The number of freaked out, hair pulling, the world is ending “it’s race week and I have pain” emails I get would shock most people…but not other runners.
We know all about the niggles, the weird little aches that never happened once during training and suddenly appear in the weeks leading up to race day. Race week pains might be all in our head, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating.
Step one make sure you are following the right taper plan! I’ve detailed that entire plan here to keep you injury free, sane and properly fueled for race day.
Over 15 years of running, I can think of very few races where in the final weeks of training I didn’t find myself muttering about a weird calf cramp or a strange feeling in my knee. And more often than not, I’d find myself answering questions about race goals with…”we’ll see what happens, for some reason my XYZ is hurting.”
And that my friends is one of the reasons we have phantom race week pains.
First, let’s call them niggles if you will….
Pain is that sharp, heaven help me I can’t take another step because someone is trying to rip out my knee feeling.
Discomfort is that moment you want to quit a 17 mile training run, but dig deep and push through because it’s fatigue, not injury.
Niggles are a persistent annoyance that is unlikely to be a true injury.
What causes these niggles or phantom pains?
All the weeks, months and heck sometimes years of training are about to come together for the big goal. One of the ways we relieve pressure is by giving ourselves an excuse or an out. If we’ve put in all the training, then the only option left for us to not perform is an injury or that’s what we’re subconsciously rationalizing, when of course race day is always a surprise.
Find ways to let go of the pressure.
- Look back and your training
- Review the race course and create a plan
- Focus on the controllables
- Talk to other runners and blow off steam
How do you normally deal with stress? Running.
During taper, that option is taken a way from you and that opens up time for you to focus on every little thing. Suddenly you feel like you aren’t taking action towards your goal, which gives you extra time to fret about whether you can do it…I mean how does a 20 mile training run prepare you for 26.2?! It does, so don’t email me about that any more :)
Use this time to get your mind right. Nothing will help you more on race day than having worked through ways you’ll handle obstacles and visualizing your ultimate goal.Tension
All of that anxiety creates tension.
Tension reduces oxygen flow to muscles.
Reduced oxygen flow creates inflammation.
In fact, this actually has a name called Tension Myositis Syndrome and I detailed how you can deal with it explicitly here. But in general it goes beyond trying to just ignore it or telling yourself to relax. Once you can see that it’s not an actual injury, but something caused by your thoughts you can move forward with a plan!Why we get sick and feel injured during taper?! And how to decide if it's real or phantom #runchat Click To Tweet
Suppressed Immune System
Not only ado we deal with aches, but sickness during taper! It’s all part of the recovery process that the body is under going.
Scientists have come up with two explanations for the aches and sickness: adrenaline and immunity. During training, especially peak week, you’re pushing your body to it’s limits and it responds by adding in some adrenaline to keep you going, which suppresses the immune system and helps you power through.Once, you begin taper the immune system goes in to overdrive ready to kick out anything that looks like an illness. That means you’re more susceptible to anything that’s going around (especially when you hop on that plane to travel to the race!).
It’s also why you might get sick in the days after a race!
In fact, according to David Nieman, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, someone running the Western States 100 miler has a 1 in 4 chance of getting ill.
It should come as no surprise that your body needs to recover from the stresses you’ve created, especially in the previous weeks of your hardest training. There are tiny tears in your muscles that with rest are now able to begin fully repairing and rebuilding to give you the power you’re seeking on race day.
Embrace the aches as a sign of recovery and find ways to treat your body well (which will reduce overall stress). Get a massage or enjoy a long hot soak with epsom salts, both will help to flush the legs, bring down stress and encourage muscle recovery. Don’t forget to pair those with plenty of water and electrolytes!
When Not to Race
All of this being said…sometimes it really is an injury or an illness and you need to make the tough decision to not toe the line.
Let’s start with feeling sick:
- Runny nose? Sore throat? You’re good to go, keep it easy as noted.
- Trouble breathing? Hacking Cough? Take another rest day.
- High temperature or aching muscles? Probably need at least a week for your immune system to recover.
- GI Distress? Stomach Issues? Really, do you want to run…it’s going to make this all feel worse.
- Fatigued? If nothing else is bothering you an easy run might be what the doctor ordered.
Dr. Kaminsky, exercise physiologist at Ball State noted that runner lung function was NOT impaired by a cold. So as long as you pass the tests above feeling sluggish or snotty might not be enough to keep you from a PR.
Next, let’s look at those niggles to decide if they’re more serious:
- Sharp pain? Red flag, stop, do not pass go.
- Swelling? Sorry no go, your body is signaling major issues.
- Altered gait? If you find you’re changing your stride consistently to run or walk even a small niggle could result in a major issue.
- Ache? Is this the first time it’s shown up during training? Or have you been battling this ache for months? Ongoing things are worth hitting the Dr to ensure that all out effort isn’t going to turn it in to more.
- Sluggish? Its’ not unusual as your body is in repair mode and you might be eating a few more carbs that your legs could feel heavy and paces feel harder to hit. This isn’t a reason to pull out.
- Totally new pain? Has this not ever hurt before? If it’s not sharp, plan to line up and you can always pull out if the pain persists, but its likely more in your head than an injury.
Just like you can take advantage of race day nerves, maybe all these race week niggles and Kleenex are designed to help you have a better race. Allow them to take off some of the pressure, to force you to actually taper, then go out and just give it your all without the focus on a specific outcome. I’ve almost always found this to help everyone have a better day.
Here are all the previous steps in the Road to a PR series:
Choosing your race pace >>
Picking the right race for your goal >>
Creating your training plan >>
Why you need a base building phase>>
Safely adding speed work >>
Why you need a peak week >>
How to taper the right way >>
Race day strategy >>
How do you handle taper pains?
How do you know what’s real and what’s a mental issue?
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