Avoid Those Taper Traps!

Don't get caught making these common mistakes in the weeks before your big race.

Dave Kuehls |

Three-time marathoner Kris Kelley, 37, knows that the toughest part of marathon training isn’t the first few weeks out the door. Or the slow grinding buildup of mileage. Or even the last sweat-soaked long run of 37 kilometres, three weeks before the race. No, Kelley knows that the toughest part of marathon training is after all that, when she is walking across a parking lot, and suddenly a sharp pain strikes in her right knee. And there she is, trying to hold back a panic attack. “Never does a pain like that occur in the middle of intense training,” she says. “But there is something about those last couple of weeks before the marathon, when you are cutting back your mileage, getting more rest, and preparing for the big race, when everything, and I do mean everything, seems to bother you more.”

Call them taper tantrums – the phantom pains, panic attacks, and much more – that plague most marathoners during the three-week period of decreased training just before the race. “Runners develop not only a physical but also a psychological dependency on running,” says Troy Smurawa, M.D., a 2:46 marathoner. “So when runners take time off, they go through withdrawal.” Hence, the weird constellation of mental and physical symptoms that crop up during the taper.

Thing is, if you know what to expect as you back off your training, you’ll be better equipped to survive your taper and arrive at the marathon starting line feeling rested and ready to run. To that end, we’ve outlined the most common mental and physical problems associated with the taper, when they’re likely to occur, and how to deal with them so that you can relax, and, dare we say, enjoy your weeks of rest – not to mention race day.


Trap: Craving Carbs

Symptoms: The urge to stuff yourself with high-carbohydrate foods to ensure a vast supply of energy for the marathon.

Cause: “During those last three weeks, marathoners tend to think only carbs, carbs, carbs,” says Vince Rucci, head of a Vertical Runner Marathon Training Group. But shovelling down the carbs, particularly at the expense of other important nutrients like protein, will make you feel bloated and will accelerate – and inflate – the normal water-weight gain associated with a taper.

Solution: During your taper, slightly modify the carbohydrate-based diet you’ve maintained throughout your marathon training. “Simply emphasise the carbs already in your diet,” says Nancy Clark, R.D., a sports nutritionist. “For example, instead of having chicken with rice, have rice with chicken.” Clark recommends taking in 55 to 65 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 10 to 15 percent from protein, and 20 to 30 percent from fat. Ensure the proteins are low in fat, such as chicken, fish, lean meats, beans, and legumes.

Trap: The Impulse to Cram

Symptoms: The sudden, irrational urge to “cram” in extra kilometres and more long runs, speedwork, and other quality marathon training during your taper, especially early on when your body is feeling primed for peak performance.

Cause: “Runners tend to be focused and goal-driven,” says Kate Hays, Ph.D., the director of a Marathon Psyching Team, which offers peak-performance strategies to marathoners. “When they enter a stressful situation, such as the last weeks before a marathon, they rely on actions that have been proven to get results – like the cramming we all did before tests when we were in school.” But while all that extra, last-minute studying may have helped you ace a college exam, additional training during your taper will only leave you feeling exhausted come race day.

Solution: “Rational thinking helps,” says Hays. Realise that extra mileage and harder training at this point will hurt your marathon, not help it. Research has shown that those who taper properly perform better than those who train right up until race day. To convince yourself that you’ve done all the work necessary to run a good race, review your training log thoroughly, noting all the weeks of high mileage, long runs, and tough workouts. And no matter how short and easy your runs get during the taper, keep recording your workouts in your log to reinforce the feeling that you are studiously sticking to the plan.

Trap: Pressure to Perform

Symptoms: The overwhelming fear that the time goal you’ve set and trained for diligently is now somehow much too ambitious (what were you thinking?).

Cause: Once your peak training is over, it gets harder to feel confident in your abilities to maintain your goal pace. Many marathoners obsess on the five- or 10-minute gap between their goal time and the time they “fear” they might actually run – for example, crossing the line in 4:10, not 4:00, which would somehow make the marathon a failure.

Solution: Insert a couple marathon-pace kilometres in the middle of some runs during your taper (say three to five kilometres at marathon pace part-way through a couple of 12 kilometres) to reinforce confidence in your ability to hold that pace. You should also develop an alternative time goal that you can live with that’s five or 10 minutes slower than your ideal goal in case the weather on race day – or your body – just doesn’t cooperate.


Trap: Recovery Rebound

Symptoms: A feeling of strength and complete fitness midway through the taper. Your body is itching to race.

Cause: As your mileage starts to decline after your last heavy training week, your body rebounds. The added rest and the four good months of training you have behind you have strengthened your body and your confidence.

Solution: No matter how good you feel, don’t risk your months of marathon training for a PB or an age-group award at a local 10-K. A strained hamstring that plagues you throughout your marathon could be the subsequent door prize. Instead, re-read your marathon application to get yourself psyched for the big day. And meet with your training buddies for coffee to discuss marathon-day strategies. Also, find something active and productive to do on Saturday or Sunday mornings – say cutting the grass – to take your mind off of racing. Or if you must be around runners, volunteer at a local race. The energy there will give you your “race fix” without ruining your marathon chances.

Trap: Phantom Pains

Symptoms: A totally new pain in the foot, knee, hip, back, or insert-any-body-part here that strikes for no apparent reason.

Cause: Twinges and passing aches are all part of the body’s rejuvenation process. “During a taper, tissue repair on the microscopic level causes muscle twitches and sometimes muscle cramps as the body adapts,” says Dr. Smurawa. Also, when we run less, and worry more about our marathon, everyday aches and pains – which would normally be ignored – get exaggerated to the point of lunacy.

Solution: Think of each phantom pain as a signal that the body is healing itself and preparing you for the marathon. Since your workouts are now shorter, spend some extra time on your favorite stretches to help relax your body. And if you like whirlpools or long baths, indulge. Also, if you’ve had massages during other parts of your training, get one this week. It will further aid the healing process.

Trap: Panic Attacks

Symptoms: Every time you feel an ache or start to think about some aspect of the race, you jump to a doomsday conclusion. (I have a stress fracture! The hill at kilometre fourteen is going to be the end of me!)

Cause: Most panic attacks stem from a lack of confidence and a fear of the unknown. “This is a particular problem for first-time marathoners,” says Hays. If you’ve never run a marathon before, or you’ve never run a particular marathon course, you have no experience to draw from to boost your confidence.

Solution: Collect all the information you can about the racecourse from your registration materials, the race’s Web site, and even personal insight from those who have run it in previous years. If possible, run parts of the course or ride the whole thing. Some races offer guided bus tours of their marathon route the day or two before the event. Knowing everything you can about that hill at mile nine will help you conquer it. You can also come up with solutions to problems that might arise during the marathon, such as how you’ll handle a blister or a side stitch, so that you know you’ll be prepared to overcome any obstacle.


Trap: Heavy Legs

Symptoms: A tired, heavy feeling centered in the legs, but affecting your whole body, that you get late in a taper.

Cause: “Tissue repair in the legs during recovery, coupled with the fact that you are storing more carbohydrate and water late in the taper, will make you feel like you do after eating a big meal,” says Dr. Smurawa. In other words, you feel like a slug.

Solution: Remember you’re not the only one feeling this way. “Just knowing that this is how tapering marathoners are supposed to feel can help curb your anxiety,” says Robert Udewitz, a sports psychologist. Also, try a few strides (100-metre sprints) after some of your easy runs. Strides can help knock off the rust, leaving you feeling fresh and ready without overdoing it.

Trap: That Sinking Feeling

Symptoms: A feeling of discomfort, depression, and hopelessness, which often accompanies the physical sluggishness that intensifies at the end of a taper.

Cause: “Generally, running counters feelings of anxiety and depression,” says Hays. “So as you run less kilometres, bad feelings tend to crop back up and increase.”

Solution: Take a short-term approach. “You only have to get through the rest of the taper,” says Hays. Do a little low-impact and low-intensity cross-training–like pool running–to generate the good feelings you normally get from running. Also, use your downtime to focus on other things that bring pleasure to your life, such as listening to music, cooking, and being with family and friends. And rent some funny movies or read a few joke books to lighten your mood.

Trap: Weight Gain

Symptoms: A couple of additional pounds that show up on the scale at the end of a taper.

Cause: When we eat high-carbohydrate foods to stock our glycogen (energy) reserves, water is stored along with the glycogen. “If you have been chronically dehydrated, that extra water can cause some gain in weight during a marathon taper, since you’re running less and not sweating as much,” says Clark.

Solution: Realise that the extra “water weight” will be beneficial during the marathon. It will actually help keep you better hydrated on race day, when it will be released as the glycogen is burned. But you can also do a few practical things to help you cope with this temporary weight gain. Don’t weigh yourself during the three-week taper period. And if the feeling of tighter-than-normal clothes causes you anxiety, wear clothes with more forgiving waistbands and drawstrings.

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