Physically, tapering ensures that the body is rejuvinated and recovered from previous training. Although training volume is greatly reduced, intensity is sprinkled into training in order to wake-up the body for race day. The endurance athlete who has invested many months to training can now "cash-out" from previous training investments.
For the first time in a very long time, the body is under little physical stress as it enters race day with a healthy, fit, resilient and responsive body.
The tapering approach will differ among athletes, depending on fitness ability, prior taper experience and any recent history with setbacks.
While taper can be physically easy, many athletes mentally struggle with taper. A drastic change in your training schedule can make you feel a little "off." This sudden, yet expected, time in the season can bring question, doubt and uncertainty, alongside an intense fear of athletic readiness.
Regardless of the type and length of taper, it's important to embrace your taper. As much as you love to train, if you don't taper adequately, you will arrive to race day sore, exhausted, mentally checked out and physically unable to perform. But rest too much, and you will arrive to race day flat, exhausted and feeling unfit.
During taper, most athletes struggle with the change in appetite, sleepiness, random aches/phantom pains, fatigue, mood changes, uncontrollable nerves and extra time that come with the reduction in training volume.
If you love taper, you likely embrace all of the free time that you have on your hands, not to mention the nervous energy that means your race is quickly approaching.
Here are a few of my tips to help you mentally cope with taper:
Enjoy your new (temporary) normal - There is absolutely no reason to be inactive during taper and certainly you don't want to see taper as a time to be sedentary. When you officially start your taper, enjoy a few days of a very light training (or complete days off). Use this time to enjoy a new normal by doing very little with your body. Sleep in, sit on the patio while sipping your morning coffee or relax on the couch after work and watch a movie. Take advantage of this time after your last big block of training, because then you will gradually bring back structure to your training and spice it up with a little intensity.
Be smart with your new normal - You should avoid fear based training during taper. In the 2 weeks before a race, you can not gain fitness. Therefore, testing yourself to see if you can run x-miles or swim at x-pace or hold xwatts will bring you no physical benefits for race day. Although mentally you may feel more confident going into the race, you want your best effort to be on race day and not in training. Save your energy for when it counts! Additionally, even though your training routine is reduced, this is not the time to pick up a new sport like soccer, basketball, rock climbing or water skiing. Be smart with how you use your time/energy.
Work on mental strength - With reduced training volume, you now have more time in your life to work on your mental skills (Don't use this extra time for house projects). It's recommend to dedicate at least 20 minutes a day to meditation and visualization in the 2 weeks before your race. This can be done anytime so long as it is done without distractions and in a calm, comfortable place. Although you have the physical skills for race day, you can only compete at the level you are capable of if you remove the fears, anxieties and stressors preventing you from performing at your best. Instead of "hoping" that you will do well, you must believe in yourself, with the abilities to stay calm under pressure and focused on only the controllables.
Maintain a healthy relationship with your body - In the 4 weeks before a race, you should not be obsessing about your "race weight". Your body may feel different and it may feel tired but changing your diet to try to change how you look will be disastrous for your race. For many athletes, a drop in volume and a change in routine may cause a heightened sense of awareness of body image. Self imposed pressure and anxiety may bring feelings of unworthiness, leading to self defeating thoughts about the body. Change this thought process immediately. A vulnerable athlete who feels uncomfortable with body image is likely to look for coping strategies, like dieting and over-exercising in order to gain control in the weeks before a race. Never is underfueling, intentional dehydrating (or fasting/detoxing) or overexercising performance enhancing. This can severely sabotage performance and health. If you struggle in this area, you must focus on what your body is capable of doing on race day. When was the last time you thanked your body for allowing you to train for your race?
Your taper is the culmination of many months of training. It is a very critical time in your training plan where you intentionally change up your normal training regime. Although taper can be an uncomfortable time, athletes who embrace taper are destined to experience race day success.
No matter how you feel your training during taper, trust that you will be just fine on race day. Yes, even if you feel absolutely horrible in the 24 hours before your race, you WILL be able to perform amazingly well on race day.