As we approach marathon and half marathon season, we have to deal with the inevitable taper that comes along with training. Depending on your training program, you will either have a two or three week period of tapering, or cutting back on mileage and intensity of training. At first, this sounds great. No more early wake ups to get those long miles in and weekend afternoons can now be used to do everything that you have been putting off since you started training. Then your mind takes over, and you start thinking, what if I haven’t trained enough, what should I eat, will my knee heal in time for the race, etc?
The taper is an important time to let your body heal and rest from all of the stresses that you have placed on your it during training. Other than just cutting back on your mileage, that are a few important things that you can do during this time to get the most benefit of your taper.
Take care of your injuries
Whether you have been nursing runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, or a hamstring strain, now is the time to really work on healing. During training, it’s tough to allow the body to fully heal since the next workout is never too far away. For some people, it’s a time issue. After spending so much time running, nursing the injury takes a back seat to other things like work and family.
Now that you have some extra time on your hands, make the most of it! If you can, get a professional massage. If not, spend a good amount of time using all of those toys you have acquired through your training; foam rollers, sticks, and balls. This will help to break up any scar tissue that has been building up, as well as increase blood flow to the area. Increased blood flow will bring oxygen and nutrients to the tissue and help flush away any toxins that have accumulated in the area. Massage will also help with mobility and flexibility of the soft tissue. Flexible, mobile muscle tissue generates more power than stiff, scarred down tissue, allowing you to have a greater range of motion and perform better on your run.
Spend some time stretching after you massage stiff areas. Stretching will help to elongate and relax short, tight muscles. Performing stretching after massage is beneficial since there will be greater blood flow to the area and the muscles will be more receptive to the stretch. So much of the pain and soreness that runners experience in their knees and hips has to do with lack of hip mobility. Make sure you hit each major muscle group of the lower extremity; quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and hip rotators.
If you have sore, tired muscles in your calves or thighs, go ahead and wear your compression socks or tights. Compression isn’t just for during or immediately after a run. You can reap the benefits of increased blood flow and support of the muscles whenever you feel the need! If you wear compression socks or tights under your work clothes, you can think of those 8 hours as race day preparation!
Use Moist Heat
If you have a chronic injury (it’s been around for a while, there is no swelling present) then you can benefit from the use of moist heat. During the chronic stage of injury, there is decreased blood flow to the effected tissues. Use the free time you have now that you aren’t running so much to put a moist hot pack on your sore area for 10 – 15 minutes. This will encourage blood flow and healing to the area. Moist heat is even more beneficial if it precedes a good massage session followed by some stretching.
During taper time, ice is still recommended for any problem areas immediately post run or workout.
Replace your shoes
It’s not too late! If you are going to be replacing your shoe with the same model, you shouldn’t have a problem adjusting to a new shoe at this point. If your shoe is towards the end of its life and you have been feeling some aches in your feet, shins, knees, or hips; a new shoe might be exactly what you need to make it through your race without injury. Pushing through 26.2 (or 13.1) on dead shoes can put you at risk for a stress injury to your lower extremity.
Now is not the time to try something different. If you always wanted to try a more minimal shoe or you are thinking you might switch the level of stability of your shoe, wait until after your race.
Eat and Drink
I mean water and healthy, nutritious foods! Save the celebratory type of eating and drinking until after your race. Some runners take “carb loading” the wrong way and end up over-eating the wrong type of carbs. Yes, there are carbs in potato chips and pizza, but there’s also a lot stuff in there that your body doesn’t need right now.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Choose healthy carbs and whole grains. Stay away from fatty, fried, and processed carbs.
- Eat when you are hungry, don’t force yourself to eat because you have to carb load, but don’t restrict eating if you are hungry. Your body is trying to repair itself and prepare for race day, listen to it.
- Don’t worry about a little weight gain. As your body stores an ounce of glycogen (energy) in the muscles, it also stores 3 ounces of water. You might gain a few pounds during taper, but don’t worry, your body will use all of the glycogen and water that you have stored during your race.
- Be aware of the timing of your big pre-race pasta dinner. The carbs that you ingest the night before your race won’t have enough time to reach the muscles as glycogen. Eat your pasta two nights before to allow enough time for glycogen storage.
Don’t Do Anything Crazy
By this, I mean, don’t try anything new that might injure you and make reasonable choices. If you are going to be walking around a city sightseeing all afternoon, don’t wear high heels or flip flops! Make sure you keep your feet well supported. You don’t want to go flaring up your plantar fascia or Achilles tendon because of a poor footwear choice!
On the same note, you are going to be craving exercise and you may be tempted to try an intense workout to help blow off some extra energy you have from running less. Don’t take a boot camp class that you have never done before. Don’t try to increase the intensity of your gym workout with plyometrics or weighted squats if that has not been part of your regular training routine. Don’t try to play pick- up basketball or backyard volleyball in your running shoes; you’ll end up with a sprained ankle.
Cross training is good, but keep it safe! Light cycling, yoga, swimming, or elliptical are all good options if you are feeling the need for some exercise.
Don’t Let Your Mind Get the Best of You
You might start to feel sluggish during your taper. You will notice some extra weight if you step on the scale. You will start to think maybe you are out of shape or haven’t trained hard enough for your race. This is not true. Don’t be tempted to try to cram some extra training in. You have done the hard work, now let your body prepare itself for the big day.
Some aches and pains might start popping up during your taper that you have never felt before. Don’t let these “phantom injuries” get the best of you! That ache you feel in your shin at night is probably not a stress fracture, it’s just a sign that your body is healing itself. During intense training, our body becomes so accustomed to just go, go, go. Once we give it a chance to rest, it starts talking to us a little.
On the other hand, if you have been experiencing pain in a certain area of your body for a while and it continues to bother you as you taper, you should get it checked out by a doctor just to make sure that everything is ok and you are not going to do more damage by running your race. You don’t want to be laid up for 6 months after your marathon because you ran on a stress fracture.
I will leave you with one final note. I have to credit this month’s edition of Competitor Magazines’ tips for running a marathon: Embrace the Suck. You might feel a little sucky during this taper time; a little slow on your runs, a little sluggish, a few pounds heavier, a bit of a mental case with being hyperaware of every ache and pain. Embrace it, on race day you will feel great and your body will thank you for tapering the right way!