Ironically enough, the taper period can be the hardest part of training for many runners. As we scale back on our volume and intensity, it's easy to begin to feel uneasy and under-prepared. Our bodies haven't realized the full range of adaptations you've elicited over the past few months, so your brain might be telling you to go make up all the miles you might have missed. Try to tune yourself out...the full scope of the training simply hasn't had a chance to "set in" yet. It's easy to get antsy, so here are a few "best practices" you can implement as you coast towards your goal race...
- Don't make up for lost training. Remember that one 5 mile workout you skipped two months ago because you got stuck on a conference call? Forget about it. You're not doing yourself any favors by adding an extra five miles to your runs this week. In fact, you could be setting yourself up for injury. Your body is in a very fragile state after this last long run, so now is not the time for additional stress.
- Use your time wisely. With the cutback in mileage, you'll find yourself with extra free time. This could be right after your run, when it's easy to motivate yourself to do some extra stretching or take a long walk as a cool down. If the extra half-hour comes back to you later in the day, use the time to do something good for your body instead of watching an extra episode (or while you're watching it!). Use a foam roller or stick roller to work out the kinks. Instead of just a quick post-run roll, I like to take time every so often to really get to know my foam roller. Take a quick hot shower to loosen everything up, then find a good podcast or playlist and get to work. If you're not sure about proper foam rolling technique, you can click HERE for some video demonstrations.
- Use mindfulness techniques. Recent science suggests that running well may be more mental than physical. It's important to train your brain just like you would train your body. Leading up to a big race, I like to do a few things to keep my head clear and focused on the task at hand. You can visualize your race easily if you already know the course. Go through each mile in your head, and go through all the "feels" during the run. How are you feeling at the 5K mark? What about after you've hit the wall? Studies show that by projecting ourselves into these future states and replicating the brain patterns we're likely to experience, we can better prepare our body to respond the way we want it to when it actually happens. If you don't know what the course looks like ahead of time, you can go back and visualize one of your long training runs or tough hill workouts. I like to print out the course map and tape it to my bathroom mirror so that I can play out scenarios in my head while I'm brushing my teeth.
- Clean up your nutrition. Let's be honest, we've all used training and long mileage to justify poor nutrition habits. "It's OK, I ran today." Now that we're scaling back a bit though, it's much tougher to get away with these bad decisions. Your gut health is just as important as the rest of you, and a healthy gut is better able to extract and process the nutrients from the food you are eating which will lead to better performance. You don't need to make any drastic changes to your existing routine. Going vegan overnight isn't the best course of action. Instead, just be more cognizant and aware of how you are fueling your body, and make little changes to "tidy up" a bit. You'll be amazed how you feel on race day after a few weeks of clean eating.
- Distract yourself. The closer we get to your race and the further we dial back on your workouts, the more "itchy" you'll become. You might often feel like you want to crawl out of your skin! This response could mean two things. First, you are either consuming as much carbohydrates (read sugar) as you did when you needed the extra glucose to burn. Secondly, and hopefully more likely, this is your body's reaction to the training "setting in." It's a sign that you've fully recovered from the stress and rigors of a training season. Your body is quite literally craving an additional workload because it knows you are prepared for it. The goal is to manage this so that you run enough to burn off as little energy as possible, but enough to make it easy to fall asleep at night. Keep the beast in its cage until race day! I find that the easiest way to do this is with short (and I mean short!) up-tempo runs. Not "speed work" and hardly even a "tempo" run, but just getting out to shake out the legs and maybe let loose here and there just to enjoy the benefits of the fitness I've gained. Outside of that, make plans to do all the things you've been putting off all season! If you didn't get to go see that movie or explore that museum because you were too tired or it was too late after a Sunday long run, now is your chance! Check out that new restaurant, go play in the park or enjoy a show...keeping yourself distracted will help you forget about the itch!