Taper is an interesting time.
Physically, it is needed for endurance events to ensure that the body is rested and well-fueled for the upcoming long haul but the style of tapering may differ depending on fitness ability and prior experience.
However, emotionally and mentally, here is why tapering can be rather difficult. On one end, you long for the first day of taper when you have a sigh of relief that the end of "training" is near but on the other end, a change in schedule, appetite, structure, etc. can make tapering a rather uncomfortable time.
With 8 Ironman and 8 half Ironman distance events behind me, I have not only learned the most appropriate taper for my body but also how to best taper each one of my athletes (although, it's only through a long term athlete/coach relationship that a taper is essentially discovered).
But most of all, I have learned to embrace taper.
It is a beautiful thing.
Many athletes go into taper seeing it as a horrible time. Appetite issues, sleep issues, random aches, fatigue, mood changes, uncontrollable nerves, extra time (not sure how this is a bad thing for an age group athlete). These are a few of the many complaints that athletes describe when it comes to tapering.
Although some of these may occur, I do believe that athletes need to learn how to have a healthier relationship with taper in order to enjoy the time before race day for it is necessary and beneficial.
Here are a few of my tips to have a healthy taper
1. Continue to eat for fuel and for health
If you didn't master this mindset in training, you may find yourself doing the opposite during taper......eating too much or too little. Aim to be satisfied with your meals and snacks and if you struggle in this area (either feeling like you are eating too much because you are always hungry OR eating too little because you are afraid to change your body composition) first contact a sport RD who can assist you so that you do not waste months of training because you are unable to understand how to properly fuel your body in the 2-3 weeks before race day. Additionally, plan your diet in the morning and then reflect in the evening. If you do this (write down your eating for the day, including meals, snacks, hydration and sport nutrition before, during and after workouts) for 3-4 days (in a row at the beginning of your taper) you should be able to master your diet as you identify areas that may be causing you to overeat or areas that need tweaks for better balance in the diet.
Look at your dietary choices in two ways: What foods are keeping your immune system healthy so that you do not get sick as your body is healing itself from months and months of intense/higher volume training? What foods are keeping your body fueled for it's current level of activity?
Because ice cream, cookies and coke do not boost your immune system nor give you nutrients to support your training load, these foods (and many others) should not be seen as "needed" in your taper diet. The reason why I say needed is because you can certainly indulge as you wish anytime in your training cycle but when you indulge, you should always feel better after you eat them than before. Although I do believe that it is possible not to have extreme sweet/salty cravings with long distance training (both Karel and I have very minimal cravings, if ever, during or after workouts during IM training), if you are curbing cravings with these foods during high volume training, it is likely that you have a craving for them because of expending additional calories. With a drop in training load, address the place of these calorie-dense foods in your current diet. With a good mindset about your diet and current training routine, fueling your body during taper will be a fun time. Because every athlete wants success on race day, see the foods that you choose to eat as having a purpose greater than to just curb a craving or because you deserve it.
If you feel like you have a fairly balanced diet and include many real food choices that will fuel your body and boost your immune system, the easiest change is adjusting how you fuel before, during and after your "new" taper workouts AND not neglecting healthy snacks to prevent overeating at meals or in the late evening. I believe that athletes should still continue to support workouts with fluids, electrolytes and calories during all workouts as well as fueling before/after workouts as this has an incredible positive affect on your immune system, energy, recovery and appetite/cravings.
2. Enjoy your new normal
There is absolutely no reason to be inactive during taper and if anything, you do not want your body to get lazy. It is important to give your body a few days of a very light load of workouts (or a few off days from working out - not necessarily in a row) after your last big block of training. However, once you feel like the body is rested and refueled from those workouts (at least 3-4 days), then you want to incorporate low volume but a bit of intensity (with adequate recovery) to keep your body fresh. Your body may crave or reject the desire for intense intervals for the first two or three workouts that you doing or perhaps in just the first few minutes of a main set but this is ok. You gotta wake that body up so that it knows a race is coming.
(if you feel you are burntout or overtrained, this needs to be discussed with your coach for this is very serious to your health).
There are a few prereqs that come with this.
You should avoid any type of "testing" workouts if you are injured. If your body is injured but you just want to test it, you need to give yourself at least 48 hours after the moment/day you feel "healed" to ensure you do not backtrack. Consider that 1 day too soon testing your body after an injury can put your back 3 days or a week or more. It is absolutely not worth testing your body just to see if you can do "it" when you are still on the road to recovery.
You should never compromise sleep during your taper. Whereas long workouts are often done early morning on the weekends to avoid hot temps later in the day (and perhaps to accommodate family schedules) this is understood. But the shorter volume workouts during taper should allow you to not be so rushed in the early morning. Athletes who continue to wake up at 4:30-5:30am on the first weekend of taper (assuming this follows 4-6 days of waking up at 4:30-5:30am to work out before work) are not taking full advantage of taper. Unless you are getting at least 7-8 hours of restful sleep at night, allow your body to sleep without waking up to an alarm. Sleep will not only help repair and rejuvinate your body but it will help with appetite as well.
You are not lazy. You do not have to train for a marathon, ironman or any distance more than 90 minutes just to be "healthy" or to maintain your body composition. If anything, what you are doing to do your body in training for this long distance event is extremely unhealthy. It is important that you do not see taper as a negative for your body in that you are losing fitness, gaining weight or being lazy. Accept that you needed to put in the work to train your body and now you need to rest it through a lighter load and adequate fuel. Remember, you are doing all of the phases of training to have a great race day performance so do not sabotage yourself on race day by doing too much during taper week (or by hating every moment that you are not training more). When your "workout" is over, find ways in your life that you can keep your body and mind healthy and happy. Explore new places, spend time in the kitchen, catch up with chores/to-do's, volunteer, go for long walks, etc. there is so much you can do with your extra time that no athlete should ever feel bored, antsy or upset with having extra time.
3. Maintain a healthy relationship with your body
I believe that athletes need to prioritize this tip for it is extremely important in feeling confident with your body before race day. In the 2-3 weeks before a race, your body may add a little water weight, it may feel different and it may feel tired. All of this can cause an athlete to hate their body, feel the need to do something extreme/drastic with the diet/exercise routine during taper or doubt fitness ability before a race. All of this is not advantageous to a great race day experience.
If you struggle in this area, you must focus on what your body is capable of doing on race day. Direct your energy to how amazing your body is and where it was (fitness-wise) when you started training for this upcoming event and where it is today. What are you able to do now that you once couldn't? What is your body capable of on race day? What is it that you want from your body on race day?
Keep in mind that you are not racing for the ideal body image on race day. Your fans, fellow athletes, teammates and spectators are watching what your body can do on race day and not what your body looks like.
With 12 months in a year, yes, you had a long time to work on your fitness as well as change your body composition (if that was your goal). But regardless if your fitness is there or not (perhaps relative to your goals) AND regardless of your current body composition, the only thing you can do in the 2-3 weeks before a long distance race is keep your body and mind healthy so that you can fully enjoy your race day experience.
Do not try to take the New Years Day approach and change 6-12 months of bad habits in the 1,2 or 3 weeks before a race.
After your season is over, it is your time to be flexible with your diet/workout routine. You can simply do whatever you want during that time and not worry so much about your performance or health. Certainly I would hope that health and an active lifestyle are always important to you but do not let taper be the only time when you are finding yourself doing things that you once did not have the desire/motivation to do during training. Although you should certainly take very good care of yourself during taper, just be sure you do not try to change your body composition through excessive exercise or dieting which can negatively affect performance and health.
Have a happy and healthy taper!