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Insights From Marathon Training For Creating Great Performances At Work

If you master the taper, you'll be fresh for whatever comes next—whether it's running 20 miles or giving a presentation.

I'll be running the half-marathon component of the Philadelphia Marathon this weekend. I've run half a dozen of these things now, and every time I go through the training cycle, I become more aware of two truths:

  • You can't cram for a distance event.
  • You have to finish the toughest part of your training some time before the race.

This last point is known as the "taper." You do your longest training run two to three weeks out (depending on the distance you're running). So with a marathon, your last 20-mile training run might take place three weeks before the race. Then you run less and less over the next three weeks, until you're doing maybe just two short runs the week of the actual event. Half-marathons can peak a little later, but you still shouldn't schedule that 10-mile run for two days before.

Beginning runners learn to get their heads around this concept: you have to train a lot, but you have to train quite a while before the race, and then train less right before it. It's not necessarily intuitive, and running magazines are full of articles on "surviving the taper." People worry that they're not trained enough. They want to run more during that last week. But, of course, then they don't have fresh legs, and they don't race as well as they could.

I've been pondering that lately as I've been doing a lot of another kind of endurance event: public speaking. I'm an introvert, and if getting up in front of hundreds of people is going to feel natural, I need to practice a lot. I need to know my material cold. But I also need to be relaxed. I can't have been huddled over my notes right before the talk. I'm better off getting a sense of the event I'm speaking at, greeting people, and seeking out friendly faces.

In other words, I need to taper.

It's not a bad philosophy for any sort of performance. In a world gripped by the tyranny of the urgent, the usual time to prepare for anything is right before. Got a big presentation to a client? Your team is working feverishly in the hotel conference center the previous night. You're still tweaking slides until the last minute; you email the deck over right before, and race in to make your case on not enough sleep.

That's one approach. But another is to look at your calendar and schedule in tapers for anything big that matters to you. You finish the bulk of the preparation and practicing for any event quite a ways ahead of time. You can practice again once or twice in the days before, but these are refreshers. You walk in on fresh legs, able to give your best.

When you feel that way, running 13.1 miles, or giving a speech feels easy—or at least easier than it would be if you crammed right before. It all comes back to you in the moment, as you race swiftly toward the finish line.

[Image: Flickr user Josiah Mackenzie]

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  • Lisa Weightman

    2 runs in the final week, I hope that's not on everyone's next marathon training plan!

    Apart from that, great comparison!

  • Joshua Wright

    Having just completed the NYC Marathon with a broken foot, I can say with certainty that this article is a lesson in mediocrity. If you don't mind being "just ok" and have no desire to be amazing or do great things, then the above is probably pretty helpful.
    Those that want to be great? Who want to shatter expectations and blow people's minds? Act on impulse, cram away, you won't come across bored or rehearsed.

    I decided to run the NYC Marathon on August 3rd. That was my first training day, and the first time I had run in 20 years? (They made me run a mile in 6th grade). I couldn't run 3/4 of a mile without stopping. The accomplishment felt better knowing how hard I had to hustle and cram. Take pride in your ability to get shit done when the chips are down.

    In the words of my boy Andre: "Fuck that noise!" Don't be average, be amazing..

  • Exceller

    I find it more amazing when people train smart and run fast than skip training, break their foot, and stumble across the finish line as a "survivor". Don't just survive... excel!

  • Bill Edwards

    IMO tapering is useful for tasks that you have never completed before but not ones already done. For example, I did a 15 mile trail run (longest distance of my career) on 48 hours notice, but I have done 10 milers several times and was training in MMA. So, even though my running regiment was only a single 2-3 mile jaunt in a fresh pair of shoes, 15 was no problem. Was the time good? No. Was it easy? A lot easier than one would think. Mental toughness doesn't taper.
    In other tasks, such as giving a presentation or taking a test, no amount of mental toughness can beat preparedness. This is more associated with the biological storage of memory in the brain and a persons cognitive ability to relay the information both in and out of sequence.
    The key point from this article is that one should keep in mind that freshness and alertness are two important aspects of performance. Good article!