Over the years I have found that running stabilizes me, sets bad days back on track, calms my mind, and always improves my mood. I often run at lunch to collect and organize my thoughts and after work to shed the stress of a long day. On weekends I rise early and start my days the only way I know how to anymore: with long runs that connect far flung suburban neighborhoods, invigorating track workouts at a local high school, or leisurely recovery runs on trails above Reno where I watch as the rising sun greets the sparkling casinos of The Biggest Little City.
As beneficial as running is to my mental health, it becomes the root of an ongoing Catch-22 when racing is thrown into the mix. I love to race, but racing means tapering, tapering means less running, and less running often means an irritable, crabbier version of me who no one really likes all that much and is prone to what I have come to call Taper Tantrums.
As a runner, you know your body needs to rest and recover to perform at its best on race day, and you know that means drastically scaling back daily mileage and run intensity leading up to races, so you taper. In the weeks before a race you look at your calendar and take stock of the following days and your ever-shortening, maddeningly easy runs; five miles, four miles, three, two, an entire day off of your feet.
You feebly try to convince yourself that you will enjoy the rest, but you know better, you know you will spend untold hours envisioning the course profile and staring hopelessly into space as you try to wrap your head around the increasingly unrealistic pace you hope to maintain. You think of how much a nice long run would clear your head, calm your nerves, and quell your stress, but that is the cruel irony: You cannot run. If you’re anything like me, less running—especially when you’re days from a race and all you can think about is running—means you stand the very real risk of going stark-raving mad and spiraling into a dreaded Taper Tantrum.
The axiom “misery loves company” isn’t true of runners—at least not San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors, anyway—so following are some strategies I have found to be effective in avoiding embarrassing, energy-wasting Taper Tantrums in the days leading up to a race.
• Stay Positive — You have trained for months, hundreds of miles in rain, snow, wind, heat, humidity, and whatever else Mother Nature could muster from her bag of tricks, use the confidence you gained from those runs to silence your doubts. Those lonely and often difficult miles were the hard part; the race is just your victory lap.
• Focus on Form — Taper runs are not about getting in last-minute workouts, so don’t try it because you only risk wearing yourself out or, worse yet, getting injured. Instead, keep it easy, slow, and conversational and focus on your stride, arm movement, and staying loose.
• Daydream — Edgar Allen Poe once said, “Dreamers of the day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Take Eddy’s advice and visualize your upcoming race during your easy taper runs. Envision setting your pace in the early miles, hammering up hills and flying down them, and triumphantly throwing your arms in the air at the finish line to the cheers of your adoring fans. It might sound silly—it also looks silly if, like me, you act out the triumphant arm throw at the end of an obviously easy lunch run right in front of your office and confused/horrified coworkers, motorists, and other pedestrians—but it works.
• Get Running On Your Mind — A week of watching Prefontaine, Chariots of Fire, Spirit of the Marathon, and Run Fatboy Run, reading back issue of Runner’s World and Running Times, and searching for future races online might be just the boost you need to toe the start line with your head held high. You’ll have ample time for movies, magazine, and Internet with your decreased miles, and as a bonus it will mostly keep you resting and off your feet.
• Get Running Off Your Mind — Maybe a week of running movies, magazines, and the like aren’t what you need to prepare, maybe those things will only serve to stress you out. So, get your mind off the race and running altogether. Your legs won’t forget what they have to do come race morning, and clearing your head of all things running will give you renewed passion and vigor for the race.
• Reminisce — Although Frank Shorter might beg to differ by way of his ubiquitous saying, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another,” I have found that thinking about past races gives me strength and confidence for what is to come. From the disappointing races—Rock’n’Roll San Diego in 2010 when a not-fully-healed hamstring injury had me on the verge of tears for the entire marathon—to the ones you will remember for the rest of your life—ING New York City Marathon 2011 when I shattered my PR on mom’s birthday—your accomplishments of yesterday will give you strength to accomplish bigger and better things tomorrow.
If none of these tips proves useful and Taper Tantrums persist, just consider the closing miles of a marathon. Not miles 25 or 26, when the promise of the finish line pulls your sore legs forward, but miles 21, 22, and thereabouts, when your mouth is sticky and dry, the pace staring up from your Garmin seems to be mocking you, your sore knee/tight hamstring/seizing calf won’t stop screaming, and you want to wrap your hands around the necks of well-intended spectators who reassure you that “you’re almost there!” Think back to the “agony” of your taper during those hardest miles and consider what depraved things you would do and how much you would give to be tapering instead of running at that very moment.