For many runners training for a marathon, the hardest part of training is actually the part that, on paper, should be the easiest: The taper.
“Tapering” refers to the two- to three-week period between a final long run and race day. It’s a time to let your legs, your mind and your psyche rest after months of abuse. Put another way, it’s a time to heal, and stay healthy. before you hit the starting line.
Why, then, do so many runners experience taper madness?
For starters, it just feels weird. After running 40, 50 or 60-plus miles per week, we’re suddenly scaling back. We know, understand and readily accept why we’re doing it, but that doesn’t mean we like it.
In addition, with less time to focus on training, our minds start to wander. Millions of things could potentially derail a two-mile jog around the neighborhood. Run 26.2 miles and you’re talking trillions of possibilities: Dehydration, pulled muscles, bloody nipples, wrong turns and a shortage of bagels and peanut butter at the finish line. It's even worse if you're running your first big race.
Finally, there’s the anticipation. Months of training, dedication and focus all hinge on an experience that will last anywhere from a little more than five hours to less than three hours. It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself during the final countdown to race day.
Conquering taper madness isn’t easy. That said, I’ve actually been pretty blase over the last three weeks. Going to two conferences for the day job, picking up extra shifts at the night job, and attending a wedding and engagement party in one evening have luckily kept my mind well occupied. (Plus, as I’ve noted a few times by now, I bonked horribly in my last marathon and know that I’ve done just about everything I can to make sure I don’t do it again.)
Maintaining your sanity during a marathon training taper ultimately comes down to a few key steps:
Keep yourself busy. Go to that movie, museum exhibit or show you’ve been meaning to see. Catch up on your DVR. Call your mother. Do some yardwork.
Stay healthy. Retain the good eating habits that powered you through marathon training. Sleep. Avoid alcohol. (Unless you have a wedding and engagement party in the same night. In that case, celebrate, but drink lots of water and take some ibuprofen / aspirin before bed.) Don’t do dumb things that could result in bodily harm.
Trust your training. You made it, right? And even if you didn’t, you can’t go back in time. What’s done is done.
Don’t overthink your outfit. Just pretend you’re packing running clothes for a few days and you’ll be fine. Seriously, though: Pack the clothes you like the most. Don’t worry about getting all matchy-matchy -- your clothes will be so absolutely disgusting by mile 15 that no one will notice if the trim on your shirt matches your shoes.
Check the weather and, if necessary, adjust your goal. Remember, you’re most likely to achieve your goal when it’s 60 degrees, overcast and calm. Even the slightest hint of inclement weather will adversely affect your time. If you know this going in, you can adjust your pace accordingly and reduce the likelihood of both bonking and disappointing yourself. Aside from my PR race, I’m most proud of the marathon I ran in the snow -- I knew my pace would be off, so I dialed back and ended up coming as close to a negative split as I ever have.
It’s easy to drive yourself crazy during a taper, but it’s also easy to shift a bit of focus away from your marathon and back to the things you had to give up when your training was at its worst. You can’t forget the big race altogether -- nor should you -- but you can make sure it doesn’t take over your life.