Tapering for a Relay? Really?

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To the uninformed, relay runs are events where a bunch of folks get together in teams to cover 150 to 200 miles by rotating runners who each run between 3 and 12 miles at any one time. On a full team of twelve runners, each runner runs three times over a day and a half.  The most popular relay series is called Ragnar and the more popular events include Hood to Coast, Reach the Beach, and The Bourbon Chase. Here’s a list of even more relay races to choose from.

This week, I will be running in my sixth relay event as a member of the Coconut Bunch on Ragnar SoCal 2015 covering 180 miles from Huntington Beach to San Diego.

I have run on teams of 1, 4, 9, 10 and 12 runners and each presents its own set of excitement and challenges. What they all have in common is that they are all fun, a great way to experience running and friends in a different way and, yes, they are all exhausting and damaging to our bodies.

I have probably written about tapering more than any other endurance-related topic. Once we wrap our heads around an event, we all seem to be pretty good at digging in and training, but we have a difficult time with turning off the faucet the week or two before the event. In fact, the taper can down right drive us crazy. But this is a relay, right? This isn’t a marathon or ironman-distance race. We’re running three or four times over the course of two days and the longest we’ll probably run is 10 miles. In fact, for many, we’ll be taking less than the distance of the marathon and breaking it up into three separate runs – e.g., 9 miles, 7 miles and 7 miles. How hard can that be? I certainly don’t have to taper for this, right?

Here’s the deal, because relay runs seem so doable, they also attract a lot of folks who are new to running and new to racing. Even elite runners cannot expect to put forth multiple efforts without adequate rest in between. This is true whether we are running 100 meters or 50 miles. Our bodies need time to rest, recover and repair and underestimating the impact of this can make your second or third leg of your relay really difficult and not much fun at all.

Here then are my tips for tapering during the week before your relay:

Stay away from impact activities - In short, you don’t want to do any damage to your leg muscles this week. I cannot stress this enough. If you beat your legs up during the week, you will have a miserable experience this weekend. If you don’t want to run this week, that’s perfectly fine. To avoid bouncing off of the walls, feel free to cycle, swim or left weights, (upper body only) and don’t make this the week you decide to start any of these for the first time. This is also not the week to reignite your passion for basketball or any other high impact, high injury-prone sport.

Stretch, do Pilates and as much Yoga as you like - Once again, if you’ve never done any of these activities, now is not the week to jump into P90-X or Insanity, but if your local YMCA has a stretching or Pilates class, feel free to enjoy it in moderation. You can definitely benefit from mobilizing your joints and activating your core muscles the week before your event.

Get lean – The second most popular email or text I get is, “But I feel bloated and fat and I’m going to be huge by race day.” Here’s the truth, when you have a dip in caloric expenditure due to taper or injury, take advantage of this to get ruthless with your diet. Eat nutrient-dense, lower calorie foods that give you energy and make you feel great. Increase your fiber intake at the beginning of the week and then taper off of that as well. Stay away from sugar! Not only will you have a ton of energy on race day, but focusing on this will allow to avoid the sugar cravings that are stress induced and you will probably be a few pounds lighter on event day, and that will make your running that much easier and give you a tremendous amount of confidence.

When you do run, reduce the mileage and the volume but not the intensity - you can run twice this week but only one can be 45 mins, a second of no more than 30 mins, and if your second run is on Thursday, then make that run no more than 15 mins. For example: Monday – 45 mins easy; then Wednesday – 30 mins of treadmill intervals OR Thursday – 1.5-mile shakeout run, but not both. Remember, if you do run on Thursday, make sure your last run is just to break a sweat, fifteen minutes or less. You don’t need to run at all this week. Running at all is primarily to maintain your sanity and keep your legs loose, responsive and springy. It will also help keep your digestive tract moving regularly, and who doesn’t like that? Remember, it is better to be under-trained than over-trained and this is not the week to make up for lost training or to prove to yourself how resilient and capable of a runner you are. Save that for relay weekend.

Get your gear in order early – If laying out clothes for a marathon or Ironman is stressful, then managing all of your gear for a relay can be downright debilitating. You have three sets of clothing, you have to run at night and need reflectors and headlamps, and even more gear for when you are sitting around in the van. You need something to sleep in, and what if it rains, etc, etc, etc. Get all of your gear in order at the beginning of the week and then leave it alone. Don’t add this stress to you in the final days leading up to your event.

That’s it. If you want to read more about tapering, feel free to check out these prior articles. In short, you want to show up on event day well rested and a little anxious, but full of promise and energy just waiting to be released.