Taper Madness Is Real and This Is How You Can Avoid it Before a Big Race
In the weeks before a big marathon—when you're not getting that long-run endorphin hit—things can get a little emotionally haywire.
Victor Torres / Stocksy
Even with nine marathons under her belt, Kelly Roberts still warns her friends and family when she’s approaching taper. A necessary part of any training regimen, tapering refers to the gradual lessening of miles and workouts to give your body time to recover in the two to three weeks leading up to a big race. For Roberts, this period of rest and recovery is met with anxiety, paranoia, and irrational lashing out. “The best way to explain it is when the guy you just went on a date with doesn't text you back and you check your phone every 30 seconds,” says Roberts, 29, a runner and fitness writer from New York City. “You have all this nervous energy and you have nowhere to put it.
For endurance athletes like Roberts, tapering leaves racers with a lot of free time previously spent training. Suddenly, they’re not getting that long-run endorphin hit and start to go a little emotionally haywire—it's part of a phenomenon known as “taper madness” or “taper anxiety.” Scientists know it too, apparently: There’s a lot of research out there on how exercise—especially cardio—can benefit your mental health. An article published in AMAA Journal in 2008 concluded "the reduced training involved in tapering prior to a race may actually worsen mood states." An important takeaway is that if a person is in a routine that is providing structure, endorphins, and an overall sense of accomplishment, something's bound to happen if they slow (way) down all of a sudden.
“During a long training period, we become addicted to the intensity and the volume; it becomes our norm,” says Jim Taylor, sports psychologist, marathoner, and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. “To change that volume and intensity is disruptive psychologically and emotionally.” There’s an element of loss involved, and a huge shift in our energy level—that can be jarring for some runners. There are, thankfully, calculated measures to take to curb the taper jitters. Here’s what to do when taper madness starts to creep into your life.
Know what to expect
Many first-time athletes are often caught off guard by the physiological and psychological aspects of tapering, Taylor says. By toning down your workouts, you may feel as if you’re losing fitness or not maintaining the strength you spent so many months building. “They feel like they’re going to lose their gains,” he says. If you can anticipate this wave of anxiety coming—and know you aren’t sabotaging your hard work as you head into your taper—you're already ahead of the curve.
Remind yourself that tapering is a part of the process
Even if you’re feeling less than your best during easy workouts, don’t be tempted to up the ante again. “The purpose of a taper is to allow the body to recover and rest, which it needs to do before the race,” Taylor says. Stick to your schedule, which includes time for you to be gentle to your body so it can successfully go into beast mode when it needs to.
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“You have to trust the process,” Roberts says. Just like the speed work and long runs are essential to your training, so is the taper. Recognize that the aches and feelings of anxiety are a very universal experience for marathoners, says Amanda Brooks, a 37-year-old Denver-based running coach and fitness blogger. “I think that allows all of us to take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay I’m not crazy, this isn’t weird, this isn't abnormal. I just need to go with it.’”
Feel confident in your training
Look through your running log or training plan and marvel at all the work you’ve put in, Brooks says—it’s a tangible way to gauge your preparedness. Though it's hard to find chill when you feel like there are a million additional things you could do to prior to race day, it’s important to reflect on and respect the quality of your training.
For first-time marathoners especially, who may be lacking confidence to begin with, taper may result in a hit to your self-assurance. “Tapering and taking a break is anathema to that building of confidence,” Taylor says. “With taper, there’s less training and more time. That creates a void that runners are not accustomed to.”
Brooks recommends reminding yourself that none of your work and training was for naught, regardless of what happens on race day. Training for a race, in itself, requires discipline and is a profound emotional and physical investment—completing that phase on its own is a huge accomplishment and recognizing that is crucial.
Lean on a support system
Find a person, or group, who can remind you that extending your run by a few miles isn’t the best idea during taper. It’s important that this person—a coach or fellow athlete—knows the game, Taylor says. Otherwise you’re likely to brush off their advice as a simple platitude. Talking to an experienced athlete is really valuable because it provides perspective and it has that credibility, he adds.
Remind yourself that you can be too over-prepared
Without taking a few weeks of active recovery, it’s possible to overtrain, burn out, or injure yourself right before a race. Heading into taper, your body should be tired and ready for a break, Brooks says. Don't resist that by pushing your body past its limits. Embrace it and remember that no one aces a test by cramming the night before, so adding in extra workouts before race day won’t serve you in the long run.
Take your mind off of the race at hand
Now is one of the few times in life when you might have time to kill, and a reason to distract yourself, so make it a most sumptuous experience. Roberts is a Netflix and taper kind of gal, while Brooks is a proponent of reading running-related books and putting together a race-day game plan during extra downtime. “You’re pulling out those mental tips that are going to calm your nerves,” Brooks says, “and give you the tools for race day.”
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