The causes of the taper crazies (and how to get over them)
“It’s just Doctor f’ing Who!!!” I remonstrate with myself as the tears well in an ’emotional’ farewell scene between Amy Pond and the Doctor. Here’s the ‘big and tough’ marathon and ultra runner tearing up at a kids programme! Sheesh!
I’ve got the taper crazies. I’ve got them bad. So much worse than any other race. Mood swings (coupled with a heightened emotional state), phantom pains, bouts of nerves. The lot.
What are the taper crazies, really? Basically a collection of psychological and physiological effects brought on by the rapid reduction in exercise level of the taper. And having the crazies can suck. Big time! So, what causes the taper crazies?
Cranky at work even though you’re killing it? Snapping at the kids/partner/dogs over nothing? Crying over Doctor Who (ahem…)? It’s the endorphin crash getting to you. Well, actually more than that. Long distance running causes the production of endorphins to assist the brain deal with pain and keep focussed. Endorphins have been found to bind to the areas in the brain related to mood change – hence the ‘runners high’. As the runs get longer and the pain gets higher your adrenalin production spikes as well, helping divert blood away from core functions towards your muscles, and keeping your mind sharp. Adrenaline has a short half-life, but you’ll feel the adrenaline buzz from a hard workout for several minutes afterwards, and many people love it, and crave it. The regular (and long) aerobic activity also boosts production of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that also regulates mood and keeps you feeling happy and calm. There’s also dopamine – important for motor control, motivation and closely related to reward based behaviour – which is seen to increase through regular endurance exercise.
In the build-up to an endurance race you are routinely subjecting yourself to raised levels of these neurotransmitters and hormones as your runs start getting longer (some say two hours is a turning point for high levels of production), and then you keep backing that up by running on fatigued and injured muscles. Over the many weeks of your race build-up your body (and mind) continue to adapt to these elevated levels of mood altering neurotransmitters . Sure, you might feel generally happier or calmer overall but as you ramp up, your brain keeps pace with the changes. However, in the taper the running reduces drastically and crucially runs longer than two hours (a general trigger point for high levels of endorphin/adrenaline/serotonin production) are wiped from your schedule. Very quickly your levels of endorphins and serotonin drop, and your brain can’t adapt that fast. With your ‘happiness’ drugs quickly departing it’s no wonder your moods drop, or can change quickly. Case in point – “Why did Amy Pond need to die? (shakes fists at sky) Why!!!”
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill for this one. Exercise caused it, exercise will fix it, but doing more exercise will ruin your taper. Don’t be tempted to run your short runs hard to try and get a boost. It won’t do much (it’s the long runs that do the most, remember) and you’ll be hurting your race. Some people respond well to sunlight as a natural serotonin booster, or even Vitamin D supplements, but again it isn’t going to magic away the issue. The best way to deal with it is make sure you’re self-aware. Be sensitive that you aren’t your normal self and try and quickly recognise that your mood doesn’t fit the situation. Once you recognise it, reorient your thoughts. Or if it’s that bad, remove yourself from the situation or put on some favourite relaxing tunes. But not your running playlist. That would be a big mistake…
It’s also a good idea to stay away from coffee and alcohol as these can exacerbate the problems – caffeine will make you jumpy and alcohol can be a depressant. And with all your serotonin gone you’re already getting mopey…
I woke up yesterday and in my first steps was sure I’d strained my calf. And my left knee was niggly to. This is common for people in the taper. All of a sudden they aren’t running and a new injury crops up. But they almost all fall into the category of ‘phantom injuries’. There are three main reasons for these phantom injuries. Firstly, your endorphin levels are lower, meaning your pain threshold is dropping. Previous niggles that wouldn’t have even registered are suddenly noticeable. Secondly, you’ve prepared hard for a big race and the day is approaching – you become hyper sensitive to anything related to your ability to run and you’re unconsciously looking for signs of impending doom. And lastly, the niggles are often caused by your body going into full-blown repair mode. Think about it. You’ve been thrashing your body at the edge of injury for weeks to create a strong adaption to endurance running big distances. Then you stop running. Your body senses the rest (reduced stress hormones, more sleep, spare energy) and goes into repair mode. These niggles are almost always the result of repairs taking place and are a good sign. Muscle tightness is another common side-effect. All those micro-tears you’ve been lugging through the miles are finally starting to knit back together into stronger muscle and localised inflammation occurs, causing the tightness.
Luckily this one is reasonably simple. Move, stretch and enjoy a hot shower or bath. The stretching will keep your range of motion high, movement will get blood flow going, as will warm water. Plus everyone knows a hot bath will soothe away their aches. Try to be objective about your new pains and niggles. How bad are they, really? If they come with significant movement impairment or weakness in the muscle/joint then do go and see your physio. However, if it’s only come on since you stopped running it’s likely to be harmless. If you carried something into the taper and it’s not getting worse, then definitely see your physio or doctor about it.
This is a tough one. Lots of people get nervous before their big race. Nervousness prior to a big challenge is a normal psychological reaction to an upcoming stressful event. It’s basically a fear of failure. Like public speaking or meeting new people. In endurance runners it can be a double whammy as ‘normal’ nerves are getting amplified by, you guessed it, lowered serotonin levels. To clarify, medically they’re not low, just a lot lower than you’re used too. Low serotonin has been shown to lead to feeling depressed, acting impulsively, feeling ‘blocked’ or ‘scattered’, reduced attentions span and, surprise surprise, craving simple carbs. He says after having just devoured an entire tube of BBQ flavoured potato chips. Damn you Pringles, damn you!
For the nerves, the best way to deal with them is not ignore them, but tackle them head on. Positive thinking will go a long way, but take yourself one step further and use visualisation to your advantage. Do some research on the route, the weather, other racers reviews and then sit or lie down in a comfortable place free from distractions and mentally rehearse your run. Visualise the route, how you would like your run to go, what challenges you expect from the course and how you might deal with them. Once you can do this comfortably you can start to work back from the start. Visualise your entire day from waking up to going to the race and then bolt on your imagined race experience. Write down the things you think of between waking and leaving for the race. This is your to-do list. Alarm set? Check. Bib, shoes and clothes? Check. Fuel and hydration? Check. Re-run it in your mind, think about what your breakfast will be, how you will travel from your bedroom to the race etc. Add it to your list. This approach will allow you to mentally break down the challenge into small definable stages which can be individually managed and beaten. By imagining yourself doing it you will bring confidence to your endeavour and the nerves will drop away.
A last piece of advice. Your mental visualisation will NOT match your race day exactly. How could it? It’s not Groundhog Day. Instead, having rehearsed the likely challenges of the day you will be able to deal with the ones you expect and therefore be better able to respond to the smaller ones you didn’t.
Big bad taper crazies
Why are my crazies so bad this time? I don’t really know, but I’m putting it down to a pretty intensive build back up from injury with four very hard weeks leading into my taper. Plus it’s a short taper (10 days). I basically went from 70km+ a week to 30km to 10km next week. That’s a steep tail-off but I had to balance training time versus taper time. Time will tell.
Anyway, after crying over a kids show this morning and eating a whole tube of Pringles writing this post, I’m off to deal with my phantom calf strain in a hot shower while visualising what it will be like lining up for the start of Ragnar in 6 days.
Happy running everyone!
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Posted on January 31, 2015, in Blog, Mental Training, Positive Running, Ragnar Relay Florida Keys and tagged marathon taper, ragnar relay floirda keys, taper crazies, tapering strategies. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.