neurotic runners in these last few weeks. The first thing that worries runners after their last big 60km long run – particularly novices – is that they find it difficult to believe that on Comrades day they can run another 30km as they were tired on their 60km run. But this last long run was done on tired legs at the end of the high mileage phase. At Comrades they will be on fresh legs and feel very different.
The mind is a strange thing. Do a 20km run and you feel tired at 15km, do a 30km and you feel tired from maybe 24km. Do a 42km and you are tired from 32km. On Comrades the first 42km will pass easily with the excitement and crowd support. The mind’s perception of distance changes. I remember when I ran the SA 100km champs in 1991, going through 70km feeling mentally quite fresh, and yet at 70km on Comrades I have always been mentally drained at this stage.
Training is hard, Comrades is easy
I often say that runners should get a medal just for coping with the training and getting to the starting line. It is tough coping with the training, fatigue, set-backs, work and family. Those runs in the dark with no crowds applauding were hard. Comrades on the other hand is your reward for all the sacrifices made by yourself and your family. You have the excitement, vibe and amazing crowd support to get you through it. Comrades awaits, go get your medal!
- Coachneville will holding his annual Comrades talk at the Wanderers Club on May 18 for his runners and club members from 2-5pm. His talk will be Facebook Live as well.