Picking up an injury at any time during your training can feel like the end of the road. It’s difficult to know what the best strategy is before race day because after all that har work you want to make sure you get to the start line in the best shape possible. – Is that possible when you’ve picked up an injury so close to the day?
What is tapering?
Firstly it’s important to understand what tapering is and why we do it. This can happen for any long-distance race, from 10k races to half marathons, but is traditionally emphasised for marathons and ultra-marathon distances.
Typically, marathon training plans last for 16 weeks, and each week there will be a long run aiming to hit 20 miles on week 14 or 15, leaving the remaining weeks as the taper period. In this week or two (schedule and personal preference depending) before race day, your training plan will significantly reduce the intensity and distance.
Some experienced runners chose to bypass tapering for several reasons, one being the seemingly increased risk of catching a cold.
Why do we taper?
It is best to practise to taper, for many good reasons:
- Help your body to re-energise for race day. – Marathon training takes a huge toll on the body, the weekend-long runs have no doubt interfered with plans and zapped your energy levels, especially as the mileage increases. By cutting down the intensity and distance you will arrive at the start line refreshed and restored.
- You won’t benefit or lose fitness from extra training – longer distance training boots your cardiovascular endurance. And as you know, fitness is built up over time, not much, if any gains will be made in these final weeks. Similarly, it is too short a time to lose fitness levels too, so do not panic (I know how you feel though!) give yourself a hard-earned break, you deserve it!
- Gives your body time to repair – not only will your energy levels restore, but any muscle damage from the previous highly intense weeks will have plenty of time to recover before hitting that big 26.2 miles. Training for a marathon is intense and you’re bound to have some niggles, aches and pains so adding a few extra rest days is super important.
- Avoids burnout and fatigue – the biggest mistake you can make as a runner is to overtrain, usually through nerves and inexperience, so if you found yourself a little burnt out mentally and physically, taking two weeks of tapering is essential to ensure you are motivated, upbeat and ready to roll.
What do I do if I’m injured during taper week?
Disclaimer: Running injuries are so common for longer distances, from shin splints, muscle strains and Achilles tendonitis – specific advice for your injury would be best from your doctor or sports physician so please seek medical advice first and foremost*
It is every runner’s nightmare to pick up an injury right at the last minute before race day, and the question starts to whirl around your brain ‘Maybe I should forget my PB goal? Should I skip this race?’
Do not fear, just yet! Many runners will blatantly ignore red flags that they need to stop training and focus on recovery and injury rehabilitation measures – and because of that, the injury becomes much, MUCH worse.
It has happened to me personally, training for my 10 marathons in 10 days event, I had a knee injury I rehabbed on the side of training, only to be unable to run for an entire year after my event. It was awful – I’ve learned my lesson, and want you to avoid the same mistake.
The honest and safest answer is to step back from the activity and give the injury time to heal before pushing the muscle/joint into training and racing. That doesn’t mean jumping onto bed rest but you can cross-train (walk, hike, cycle, swim) or do yoga if they do not aggravate your injury of course.
How to deal with common muscle injuries.
The most common are hamstring, calf or quadricep muscle pulls, niggles and strains. So if you are suffering from a muscle injury like those, note the difference between soreness and strains. Muscle soreness is micro-tears in the muscle when you’ve lifted heavy or trained intensely. Usually arrives the day or two following the session – the areas will feel tender to touch and stiff to move but once warm it will ease up. Muscle strain however is graded in intensity, but will have signs and symptoms of swelling, bruising, eating, tenderness and loss in the range of movement.
- If you’re struggling with soreness – do contrast bathing:
- 10 mins ice bath
- 10 mins warm shower
- Repeat 2-3 times over.
- If you’re suffering from muscle strain:
- Stop running – find an alternate (swimming, cycling for example)
- Ice the area for 10 minutes
- Gentle movements and stretches around the area to restore the range of movement
- Work on proprioception
The soreness should ease day by day and be gone within 4 days.
In a few days, if it is easing, try a light 20-minute jog. Still okay? Continue with your plan at 50% of volume. If it is not easing or getting worse, seek a medical professional, and continue to rest, ice and light movement.
What are taper phantom pains?
These are little niggles and aches that pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, during the tapering period. They might be real in our heads and spike some anxiety, but that doesn’t mean that they’re any less frustrating. But embrace them, as signs of recovery and find a way to treat your body well (it is of rest, warm soothing baths, foam rolling, massages and yoga)
Are there types of injuries you can run with?
My honest advice is don’t run if you’re struggling to move-in day-to-day living – it will only make it worse. Some runners you see with K-tape on their knees or muscles to assist their movement this is okay for light strains or recovering from a muscular injury that needs a bit of help. But I advise against running or racing if you have inflammation, dark bruising and limited movement. You might not make THAT injury worse, but you could pick up another from overcompensation.
When is it time to cancel my race?
If you’ve got a grade 2 or 3 muscle strain, a sprained ankle or knee, stress fractures or broken bones, then I’m sorry to say you’re not going to be racing any time soon. They are complicated injuries that need proper care and attention to recover. If your marathon is in 4-8 weeks away, cancel it or better yet defer to next year.