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.