The number of broken out, hair pulling, the world is ending “it’s race week and I have pain in my x” or ”I’m suddenly sick with the runner’s flu“emails I get would shock most people.
But not other runners.
We know all about the niggles, the weird little aches that never happened once during training and suddenly appeared in the weeks leading up to race day.
Race week pains might be all in our head, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating. And it doesn’t make the sniffles any less real.
So let’s talk about what’s happening and what we can do about it!
What is the Runner’s Flu?
It’s often known as post race sickness that feels like aches, stomach issues and even a runny nose. It’s not caused by running, but by a virus and a run down immune system.
Scientists have come up with two explanations for the aches and sickness: adrenaline and immunity.
During training, especially peak week, you’re pushing your body to it’s limits and it responds by adding in some adrenaline to keep you going, which suppresses the immune system and helps you power through.
Once, you begin taper the immune system goes in to overdrive ready to kick out anything that looks like an illness. That means you’re more susceptible to anything that’s going around (especially when you hop on that plane to travel to the race!), so you might have a sore throat before your race and still perform just fine.
It’s also why you might get sick in the days after a race!
In fact, according to David Nieman, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, someone running the Western States 100 miller has a 1 in 4 chance of getting ill.
Can You Run a Race While Sick?
All of this being said about how your body is doing it’s job and the race day adrenaline will get you through…sometimes it really is an injury or an illness and you need to make the tough decision to not toe the line.
Let’s start with some general guidelines on when to race and when to cut your losses.
Runny nose? Sore throat?
You’re good to go. In the days leading up to the race, really focus on boosting your immune system and then the day of pay attention to your energy levels.
Trouble breathing? Hacking Cough?
Take another rest day leading up to the race and give yourself an honest assessment.
Dr. Kaminsky, exercise physiologist at Ball State noted that runner lung function was NOT impaired by a cold. So as long as you pass the tests above feeling sluggish or snotty might not be enough to keep you from a PR.
High temperature or aching muscles?
Probably need at least a week for your body to truly recover just for easy runs and often at least two weeks to be anywhere near ready to push hard in a race. It also means you’re contagious and should stay home.
Remember that if you push when your body is already working hard to fight off a virus, it will likely rebound to make you even sicker because you will have further suppressed your immune system.
GI Distress? Stomach Issues?
Really, do you want to run…it’s going to make this all feel worse. You can attempt some Imodium if it’s truly important, but be prepared to possibly pull out of the race.
If nothing else is bothering you then this is usually the body’s way of making sure that you respect the taper. It’s time to relax and be fully recovered for race morning.
Next, let’s look at those running taper pains to decide if they’re more serious:
Red flag, stop, do not pass go.
Sorry no go, your body is signaling major issues.
If you find you’re changing your stride consistently to run or walk even a small niggle could result in a major issue. Think about that repetitive stress of the new muscles being used for the duration of your race.
Is this the first time it’s shown up during training? Or have you been battling this ache for months? Ongoing things are worth hitting the Dr to ensure that all out effort isn’t going to turn it in to more.
It’s not unusual as your body is in repair mode and you might be eating a few more carbs that your legs could feel heavy and paces feel harder to hit. This isn’t a reason to pull out.
Totally new pain?
Has this not ever hurt before? If it’s not sharp, plan to line up and you can always pull out if the pain persists, but its likely more in your head than an injury.
What Causes Running Taper Pain and Illness?
Over 15 years of running, I can think of very few races where in the final weeks of training I didn’t find myself muttering about a weird calf cramp or a strange feeling in my knee.
And more often than not, I’d find myself answering questions about race goals with…”We’ll see what happens, for some reason my XYZ is hurting.”
And that my friends is one of the reasons we have phantom race week pains.
First, let’s call them niggles if you will….
Pain is that sharp, heaven help me I can’t take another step because someone is trying to rip out my knee feeling. That’s a no go, an immediate stop. It’s not a little thing. You need to investigate with a professional.
However, discomfort is that moment you want to quit a 17 mile training run, but dig deep and push through because it’s fatigue, not injury.
Niggles are a persistent annoyance that is unlikely to be a true injury.
1. Race Pressure
All the weeks, months and heck sometimes years of training are about to come together for the big goal.
One of the ways we relieve pressure is by giving ourselves an excuse or an out. If we’ve put in all the training, then the only option left for us to not perform is an injury or that’s what we’re subconsciously rationalizing, when of course race day is always a surprise.
Find ways to let go of the pressure.
- Look back and your training
- Review the race course and create a plan
- Focus on the controllables
- Talk to other runners and blow off steam
2. Too Much Free Time
How do you normally deal with stress? Running.
During taper, that option is taken a way from you and that opens up time for you to focus on every little thing.
Suddenly you feel like you aren’t taking action towards your goal, which gives you extra time to fret about whether you can do it…I mean how does a 20 mile training run prepare you for 26.2?! It does, so don’t email me about that any more 🙂
Use this time to get your mind right.
Nothing will help you more on race day than having worked through ways you’ll handle obstacles and visualizing your ultimate goal.
3. Fully Body Tension
All of that anxiety creates tension.
Tension reduces oxygen flow to muscles.
Reduced oxygen creates flow inflammation.
In fact, this actually has a name called Tension Myositis Syndrome and I detailed how you can deal with it explicitly here.
But in general, it goes beyond trying to just ignore it or telling yourself to relax.
Once you can see that it’s not an actual injury, but something caused by your thoughts you can move forward with a plan!
4. Suppressed Immune System
Not only ado we deal with aches, but sickness during taper! It’s all part of the recovery process that the body is under going.
I talked a lot about the why of this above, so your job is to find all the tricks that keep your body humming.
- Vitamin D
- Lots of nutritious foods
- Following a smart training plan
- Boosting your immune system with good supplements
I’ve often told you that I use Previnex for Probiotics and fish oil, because those two help my gut and thus my immune system.
But they have stepped up their game with a new product. And since I’m stoked about it as well, I wanted to share.
This is something you take consistently throughout training and race week, as it will BUILD UP your immune system and prevent that runner’s flu!
It does this through something called Beta Glucans (trust me there are over 18,000 studies on how it works), plus organic mushrooms, elderberry, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc and Calcium.
So all things that are BACKED BY SCIENCE!!!!
Checkout all the details of Previnenx Immunity >>
Save 15% on your first purchase with code RTTF, or if you’ve already purchased from Previnex, use code IMMUNITY15 to save 15% on Immune Health PLUS for a limited time.
5. Muscle Repair
It should come as no surprise that your body needs to recover from the stresses you’ve created, especially in the previous weeks of your hardest training.
There are tiny tears in your muscles that with rest are now able to begin fully repairing and rebuilding to give you the power you’re seeking on race day.
Embrace the aches as a sign of recovery and find ways to treat your body well (which will reduce overall stress).
Get a massage or enjoy a long hot soak with epsom salts, both will help to flush the legs, bring down stress and encourage muscle recovery.
Don’t forget to pair those with plenty of water and electrolytes!
All right now you have a better idea of what causes runner’s flu and why your taper running may not feel as wonderful as the rest of training.
Just like you can take advantage of race day nerves, maybe all these race week niggles and Kleenex are designed to help you have a better race.
Allow them to take off some of the pressure, to force you to actually taper, then go out and just give it your all without the focus on a specific outcome. I’ve almost always found this to help everyone have a better day.
Here are all the previous steps in the Road to a PR series:
Choosing your race pace >>
Picking the right race for your goal >>
Creating your training plan >>
Why you need a base building phase>>
Safely adding speed work >>
Why you need a peak week >>
How to taper the right way >>
Race day strategy >>
How do you handle taper pain?
How do you know what’s real and what’s a mental issue?
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