The hardest part of training may just be getting through the last crazy-making weeks before race day.
Feeling a little edgy?
Cramming all the food in your face at any given moment?
How’s that bizarre twinge in your knee that you’ve never noticed in your entire life?
Welcome to your (temporary) new normal. You’re in the throes of taper madness, and while things feel weird right now, we promise that it will pass. How do we know? Because we’ve been there too.
Taper madness is runner lingo for the days leading up to your race when your brain goes a little wonky due to the dramatic reduction in mileage. Your body needs the rest; you KNOW your body needs the rest. But sometimes, your mind isn’t on the same page. That nervous energy needs an outlet. If you’re not running, it’s going to find another home – and it will likely irritate the hell out of you.
For Sho Gray, the Tennessee state record holder in the 100 miler, taper madness came on strong and fierce in his earlier racing years. At first, the anxiety manifested itself in his diet: “I ate my heart out,” laughs the Topo Athletic runner. “If I couldn’t run, I’d just eat instead. I put on nearly 10 pounds before race day. Needless to say, it wasn’t my best performance.”
But the taper madness didn’t disappear as Gray became more seasoned. Instead, it morphed into new afflictions. Prior to the now-defunct 24 Hours of HOSTELity race in 2016, Gray took up a new activity: step class. After finding a random exercise video on YouTube, he convinced himself that step aerobics would be a useful tool for his race in 10 days. “I remember telling myself it was okay because it wasn’t running,” Gray says. “I think I even believed it would be good for me.”
Two weeks prior to the race, Gray poured his heart into step aerobics, logging thousands of steps per day. It was fine, he reasoned, because it wasn’t running. Cross-training is good, right? Amidst taper madness, step class scratched an itch so big that Gray continued to devour that YouTube video well into his race week. A few days prior to the 24-hour event, he finally laid off – but the damage was done. “I started the race with super sore glutes,” he admits. “I thought I totally messed up my entire day.”
The bad: Gray’s poor life choices during taper madness meant he began the race in pain and had to stick to a slower pace. The good: His training kicked in and he maintained that pace throughout the entire event, eventually winning the whole thing.
But really: Step aerobics before a 24-hour race? There isn’t a person on the planet who thinks that’s a good idea. And yet, that’s the wonky talk that happens inside our brains when we’re in the throes of taper madness.
How can we combat the absurdity happening in our minds? According to Heather Hart, an RRCA certified running coach and a UESCA certified ultrarunning coach, the first step is accepting that these ridiculous emotions are normal. “If you’re like me, you lash out at your husband for not knowing you wanted tacos for dinner instead of pasta, but you just have to take some deep breaths and roll with it,” Hart says. “Tell your family, your significant other, or co-workers that these unpredictable waves of emotion are completely normal.”
Hart also recommends finding something other than exercise to take your mind off your looming race. Head to the library and check-out a book you’ve been meaning to read for the last six months. Or, wander upstairs and tackle your daughter’s closet that needs reorganizing.. As long as you stay mellow and distracted, it really doesn’t matter what hobby you pick up during taper; find anything to fill the void.
Finally, and this may be the most important one: Trust your training. The hay is in the barn at this point and you’ve done the work. Now it’s time to relax and –dare we suggest it? – have a good time. “Somewhere along the way, I realized that this was when I didn’t need to be serious about training and could relax a lot more,” Gray says. “Immediately, taper became a lot more fun!
After all, running is fun. Why would we do it otherwise?