Anyone who has run a marathon, a half marathon, or pretty much any race, has probably tapered. We taper down to an event, running less and slower, so that on race day our legs are fresh and ready to go. After the big day, however, it can seem like you’ve entered into another race — a race to get back to training as quickly as possible.
About a month ago, I raced the Chicago Marathon for the first time. My training for this race came at a stressful time in my life. At work I began teaching a new grade level, I was completing my last graduate school class, and I was finishing up my thesis. I was exhausted, stressed, and tired all the time. I often felt like my training was not up to par because of the life stress I was balancing. As the weeks passed, I began to feel anxious, ready for race day to arrive, just so it would be over and I could take some time off.
Throughout my training, I took more than a few unplanned rest days due to travel, injury scares, and just plain tiredness. With each rest day, I was weary and couldn’t help but think of others around me, getting their miles in and making it look easy. As running friends near and far finished their fall marathons and 50k’s, I started noticing a trend. After running a marathon (or more), everyone was back on the roads or trails less than a week after their race.
When I ran my second marathon in October of 2014, the Marine Corps Marathon, I was struggling with a disordered relationship with food and exercise. I could not wait to finish that race so I could take the following day off from work and eat whatever I wanted. Monday, the day following the race, I indulged in all the foods I had been telling myself were off limits for years. After running 26 miles, I finally felt I could justify what I was eating. But by Tuesday, the food and exercise guilt seeped back in. No more than 48 hours after running a marathon, I was anxious and stressed because I felt such a severe need to run. On Wednesday, I started running again and I didn’t take a break longer than that again until April of 2016 after the Boston Marathon. After that race, I took 4 days off before running again, despite a torn hamstring.
As I reflect on how I’ve handled race recovery in the past and observe how others practice recovery, I get the sense that the real race comes after the big day. It feels like everyone wants to be the first to log a run after crossing the finish line.
There is a misconception in the distance running world that the less time you take off after a big race, the better an athlete you must be.
Before Chicago, I knew I would need some serious down time post-race but I also worried about what others around me would think if I took more than a few days off of running. I feared being viewed as lazy or weak. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these thoughts were reminiscent of the eating disorder that once consumed me. I was succumbing to the trap of comparison and I was failing to focus on what my body needed.
Despite the rollercoaster my training took me on, Chicago turned out to be the race of my life (so far), and I ran an 8 minute personal record. After the race, I forced the negative comparison thoughts out of my head and told myself I would truly recover before I laced up again. I ended up taking 8 of the 14 days following the race completely off. The days that I did happen to run I ran easy and I ran because I truly wanted to. In the three weeks after the race, whenever I put my shoes on, before I headed out the door I asked myself why I was running. If my gut said anything other other than “because I feel like it”, I turned around and enjoyed another day off (#RestDayBrags). If I ran because I felt like I needed to or I felt like I would “get out of shape” then I knew I wasn’t truly honoring my body.
Tapering down to a big race is important to achieving your short term race goals, but tapering back up is even more important if you hope to have a long, healthy running life.
It wasn’t until last week, four weeks post-race, that I ran my typical 6-day training week again, and even that was lower than average mileage. During my taper leading up to the race I ran a light workout and a 10-mile long run. This past week I ran the same light workout and the same 10 mile long run I ran during my taper — and it felt even easier. After some extra time off and easing back into it, I feel more ready to train hard than I have in a very long time. Tapering down to a big race is important to achieving your short term race goals, but tapering back up is even more important if you hope to have a long, healthy running life.
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