The consensus among the running books I've read for how to handle a taper is this: You don't decrease the intensity of your workouts, you decrease the distance you run.
Occasionally I'll see someone post a comment like "I'm SO tired of going SLOW during this TAPER!" I'm not sure where they get the idea that you're supposed to slow down for a taper, because I haven't seen that advice in any running guide.
Tapering before a race, especially a long race, makes intuitive sense. You've been working extremely hard to build strength and endurance. During these long weeks of training, rarely a day goes by that your muscles aren't sore. Why would you want to go into a race feeling that tired? It stands to reason that you should ease back in the weeks before a race like a marathon, so that you're feeling fresh on race day.
I've achieved that for each of my marathons by decreasing mileage. I've been running as many as 70 miles in a week this time around. But three weeks before the race, I started decreasing my mileage. For the first two weeks of the taper I ran 42 miles. This week I will only be running about 21 miles before the race: 5, 6, 4, 4, and 2 miles. But even today, I still did some light speed work: A set of four 1200-meter tempo runs at 6:40 pace.
For someone who's planning a 7:40 race pace, that might seem a little fast, but it's pretty much the speed I've been running all my tempos at recently. The difference is that today I did a total of 3 miles at that pace, while last month I did a similar workout with over 9 miles at tempo pace! That's a taper.
While it is true that my next three runs are all slated to be done at an easy 9-minute pace, that's not any different from what I do on a normal week. I have two "quality" workouts, and the other days are all "easy." I'm not running any slower than I normally do for my easy days.
That said, tapers are definitely strange beasts. Your body gets accustomed to high mileage, and all of a sudden you stop running those long miles. Something feels wrong. You're constantly itching to run more, to run harder. Fortunately, that itch will be scratched soon enough.
Details of today's workout are below.
As the headline promised, with three easy runs coming up, I don't expect to be out of breath again for the next three days -- or really four, if you count every moment up to the time the starting gun goes off in Richmond. Today's run felt good, but I definitely had to work at it, especially on the uphill sections.