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In the final weeks before a race of marathon distance or greater there are a number of important nutritional and mental priorities and practices to consider.
Dialing In Your Nutrition
Performance nutrition is the concept of using food to compliment physical preparation and enhance athletic outcomes. There are three nutritional priorities and practices to consider during the taper;
#1: Adequate Hydration
Water is the most important nutrient in the body. It is the medium in which many chemical reactions occur, particularly those involved in energy production. It is also largely the medium in which other nutrients and waste products are transported in the body. During a taper your locomotion muscles (ie. sport-specific lower extremity muscles) are busy repairing and fortifying from the months of high volume work you've done. Intracellular fluid compartments (comprising 65% of your total body water) are where this work gets done. Maintaining adequate hydration assures that these important processes are optimally executed. Practice: drink enough water daily that your urine is a pale yellow color right up to race day.
#2: Sufficient Protein Intake
The most obvious benefit of sufficient protein intake for endurance athletes is in the repair of skeletal muscle broken down repeatedly during high volume training. But the diverse function of proteins in the body represents a number of very important considerations for the tapering endurance athlete including antibody formation (which keep you healthy), enzymes (which keep chemical reactions humming along), messengers (like hormones that help different tissues talk to each other), and transportation/storage (which assist in the movement of atoms and small molecules within the cell and throughout the body). Practice: make sure to include protein sources at each of your three daily primary meals.
#3: Carbohydrate "Un-Loading"
It might come as a surprise to many endurance athletes that carbohydrates are third on this list (rather than #1). As has been discussed before, stored carbohydrates (as liver & muscle glycogen) are an important fuel source that opens up the potential to optimize stored body fat during multiple hours of physical activity. While the pre-race pasta-focused "carbo load" has become a ritual for endurance athletes, the time to top off glycogen stores is during the last few weeks before a race, not the last few hours. But most endurance athletes get more than adequate amounts of carbohydrates in their diets. Practice: shift focus to healthy carbohydrates including whole grains, low-fat dairy, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. Limit simple sugars such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup containing foods.
Sharpening Your Mental Blade
All the physical preparation in the world is worthless without the right mental approach on race day. In the weeks leading up to an event the additional time you are afforded is the perfect opportunity to sharpen your mental approach. Here are the three key elements to do this;
#1: Visualize Success
All mind-body endurance athletes believe the concept of "the body achieves what the mind believes", but theory without practice is like a ship without a sail. If you can repeatedly create a conscious image of your desired performance outcome then you will program your subconscious to direct your physical body to execute it. Practice: once a day create a vivid mental picture of you attaining your performance goal. Include as many positive emotional elements as possible.
#2: Tune Out Distractions
Multiple hour endurance events almost always have at least one significant challenge that has the potential to derail a desired outcome (ie. weather, blisters, bonking). Your ability to handle these unexpected circumstances is directly related to your capacity to focus. But like many things, this focus in times of despair is a function of how effectively it is trained. By concentrating on the effort in the moment during each training unit you can condition yourself to recognize and eliminate distracting thoughts giving you much more potential on race day to "solve the problem". Practice: during each taper training unit practice focus by remaining in the moment and continually taking stock of how your body feels. Any time you are distracted by non-productive thinking; acknowledge it and then re-direct back to focusing on what you are doing at the moment.
#3: Stay Positive
The act of tapering can be mentally challenging for biochemical reasons previously discussed. Either way, feelings of doubt have the potential to creep into the consciousness of every tapering endurance athlete. This doubt can be expressed as a negative internal (and sometimes external) dialog. Effort follows attitude and attitude is within your scope of influence. While eliminating negative dialog is very difficult, it is always possible to identify it and strive to reduce it. Practice: refrain from negative internal and external dialog. Use power thoughts like "I am physically and mentally prepared to give everything I have to this effort.".