Taper Frustrations

I heard rumors of “phantom pains” during the taper period of marathon training. I pretty much brushed it off thinking it was an urban legend or only for really intense marathon runners. Now I think I believe it. I have definitely started to feel the itch – the urge to get it over with, the fear that by cutting back I will be out of shape and not ready on race day.

And on yesterday’s 12 mile run, everything hurt. It may have been because I ran hard on Thursday and didn’t recover properly, or that I ran more mileage this week than last week. Or maybe I was stiff from sitting out in the cold and rain Saturday at the football game. Or maybe my head was just playing tricks on me. Either way, I ran slow and my legs hurt. It is frustrating because being just a week away from race day, I want to feel rested and have my legs feel fresh.

I guess it is time to really get serious about rest and following my plan.I also looked up some tips and tricks for how to deal with “Taper Traps” on Runner’s World and thought I would share some that I have been plagued with:

Trap: The Impulse to Cram

Symptoms: The sudden, irrational urge to “cram” in extra miles 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 the Toronto 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. Realize 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 miles in the middle of some runs during your taper (say two to three miles at marathon pace part-way through a couple of eight-milers) 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: 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: 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, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and the director of Behavior Therapy of New York. Also, try a few strides (100-meter sprints) after some of your easy runs. Strides can help knock off the rust, leaving you feeling fresh and ready without overdoing it.


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