Posted by: Joe English | June 4, 2010

Training — What Causes Race Day Fatigue?

running-advice-bugA reader named Sarah wrote in with a question about a marathon that didn’t unfold quite as she had expected. After her training going well with three long runs of 20 miles or more and plenty of other miles, she came into the race prepared but then something went wrong. As Sarah writes:

“I really struggled with sleep the week before the marathon. Was particularly anxious and just keyed up for some reason. I traveled with friends and we stayed at a hotel. I woke up Marathon morning feeling okay, but I didn’t have my usual nervous excitement. I was excited about running, but it just felt different. I knew my training was good, but my taper was terrible with the bad sleep and anxiousness. So we get to the race and I started and felt okay. It takes a few miles for me to lock in and get that “i can run forever” feeling. Well, mile 5 comes and goes and it’s not locking in so much. Mile 8 comes and I’m starting to panic because everything feels incredibly heavy and the thought of running the full seems to be very daunting at this point. My legs felt like I was carrying 20 pound weights on each leg. I tried getting my mental game on to get me though it, but it wasn’t happening and I was struggling…”

So the question is what went wrong on race day. It would be easy to say that the fact that Sarah struggled with her sleep the week before the race might have had something to do with her performance, but I don’t think this is really the culprit. It is fairly typical for marathon runners not to sleep well for a few days before their key races and this has been shown in research to have little impact on their marathon performances. There are a few other things here that seem more likely to have come into play.

There are two likely causes for what amounts to an unusual fatigue on race day and both of them have to do with the taper portion of the marathon training cycle. The first is a lack of recovery from the longest training runs that come right before the taper and the second is a taper that doesn’t include enough speed work to keep the body “fresh and fast” going into the race. Let’s look at both of these in turn.

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