Taper Madness … and Survival Tips

OK – so as I write this I am 12 days from the 2017 Ottawa Marathon.  12 days!!!  It’s around this time that runners begin the taper (the process of reducing the volume and intensity of running before the race, so your body has a chance to heal and rest up).  During the taper, a strange existential condition that I call “maranoia” takes hold:


With the race on the distant horizon of my mind’s eye, my brain turns to clear, logical, and entirely rational thoughts such as:

  • Will I lose all my training/conditioning during the taper?
  • What if I get sick?  OMG, my son/wife/dog is sniffling – I’m next!
  • What if I get injured?  I could stub my toe on something, or fall down the stairs!  What if someone drops an anvil on me?
  • What’s the weather going to be like?  If it’s like last year, it’s going to be stupid-hot!  What if it rains?
  • What should I eat/drink?  Can I have a beer in the next two weeks?  Should I start loading up on the carbs now?
  • What if I can’t sleep the night before the race?  I can’t run a marathon when I’m already exhausted …
  • What should I wear on race day?
  • What about that nagging knee/back/hip/calf/quad/glute/IT band problem I’ve been having – how am I possibly going to finish the race with that?!?
  • Are my nipples going to withstand 42.2km of chafing?

If you are running a long race on May 28, like me, some of these questions may have already crossed your mind.  If you are a first-timer:  I may have infected you with my condition if you’ve read this far … in which case, apologies … and welcome to the club.

But there is good news.  I’ve run two marathons – both under less-than-ideal conditions – and more half-marathons than I can count.  And I’ve lived to tell the tale.  You will, too.

So for fellow sufferers of maranoia, and especially for the first-timers, here are some words of encouragement from someone who has been there & done that:

  • If you have trained faithfully and diligently, you will be OK with taking things easy during the taper.  It took you 16-18 weeks of training to get here – you won’t lose all of that overnight.  Your body will be there for you, when you need it.
  • You can do the run, even if sick.  For my first marathon in 2014, I was sick as a dog.  But I finished, on a hot day, 2 minutes faster than my goal time.
  • You can also do the run if you haven’t slept much or at all.  It’s not ideal, of course … but the adrenaline and energy of the crowd will make you forget the sleep thing.  In that same 2014 marathon, I slept less than 3 hours the night prior to the race, due to my cold.
  • Related to the above:  the adrenaline of race day – from the pre-race vibe, the runners in the corral with you, and the spectators – will give you free energy and speed!  I generally run 10-15s per km faster during a race, than I think I can sustain.  I don’t know why it works – it just does.

Hopefully the above points address any “what-if?” concerns you may have.  Here are some other taper and pre-race tips that you may find useful:

  • Weather:  as much as you’d like to, you cannot control this.  But you can prepare.  I recommend that between now and May 28 you force yourself to do a run in the heat – even if just a short run.  For Ottawa residents, that opportunity is coming this Wednesday and Thursday.  Get out there, sweat it up, and ensure you know what running at race pace in the heat and humidity feels like.  You’ll thank yourself on race day (Ottawa is rarely cool at the end of May!).  Ditto for rain – pick a rainy day and get out there for 30 minutes or more.
  • Diet:  you CAN control what you eat.  In the taper period, don’t eat anything radically new or different.  This is NOT the time to try that five-star-hot curry.  Or to up your intake of fatty foods or red meats.  Or indulge yourself with that really wicked, 100-proof bourbon.  Or to do that root-veggie juice cleanse you’ve heard about.  Nothing new or radical, people.
  • Hydration:  yes, of course … but in moderation.  Don’t start drinking 8L of water a day leading up to race day, if you’ve not been doing that all along.  Do whatever has worked during your training.  Perhaps up the intake a bit in the 2-3 days prior to the race, but don’t chug like a crazy person the day prior.
  • Salt:  this is actually quite important, if it’s hot on race day.  There is this little thing called hyponatremia, that can kill you.  This is when you are depleted in sodium (e.g., due to excessive sweating).  So if it’s unusually hot, be sure that either your sport drink has sodium in it, or that you are popping some salt pills along the way.
  • Fuel:  again, don’t do anything new here.  If you’ve been using gels, keep using them (and at about the same intervals as during your long runs); if you use chews/chomps, keep using them.  If you did not use fuel when training, race day is NOT the time to start.
  • Chafing:  wear BodyGlide or similar protection, in any area of your body where your clothing might create some chafing issues.  Men:  be kind to your nipples!  For both genders – think about the seams of your shorts or undergarments, where your socks may have rubbed in the past, etc.  If you have done your training, you already know all of these sensitive areas, so ’nuff said.
  • Lube, part II:  if volunteers on the course are holding out sticks with globs of transparent goop at the end – those are NOT popsicles!  That is Vaseline, meant to replace any BodyGlide (see above) that may have worn off if you are perspiring a lot, or if it’s raining.  My advice:  take it and use it – they are handing it out for good reason.
  • Clothing:  DON’T. WEAR. ANYTHING. NEW.  I saw a woman at a race once wearing a brand new pair of shoes – for a marathon – that she had purchased the day prior, because she liked the colour.  When I last saw her, she was hobbling and crying in those beautiful shoes.  Don’t be that person.
  • The night before:  Lay out all your stuff.  Everything.  Shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, bib & pins, Garmin/GPS watch, fuel belt, gels, water bottles, salt pills, hat, BodyGlide, sunscreen, sunglasses, shoes, phone & buds (if you run with those), pace band.  EVERYTHING.  Leave nothing to chance.  The morning of the race, you may not be able to think clearly.
  • Race-day breakfast:  the morning of the race, go with whatever you have consumed before your long runs … if you drank coffee all along, be sure to have one (and if you didn’t, don’t!); if you normally eat oatmeal before your long run, eat oatmeal.  Do not have fried eggs & bacon (“for the protein”) if you’ve not done this before.
  • Pre-race warm-up:  be sure to loosen up before the run.  Do dynamic stretches and an easy warm-up run.  Get your body ready, loosen those muscles & joints, and build up a light sweat.
  • Corral jitters:  hey, we all get them.  My thing to do is to chat up the people around you.  Find a friendly face and engage – learn their story and how they got there.  Or just look around and soak up the pre-race vibe!
  • The start:  if your finishing time matters, check your GPS constantly.  As in, every 15-30 seconds.  If you start too quickly out of the gate (and we’ve all done it), you will never get that energy back at the end of the race.  I cannot stress this enough.  “Plan the run, and run the plan.”
  • The journey:  try, if you can, not to obsess too much with your pace.  Look around you!  Soak up the energy of the crowd.  Enjoy the course and surroundings.  Look for friendly faces among the spectators.  High-five a kid.  Thank the on-course entertainers and volunteers handing out fuel, water and Vaseline.  Pump your arms to get the crowd going.
  • The slog:  no matter how much you’ve trained, the last 2-3km (of a half) or 5-10km (of a full) will be hard.  Your brain will try to convince your legs to stop.  Have a mantra that will keep you going when this happens.  My trick is to think about people who are not as fortunate as me and cannot run the distance – in my case, the people for whom I run to raise awareness/funds for charity.  It’ll keep you going.
  • The finish:  when you approach the finish line, be sure to stand up straight (shoulders square, chest expanded) and smile for the crowd and cameras.  This is YOUR moment – you earned it, so enjoy it!
  • Recovery:  be sure to rest & elevate those tired legs & feet post-race.  Ice anything that needs it.  Maybe enjoy an epsom-salt bath … and a nap afterwards.  And the food:  GO CRAZY, you’ve earned this!

I hope this is helpful for new or inexperienced distance runners.  You’ve got this!

I’ll write another post after the marathon, to capture my journey.  Let me know how yours goes, too.  GOOD LUCK!





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