Here are some important tips to make the most out of your taper period:
Prioritize your taper period as you did your training. Don't ignore your taper plan by running longer or harder than you should. Keep as close to your training plan as possible. Running on different days of your schedule, or at different lengths or faster paces, may not give you the maximum amount of time to recover before race day. Also, it isn't good to just skip runs all together. You still need to keep your legs loose and your muscles working. Lastly, don't fill up your extra time with time on your feet or stressful situations. Use it to prepare for your race by sleeping, eating, stretching, and relaxing!
Visualize your race. This is always really hard for some people. But I like to visualize the days leading up to the race and the race itself. I picture myself going through the motions of preparing the night before and the morning of. I picture myself getting dressed, eating, going to the race, going through my warm-up, etc. and then starting. Even if you've never run a race before you can do this by picturing what you've been doing every week for your long runs. Getting things ready the night before, waking up, having breakfast, riding to the run, and so on. Doing this over and over can help by easing your nerves as it will begin to seem like second nature to prepare. It can remind you what you need to get together the night before the race and what you will need race morning. It can also remind you that you've done this many times as you've trained for the race. You have done this. You lace up every weekend to run long. The race is just another long run with thousands of your closest friends :)
Keep it slow. For every run you do for the remaining time before the race, try to run at your long-run pace (1-2 minutes slower than race pace). You may find your runs are all over the place anyway. Some feel good, some are awful and you're convinced you won't be able to get through the race. TRUST ME, this is normal and you WILL get through the race. Trust in your training.
If you've been strength training, stop or ease up. Strength training at this point in your training won't really help your race. The point of strength training is to fatigue the muscles and that's the last thing you want to do before your race. Strength training will also use up much of that stored glycogen needed for your race. You can resume strength training once you're recovered from the race.
Don't wear new shoes. If you've recently purchased new running shoes for race-day, chances are they won't be broken in enough before the race. If you have no choice but to wear the new shoes or no shoes, wear them as much as possible to break them in as much as possible by race day. If you haven't purchased them yet, don't. There isn't really enough time to break them in during the week before a race. Even if you're running in the same exact model shoe as always, you can still get blisters if your shoes aren't broken in. Trust me on that one!
Emphasize carbs, especially in the last 3 days before the race. As much as 60-65 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate sources. Whole-grains, potatoes, vegetables and fruit are healthy choices. The trick is to exercise portion control and not go crazy with "carb-loading." I will get into more detail regarding carb-loading later in the week.
Keep those calories coming. Your body still needs to repair tissue damaged during your mileage build-up. This is no time to diet. Even though you're running less, resist the temptation to cut way back on calories. You're probably focusing on your carb intake, which is helpful. But don't forget the other nutrients. Protein will help you metabolize glucose to maximize your energy. It will also promote muscle recovery, which is a key aspect of the taper period. Be sure your diet includes a good proportion of dietary fat (up to 30 percent of your daily calories). This will be beneficial because it will be used as an addional energy source along with stored carbs. Fat reserves can therefore help you avoid that nasty wall towards the end of your race. Eat foods that are high in unsaturated fat, such as nuts, lean protein and avocados. Limit foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fats, such as pizza and ice cream.
Wash it all down with fluids. Alcoholic beverages don't count toward your fluid totals (or your carbs, for you wise guys). Stick with water, sports drink, and natural fruit juices (100% juice). Remember, you wake up in a dehydrated state so start your fluid intake as soon as you get up in the morning. You know you're adequately hydrated if your urine is clear or pale yellow in color by lunchtime and stays that way for the rest of the day.
Don't restrict the salt in your diet. Low salt intake combined with excessive hydration can lead to hyponatremia, a rare but dangerous condition that can affect long-distance runners. Drinking coconut water, sports drinks and snacking on salted popcorn and pretzels will help keep your sodium levels up.
Don't look at the scale. With all that eating and drinking, you're likely to gain a couple pounds during your taper. Don't worry about it. It won't be significant enough to affect your performance and you'll lose those pounds by the finish line anyway.
Take Vitamin C or a multi-vitamin. A lot of runners for some reason get sick in the final weeks before a race. Try your best to stay healthy and avoid especially germy situations. A supplement like Emergen-C is great. Not only does it contain your daily requirement of Vitamin C, but it also contains several other key vitamins and minerals that will help you feel good come race day.
And don't forget...
- Don't do anything overly tiring. The chores can be done after your race.
- Don't try anything new. No new foods, drinks, clothes or sports. Now is not the time to try that yoga class you've always wanted to join.
- Don't get a sports massage unless it's part of your routine. You may feel bruised a couple days afterward if you're not accustomed to it.
- Stay off your feet and catch up on movies, books, and sleep. If you go to the pre-race expo, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and don't do more walking around than necessary.
- Be prepared for your mind to play tricks on you. You may feel a twinge of an injury, for example. This is usually your mind playing tricks on you and nothing to worry about. If you're really concerned, don't push it through your remaining runs. Take it extra slow, walk if necessary, and ice after your run. See a sports doctor for reassurance that nothing is wrong.
The taper period can be unbearable for some runners. If you're used to intense, high-mileage weeks, the final week before a race is torture. You can feel anxious or even depressed. That's ok. By focusing on the things you should be doing, such as resting, eating well, running slowly, etc., you won't focus on what you are not doing (running long and hard). Besides, you'll be running long and hard Sunday morning.
Try to enjoy your taper. It's the only time you don't have to feel guilty for not running as many miles as usual. Feeling good and strong during your race will make all the down-time worth it!