Run Taper Tactics: 3 Ways to Be Mentally Strong on Race Day

Ever feel a little worried about the run taper weeks leading up to a race?

  • Your body goes through the wringer during the last few months of training. 
  • Tapering isn’t just a strategy to get your body feeling recovered and ready to race after a hard training block.
  • Showing up on race day with a tired mind will hold you back as much as tired legs will.

But it doesn't have to be that way.
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These THREE mental tactics will help train your brain & body, master the run taper & get ready for race day.

Run taper: Make it part of your big-picture training plan

Think you're gonna just run yourself into the ground without a run taper plan, then show up on race day feeling awesome?
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Think again. Running at your absolute limit requires as much physical and mental energy as you can muster. 

  • It’s one thing to train your body to handle high speeds and long distances.
  • And entirely another to get your mind on board with the program. 

Let’s be honest: it hurts to run fast, far, and hard. 

  • Anyone in their right mind would have trouble fully embracing the kind of discomfort that defines an intense race. 
  • Your brain will go to great lengths to prevent you from taxing yourself like that—and can you really blame it? 
  • Think of the hesitance as a protective mechanism. The more your mind pushes back, the less likely you are to put yourself through entirely avoidable pain. 

But you know better than your subconscious because you can see the bigger picture.
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In that bigger picture...

  • You can see the value of paying a visit to the pain cave, no matter how much it hurts in the moment. 
  • That’s the decision runners have to make over and over again during a race as the discomfort accumulates with each passing step.
  • Choosing to keep going requires warding off short-term desperation in favor of long-term satisfaction. 

If that sounds exhausting, you’re catching on.

But wait, there's more. Tack on the mental effort it takes to:

  • Stay on pace
  • Watch your step (especially if we’re talking trails)
  • Hit your fueling targets, and...
  • Contend with the inner demons that inevitably rise up in the face of a challenge

And this will give you an idea of the full cognitive load that racing imparts.
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And the fight’s not over when the race ends, either. 

  • A second mental battle awaits on the other side of the finish line. 
  • Hard athletic endeavors take a toll on your brain and body chemistry. 
  • The drop in testosterone and estradiol and spike in adrenaline and cortisol that occurs during a race takes time to both prepare for and recover from. 
  • Post-race depression—which includes symptoms like despair, fatigue, apathy, anxiety, brain fog, and suicidal ideation—often hits hard in the days, weeks, and even months after finishing as your hormonal profile reels from the effort and gradually recalibrates. 
  • Mixed feelings about the race experience only add more fuel to the fire. 

No run taper? It will cost you...

Don’t take this as a deterrent, but more so a motivator to respect the taper.
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That period of relative rest between peak training and hard racing makes sure that your body and mind get the space they both need in order to throw down as soon as the gun goes off.
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Without it, you’ll carry too much fatigue from training into the race to handle the load with strength and grace.
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Training drains the brain in its own way as the...

  • Big miles
  • Breathless workouts
  • Early bedtimes
  • Pre-dawn alarms
  • Gel wrappers
  • Pantry raids, and...
  • Laundry piles rack up 

Before the hard physical work comes the hard mental work of deciding to make it all happen. 

  • You can’t expect to make tough decisions during a race with the weight of every little decision along the way still resting on your shoulders. 
  • That’s the cognitive equivalent of showing up fresh off of a 20-mile hill workout. 

Run taper = physical & mental toughness

Run taper weeks offer a reprieve from each kind of exhaustion just in time to bounce back for the race.
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Unfortunately, that’s right when the pressure starts to mount for many runners.

  • With race day right around the corner, all the work that can be done has been done…
  • Which means there’s nothing left to do but worry incessantly about how the work will play out and question everything you once believed about your athletic capabilities. 

Plus, most runners run for a reason other than the love of running itself

  • We find peace in self-propelled motion. 
  • As the time we spend running plummets during the week or two before a race, that sense of peace becomes more elusive. 
  • Taper tantrums are born from the restlessness we feel when body and soul fall out of alignment. 
  • It’s worth the temporary loss of identity to run our best when it matters most, but only if you don’t sabotage your chances by replacing activity with anxiety. 

3 mental tactics to master the run taper

With that in mind, put extra effort into protecting your peace during the taper week. 

  • Do it for the sake of your sanity and your performance. 
  • It’s not all about conserving physical energy.
  • You’ll run better on the big day if you’re able to squirrel away as much mental energy as possible too. 

Prioritize these THREE habits during your run taper to make sure you make it to the start line with your sanity intact. 

1. Breathwork

Many runners already know the power of breathwork for managing their output and keeping their cool while running.
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But what about when you’re not? 

  • It matters just as much during moments of stillness. 
  • Breath does more than keep you alive. 
  • The rhythm, the flow, the ratio of in to out.
  • The characteristics of your breath communicate with your brain to decide your mood, your attitude, your cognitive capacity, and more.

“Take a deep breath” isn’t just a colloquialism.

  • There’s no better way to calm the mind and the body simultaneously than exercising control over your breath. 

The thing is, it’s easy to lose control over this most vital function of the human existence precisely because it’s so fundamental. 

  • We can’t live without breath, and our bodies know how to breathe without bothering our brains about it. 
  • We don’t have to think about breathing. That’s what keeps us alive. 
  • Otherwise, in typical short-sighted human fashion, we’d forget as soon as something more interesting swooped in to steal our attention.
  • But just because we don’t have to think about breathing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put consideration into it. 

Breath & the trouble with too much stress

Stress has a habit of making our breaths:

  • Shorter
  • Sharper
  • Shallower...

Which then reduces the amount of oxygen traveling to our brains and throughout our bodies.
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Which imparts even more stress and triggers a vicious cycle.

One of the most effective ways to stop the cycle is by slowing down and evening out the rhythm of our breath. 

  • I’m not asking you to have complete awareness over your breath all day, everyday of the taper. 
  • Ain’t nobody got time for that. 
  • You can use your breath to facilitate relaxation without paying attention to it 24/7. 

Create your breathwork routine

Set aside certain times of day when you can dedicate 5 to 10 minutes toward intentionally reducing the rate of your breathing pattern. 

  • Studies show that bouts of reducing the average rate of 12 to 20 breaths per minute down to 6 to 10 helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. the “rest and digest” response correlated with relaxation.
  • so think about simply doubling the length of your normal inhale and exhale. 

In addition to penciling in a few designated “slow breathing” slots in your schedule, keep an ear out for times when your breath starts to speed up throughout the day. 

  • Take time in those moments to counteract the stress with a few bonus rounds of slow breaths. 
  • It might not seem like much, but to your brain, a few slow breaths can mean the difference between a brief interruption and a full-blown panic attack. 
  • The latter will sap more energy than a sprint. I don’t know about you, but that’s not exactly a recipe for a great race in my book…so catch me breathing nice and slow all taper long. 

2. Visualization

Your brain believes what it sees. But that’s not restricted to what’s right in front of your eyes.
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Vivid visualization blurs the lines between real and imaginary to that extent that the brain can’t always tell the difference. 

  • According to research on the effects of visualization on neural responses, mental imagery sparks the same parts of the brain as reality would. 
  • It’s not identical, but it’s a close second—especially with practice. 

Visualization gets attention for the way it helps people conceive of success.

  • But it’s good for more than manifesting PR’s and podium finishes. 
  • You can use imagery to access a state of relaxation too.  

Consider what you associate with calm:

  • Colors
  • Shapes
  • Textures
  • Movements
  • Places
  • People, etc. 

It could be as realistic as a summer sunset over the foothills or as abstract as an ocean blue orb spreading from your heart out through your limbs.
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Either way, nail down the details. Here's how:

  • Make the image as sharp as it would look in reality. Think about every detail of the perfect race day.
  • Specificity strengthens the illusion. 
  • Your better judgment may know it’s not real, but let that part of you take a back seat for now. 
  • Embrace your inner five-year-old and play pretend without asking too many questions. It’s not that deep. 

3. Self-talk

Words matter. But the words that tend to go unnoticed, the ones we use with ourselves, matter most.
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Those are the ones that bounce around in our brains whether we want them to or not.

  • Because they don’t get spoken out loud, though, people don’t take them as seriously as they should. 
  • Even in silence, they subconsciously affect our behaviors. 

Your run taper is the time to hone your self-talk so you’re communicating the concepts that you value most to your subconscious self. 

  • But it’s not the time to overcrowd your brain with too many expectations and contemplations. 

Self-talk tips for your next run taper

Streamline the trains of thought that you want to channel during the race into short, sweet, and digestible mantras that you can call up at will. 

  • Fill the taper with those mantras as a way to practice them before the race so they’re on speed-dial. 
  • That way, when your brain gets dumb as the miles pile on, you don’t have to grasp at straws for the perfect words to motivate you.
  • And find your center because they’re already pre-programmed. 
  • Save future you the hassle (and the brain cells). Current you will benefit from the simplicity while you’re at it, too. 

What's your run taper look like before a race?

Tell us about it in the comments.

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Lucie Hanes
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Eagle, CO
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Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big fee...

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