The Psychology of Tapering

With Spring marathons coming thick and fast over the next few weeks, this piece explores the psychology behind tapering and how it can play a crucial role in shaping your race experience.

So you're finally here and it only took you a few hundred miles (give or take). You've done it, physically. But something doesn't quite feel right... Oh yeah, it's taper week.

With regards to physical matters, there's not much left to do in taper week. The gains have already been made. Research suggests that you only notice the positive physiological changes of a workout two weeks after the workout. That's why a taper, physically, is all about maintenance and keeping well.

But what happens to the mind in the taper weeks? Quite a lot. Your self-esteem gets interrogated making you question if you are enough. And your self-efficacy is put to trial, second guessing your confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. To help fuel the fire a common theme is time travelling, mentally. Your thoughts may go to the past via the 'rumination line' with stops at stations like "I should have" and "why didn't I". When you get to the end of the line at "If only...", you make a quick change to the 'worry line'. This line takes you to the overly negative future, shooting past stops such as "what if", "I won't", and coming to a halt at "I can't". It's a circus of a ride, one that can be hard to sleep on. The problem with time travelling via ruminating about the past and worrying about the future is that you are rarely in the present. Finding ways to bring yourself back to the present is key because where you are now, right now, is a direct result of all the hard work and training you have gone through. You can't be in a taper week if you don’t need to taper.

So how do you stop all of these negative thoughts about your training being inadequate and you not being able to perform on race day?

Well for starters, stop. Stop trying to stop thoughts as it only gives them more of a stage. You'll find it is less of a fight when you simply notice your thoughts, accept that they are there, then keep doing whatever it is you are doing. Or in a wider sense, keep moving towards your values as this can quieten the white noise. Acceptance can be painful as we naturally want to fight and escape, but sitting with usually leads to long-term change rather than just short-term relief.

Add more. The taper can seem like it is all about reduction, although viewing the taper in this manner can feel like you're under house arrest until you are let loose at the sound of the gun at the start line. You are allowed to continue living your life as normal in taper week. So add things into your plan that you enjoy. This will help distract your mind from the race and also release some of that pent up energy and stress. What you add is individual to you, but ensure it is destressing and is something that gives you energy rather than drains it from you. Think seeing a good friend, going out for a nice meal, or booking in that spa day you have been talking about for months…

It can also be helpful to remind yourself of the evidence. Thoughts are not facts. The facts lie (odd pun noticed) in the evidence. Reflect on your data. The runs you have ran, the mileage logged, and the races you've finished. It's helpful to remind the brain of the nice stuff sometimes. But try not to overdo this one by overanalysing everything… it's just a task to act as a quick reminder of what you can do. This is because the brain is very good at reminding you of that one awful run last month, but easily forgets about the 15 average runs you breezed through or the 3 epic runs where you somehow felt like Mo Farah (3 might be a stretch, but it does happen).

Prepare your goals, yup plural. With any race you enter it is good to have a plan A, B, and C. For example, plan A may be to get a sub4 hour marathon. If that doesn't work out, you move to plan B which could be to beat your PB marathon time of 4hour20min. Then if that becomes out of reach, plan C gets activated which is simply to just finish. Now you might be thinking this is a negative attitude to have. It's not, it's realistic. The unexpected can happen on race day, and if it does you need something else to realign your focus and drive. This aims to relieve the pressure from that one golden goal being your only focus. The idealised belief that such a goal will bring you endless happiness is unlikely, given the unfortunate reality of the dopamine hit being time limited regardless of how big the feat. This is why goals, single goals, can have quite a big come down even when accomplished. Post-race blues anyone? No? Just me, cool. How to overcome the blues? Sign up to another event immediately of course.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when your mind starts to depart you. Just remember this happens with first time runners and seasoned pros. Overtime the white noise can just become background noise, like the crowd cheers to your finish line glee.

Have a good race

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