Monday kicked off the double edged sword that is “taper week.” Taper week is the period of time at the end of a training program in which the intensity of the workouts begins to taper off and you give your body optimal rest and nutrition in preparation for the race. The taper week period is not always a week. If the race is short, or the goal is to finish something like a fun run, a few days may be all you need. If the distance is longer than say 10k, or the goal is speed, it’s likely not less than a week. Depending on the length and intensity of the schedule it could be two or three times longer.
All of my half marathon training programs end with a week long taper. Both of my previous marathon programs ended with two weeks of taper. My 11 week marathon experiment ended with a kind of hybrid 1.5 weeks of taper, with a short yet intense workout coming off my longest run, and then a half week of “cool down” before my last “long run,” which at 8 miles, isn’t that long compared to 22 miles the week before.
It would seems like after 10 weeks of pretty intensive training and steadily increasing mileage faster than I normally would, that a week and a half “off” would be a much desired rest period…and it is. But while tapering down on mileage and ramping up on carb intake might seem like the best part of the training program in theory, I have often found that taper week is also the most mentally challenging part of training. Why? The work is done, and like many runners, I find that being left with idle feet, no miles left to run, and nothing but the question of ‘will it be enough?’ to ponder over the last few days leading up to the race, is far more anxiety inducing than it is stress relieving.
There are memes about this.
Invariably, I convince myself during taper week that the ten weeks prior will amount to nothing because I stopped running for a week. I worry that in these idle moments I’m more likely to get sick or injured because my body is not constantly in motion as it’s accustomed to being. I fight against the urge to be unnecessarily and intensely active, and I’m particularly bad at just sitting still and enjoying the fact that I earned this rest.
Last weekend, for example, after running my eight miles, I went to work, then climbed up and down step stools and countertops working on the rental property, then hauled 33 bags of river stone to the front yard, and crawled around in the dirt until dark getting the plants in the front yard. In fairness, I got A LOT done, but it wasn’t exactly a taper, and I guarantee that as productive as I felt sitting down at the end of the day, I would have felt much less so had I twisted an ankle or strained a muscle in the process.
Much has been written about tapering psychology. Some have gone so far as to break the stages of tapering down similar to how we might talk about the stages of grief. They go something like this:
This is amazing! Usually by time you hit taper, you are pretty exhausted so you are SO excited to see that there are some shorter runs on the calendar.
Oh hey energy… And this is when you start realizing that you have some extra energy, and well, what are you supposed to do with it?
What’s wrong with my… Oh all that extra energy? It works really well to overthink everything, including that random twinge in your shin that most likely means that you are going to be diagnosed with a stress fracture tomorrow.
And here comes the paranoia… the last few days before the race, I am always super paranoid that something is going to happen. Getting a cold, food poisoning, getting in an accident, etc., the list goes on. I generally try to avoid everyone and everything at this point.
The thing about the taper is, I don’t think it’s all that different from the other moments in our life where we’re given the gift of taking a break. I could take the stages of taper week and apply them to vacation. The beginning is great. Somewhere in the middle I have amazing energy and life is grand. But I’m not very good at completely turning off, so at some point I start worrying about what’s going on at home. Or I get distracted by social media again. Or something goes slightly wrong in our plans and it trips me up. Or I worry about the things I have to get done once vacation is over. And by the end of the trip my relaxed state is gone, replaced by the stress of packing up, navigating airports, getting home, etc.
I’m not that great at slowing down. I don’t think most people in general are that great at slowing down, a truth about our society that seems rooted in American culture, as I’ve found most of the European countries I’ve visited to be much better at balancing work, family, play and rest.
The taper week is not just a fun perk of running distance, it’s vital. It’s completely necessary to allow your muscles to heal, your body to store the energy it will need, and (in theory) your mind to focus it’s next big, peak, effort into the race. Finding “taper” opportunities in our life experiences should be just as vital. We need moments away from our daily grind and routine to refresh our motivation, spirit, and energy…especially before we launch into a big effort.
Most importantly, when we taper, we should not feel badly about it! Taking time off this week does not cheapen the hard work we put in last week. Eating a piece of cake today does not undo the healthy diet to which we normally prescribe. Not using your phone on vacation doesn’t mean you care less about the people who might call you. Letting yourself go on a break doesn’t mean you’re letting yourself go!
If we rest well, we will be well. We should taper. We should take time away. We should disconnect. We should recharge. And when we have, we should come back, reconnect, run hard, and plug into the work, passions, relationships, and projects that drive us.
Then we taper…rest…and repeat it all again!