The final weeks leading up to a big race can feel exciting, yet nerve-wracking . After so many weeks of hard training, the time has come to back off and let the body rebuild, refuel, and recover in preparation for the big race. Although the physical demands are are lessened during a taper period, the mental demands are high. Supposedly at this point "the hard work is done," but I find the taper to be particularly difficult to execute properly.
Often, you feel quite ready for such a break from the high volume, but it is not uncommon to experience feelings of anxiety and distrust in the taper process. You are probably not alone. Here are some common feelings that are experienced during a taper and some tips to ease anxiety and help you make the most out of your taper:
- Feeling like you might be losing fitness with the reduced training volume This is understandable, but remember that you can not fully benefit from the hard training you have put in if you don't allow your body to recover. Resist the temptation to add extra mileage or hard workouts to your training. You are not going to create fitness in the last week before your marathon and adding in "junk miles" or an extra tempo run will probably only tire you out. If you want to make sure you keep your legs ready to run fast, integrate a mile of race pace into your easy run or finish up with a few strides.
- Noticing aches and pains that you didn't have while in the thick of training Now this is nerve-wracking! By nature, a hard training plan will put you on the edge of injury as you purposefully stress your body in order to crease an adaptive response to increase speed, strength, and endurance. The stresses of training can accumulate and your body may fall behind in tissue repair and energy reserves just as you begin to taper. If you are noticing new pain during running during the final week of training, don't be afraid to skip out on a few of your short easy runs. Missing a few of these in the last week of training is not going to make or break you race, but it might give your body just enough time to repair the broken down tissues.
- Feeling abnormally fatigued If you back off on mileage and intensity, you should start to feel fresh and energetic, right? On the contrary, runners will often find they feel extra fatigued during their taper with "heavy legs" when walking up a flight of stairs, or on their easy runs. I can't clearly explain why this happens, but I believe a lot of this is mental: you know you are about to undertake a significant physical challenge and want to be well rested, so any sense of fatigue can be magnified in your brain. You are likely in a form or subconscious conservation mode. When in the middle of your training, you may have been willing to put out every bit of effort possible to make it through your long tempo run. Your body and brain know better at this point and something inside says "whoa there, hold back and save it for the race."Also, although you have reduced training volume and intensity, your body is still working herd to recover from the previous hard weeks of training. This takes energy! Try not to let these feelings mess with your head. Embrace the fatigue and trust that your body will be ready to roll come race day, especially if you visualize and expect it to.
- Slashing calories because you aren't running as much True, you may not need quite as many as with your highest volume weeks, but remember that you still need adequate fuel to rebuild and repair your tissues, as well as to fill those glycogen stores. Now is not the time to try to drop a pound or two before race day. Being in a calorie deficit is the last thing you need at this point.
- "Carb loading" the day before the race You should be filling your glycogen stores throughout the week prior to the race, not just the day before. The best advice I can give here is not to change your diet the week and day prior to the race. For example, if you don't usually eat pasta, don't feel like you should load up on it the night before. This can lead to a belly ache and many unwelcome pit stops during the run.
- Feeling antsy to run more because you simply just love running It makes sense that most people training for a running race love to run. Often runners who don't get to run as much as they want can get grumpy or antsy to run. Inherently, you should be running less than you are used to during a taper. Try to be proactive with this and make a list of things you want to get done in place of running. Mentally prep yourself for swapping a little of your running time for something else. With the amount of time that you have likely put into training, there is surly something out there that you have fallen behind on- garden, laundry, a good book... Enjoy every second of your shortened workouts and know that soon enough, you will get your fill.
- Your physical therapist, doctor, or coach told you to take 4-5 days off to let one of those aches/pains calm down for the race Luckily, as previously discussed, you won't lose your fitness in a few days of no running. The biggest problem here is that you may begin to doubt your body and lose confidence that you can achieve your personal race goals. Best thing to do is let your body rest and rebuild for these 4-5 days (or sometimes longer if needed/possible). During this time, you can visualize yourself running the race and hitting your time goals with no pain. It sounds cheesy, but it really is better than sitting there worried that all of your goals should be forgotten. The day before the race, go for a short test run with some strides (50-100m of faster paced running). If you are still feeling significant pain, then the race will likely not feel much better the following day. If you feel good, then it can give you that mental boost that you may be needing-"maybe I didn't lose it all." While I encourage a positive attitude in this type of situation, it's still a good idea to also mentally prepare for the possibility that the injury may rear it's head half way through, leaving you with the potential choice of dropping out or limping it in. This is always a possibility with racing.
- Use your non-running time to visualize your race Just because the hard training is done, doesn't mean you can let up on your mental efforts for success. See yourself at the start and in the first few miles feeling good but not going out too fast. Imagine how you will likely feel in the last 1/3 of the race- tired and like you want to slow down but pushing through and staying strong, relaxed, calm and confident. Visualize yourself catching that second wind and kicking it into the finish line with your goal time displayed overhead. At this point, your physical training is pretty much over, but it is the crucial time for mental preparation.
I hope some of these thoughts help you be as ready as you can be for race day.
GOOD LUCK MISSOULA MARATHON PARTICIPANTS!!!
Anya Gue, DPT