Aches While Tapering for a Race: Why They Happen and How to Deal

Aches While Tapering for a Race: Why They Happen and How to Deal

Inevitably, I receive an email on race week: Coach, I’m worried that I got injured! It is race week and my [insert lower body muscle] feels tight and sort of achy. What should I do? The runner is clearly panicked about an ache while tapering for a race, especially after a healthy training cycle.

I quickly evaluate with a series of questions. If it seems to be a real injury (particularly if it hurts to run), the instructions are to forgo the race and schedule an appointment with a physical therapist. However, many times, the ache is not an actual injury, but one of those niggles that crop up during the taper. 

Aches while tapering for a race are a common experience for runners. Chances are, you experience them each time you taper, but that does not make them any less alarming! 

Aches While Tapering for a Race: Why They Happen and How to Deal

Changes in Muscle Tension

Intensity during the taper is a fine balance. Too little intensity (relative to your peak training), and you may feel flat. Too much intensity and you may feel over reach prior to race day. The appropriate amount of intensity can help maintain that muscle tension that makes your stride feel poppy and strong. 

Maintaining muscle tension is why I include strides during race week for all of my athletes. They regularly complete strides, hill sprints, and surges throughout the entire training season, so these do not present a new stimulus. (Do not do strides during race week if you have not in training.) 

Weight training can also increase muscle tension. However, a sound training plan decreases resistance training during the taper and eliminates it during race week. This can spur changes in muscle tension that render an athlete feeling “off.” For athletes prone to aches during the taper, I often program short bodyweight mobility sessions on their usual strength days to help maintain muscle tension. 

Muscle tension is highly individual to both the runner and the goal race, so you may have to experiment (or work with your coach) for what feels best for you. 

Decreased Blood Flow from Less Movement

During the taper, runners tend to move less. Less movement can leave you feeling tight or restless; you are not experiencing 

This is not a license to ignore the fundamental principles of tapering. You still need to taper if you are aiming for peak performance! 

Gentle foam rolling and short walks can improve blood flow without adding undesired fatigue. Of course, you want to keep these gentle and short. Too aggressive of foam rolling or too long of walks can produce muscle soreness, which will leave you feeling worse off during your race.

Macro-Scale Recovery

The taper elicits a large scale of adaptations, from changes in muscle enzyme levels to blood volume to mood and sleep patterns. A majority of these adaptations are necessary to perform well! All these physiological and psychological changes happening at once can cause you to temporarily feel achy and out of sorts. 

This is why a taper lasts longer than one week. You want to ensure your body is past the point of the recovery process. While too long of a taper can cause sluggishness and loss of fitness, too short of a taper can leave you in the middle of the recovery process on race day. 

 Hyper-awareness Due to Pre-Race Day Nerves

Pain and discomfort are physically very real; however, a heightened psychological state can amplify those signals and cause phantom pains. Your hamstring may always be slightly tight during training. In the emotionally heightened state of pre-race nerves, your brain may suddenly perceive the hamstring tightness as more significant.

To deal with hyperawareness, take a two-pronged approach. First, practice mindfulness. What are the sensations you are feeling? What is the pain level? If you deliberately clear your mind and take a few calming breaths, do you still notice it. (Again, if it hurts to run, this is a different issue – skip your race and see a PT!). 

Second, stay consistent with foam rolling during the taper. Foam rolling doesn’t just improve recovery; it can actually attentuate muscle soreness and improve propioception, according to a 2020 controlled study published in the Journal of Athlete Training. Not only will your muscles function better – your mind will perceive less soreness and tightness. 

(Still struggling? Here’s how to cope with pre-race nerves.)

Gear Changes in Peak Week

Ever wait until your big peak workout to try a new pair of racing shoes, and then wonder why your shins or Achilles are screaming at you during the taper? You may have your culprit for taper aches. Many runners are sensitive to shoe changes, particularly if the shoes feature a different heel-to-toe drop, stack height, or midsole firmness.

 If you do want to wear special shoes for race day, introduce them earlier in your training cycle. Nothing new during the taper! 

Or: You Were Training Through Injury

All of the above apply to a healthy runner. If you were training through injury, the ache you feel during race week may actually be your injury, letting you know that you abused it through weeks of high volume and high intensity. If your taper ache is an injury that hurt throughout your whole training cycle, then it is not a taper ache. Skip the race and get yourself to a PT; racing through injury could only make an injury worse! 

Final Note on Aches While Tapering for a Race

When athletes comment about noticeable taper aches, I often adjust their taper in the next race cycle (depending also on how their race felt). This may include a shorter taper, changes to when and by how much we decrease volume, more strides throughout, and short mobility workouts. Ultimately though, you best judge a taper by how you perform on race day – not solely by how you feel during the taper. 

And again: if the ache behaves like an injury (it hurts to run, you fail the hop test, etc), skip the race and get yourself to a PT! No race is worth turning a niggle into an injury.

Sources:
PMID: 31855077 
PMID: 15487904

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Do you commonly experience random aches while tapering?

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12 Responses

  1. A very good point about hyper-awareness and pre-race jitters. I get very nervous in the week before a race and become paranoid about every little niggle.
    Being mindful and foam rolling are great tips, Laura!

  2. Interesting! I have to agree with you about the pre-race jitters and hyperawareness; especially before a marathon. Since my diagnosis with RA, I have aches and pains every day. I’ve become pretty good about sorting them out. Sadly.

  3. I think many of us disregard the usual aches and pains and then hyper focus on them closer to races. Pre-race jitters are real even for experienced racers!

  4. It seems like the pre-race jitters would be the most common problem for most of us. I wasn’t aware of the other issues until now. Thanks for the info and possible explanations for aches and pains while tapering.

  5. This might be a duplicate comment…
    It seems like pre-race jitters would be the most common problem for most of us. I wasn’t aware of the other issues until now. Thanks for the info and possible explanation for aches and pains during tapering.

  6. I’m happy that I didn’t notice any taper pains on this last training cycle, but it’s definitely something I’ve noticed in the past. I never realized that there is so much nuance when it comes to the taper pains, so thanks for sharing such insightful info!

  7. Great info! When I don’t strength train or at least do some mobility work my body starts to feel off. I think that’s why I never feel great when I take a full week off completely, like when I’m sick. A little bit of mobility or core work helps alot! I also think I get hyperaware leading up to a race. It can be tricky to know if what you’re feeling is concerning or not!

  8. I am incredibly prone to hyper-awareness and pre-race jitters, especially after my surgery. Now, every single tweak makes my brain go into overdrive. No fun!

  9. Great tips. I’ve never been prone to pre-race pains or jitters but at this point in my life, I have sudden aches and pains all the time. I’ve become an expert at determining whether they are real or if I slept in a funny position.

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