Psycho-Physiological Considerations During Taper:
How to avoid turning into this guy...
Alan Couzens, M.S. (Sports Science)
April 27th, 2015
I have a love-hate relationship with this point of the year – the beginning of race season.
Love: Because athletes are finally getting to cash in their chips and see the result of all their hard work.
Hate: Because in the absence of this hard work, athletes have extra energy that tends to be diverted into anxiety and negative thoughts!
I don’t especially enjoy or relate to the negative conversations that arise during taper. There is a reason that I switched majors from sports psychology to exercise physiology way back when and this is reflected in my approaches to ‘taper problems’ to this day. You see, when it comes to the taper, I operate from the following mindset…
“You can’t think your way out of a problem created by having too much time (& energy) to think!”
Yes, I’ll remind you of the work you’ve done to this point and (metaphorically) rub Vaseline all over your hiney and tell you it’s special and different from everyone else’s...
...but when it comes down to it, we athletes are all one breed and we all suffer from the same issues come taper time that come from very physiological causes related to one word - energy!
Super-charged energy is the objective of the taper. While we spend most of the year preserving just enough freshness to keep you healthy and get good training done, at taper time, we maximize this freshness and take you to a level of energy that you rarely see. This can be good or bad...
Assuming that you’re not a Buddhist monk, you probably suffer from the same malady as most of us humans: You lack the ability to consistently control your thoughts. Extra energy = extra uncontrolled thoughts = not much fun for coach or athlete. To a certain extent, this is the price we pay for reaching an optimal state of readiness for one brilliant explosion of energy, but there are a couple of things we can do to help to manage that extra energy in the lead up to your event.
The benefits of learning to manage your taper energy extend beyond preserving your sanity (& that of your coach)….
As you probably know, I’ve developed a recent obsession with heart rate variability tracking. This has been the first year that I’ve been consistently tracking a group of athletes through the whole season. HRV metrics during taper have been especially interesting…
Below you’ll see Sympathetic (lnLF) and Parasympathetic (lnHF) curves for 2 athletes as they approach a major event (on day 14).
You can see an interesting pattern that relates to athletic 'form’ and 'peaking'. While both athletes exhibit a progressive increase in sympathetic drive (blue line) and a drop in parasympathetic strength (orange line) over the taper, Athlete 2 reaches the ‘crest of his sympathetic wave’ about a week too early. He spends precious race energy on pre-race anxiety that doesn’t (didn’t) help his cause. His ANS then ‘crashes’ a few days prior to the event (coinciding with a sub-par training day) before re-bounding a little with the excitement of the event but not to its previous high point.
I think athlete 2 would agree with me when I say that he falls on the more 'race anxious' end of the scale. This more broad relationship between anxiety and high LF/HF ratio has also been shown in the research - the clinical psychology research, that is....
Rechlin et al. (1994) came to the following conclusion: "Patients with panic disorder showed a significantly increased low frequency (LF) band of spectral analysis"
High LF in the absence of a physical outlet for that LF = Panic! Not a good mental or physical place to be during race week! So what can we do to help to time things out so that we’re actively managing our psychology and neuro-physiology to put us literally at our peak function at just the right time?
- Become aware of your own ‘energy waves’, especially during taper, i.e. track HRV! I recently wrote a short primer to get you started for our Endurance Corner site here.
- Learn to ‘damper’ your sympathetic drive by….
a) Not 'over-tapering': Get yourself fit enough so that you can afford to still maintain a good therapeutic daily dose of exercise while you're building freshness over the taper.
b) Not ditching the low intensity exercise during taper: This is always the first thing to go from of the program during taper. Athletes are all about the race pace efforts and the sharpening work but the restorative aerobic sessions are perhaps the most directly important right before a race, especially if that race is energy limited. A nice moderately long aerobic session will bring your LF numbers down a bit and preserve that autonomic energy for the race.
c) Meditating: Physiologically, meditation and its Eastern sisters – Tai Chi, yoga etc will give your parasympathetic system a boost & help to ‘pace’ that rise in excitement/arousal towards your race. Psychologically, meditation will help you to avoid getting caught up in those negative thought cycles that squander that valuable energy in ways that don’t help your finish time on the clock. You can waste a lot of energy in negative thought traps on your way to the race. The only way to get out of these is to consistently ‘train’ your ability to do so.
Not all races go according to plan. We have chosen to specialize in long events in natural environments that span a significant portion of time and contain a number of variables over which we have only limited control. However, there is nothing worse than seeing an athlete beat themselves, with negativity, lack of sleep & ‘what if-ing’ themselves to death, before they step up to the line. Perhaps it is not coincidental that ‘Zen masters’ like the legendary Mark Allen had such consistent success in long course racing.
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