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I want to talk about what is probably your favourite time of year - taper. However, while it might seem simple, there are many ways to have a great taper, and a lot of ways to have a bad taper. I want to make sure you are one of the minority of athletes who can consistently improve your performance on the day of the competition. To make this happen I've identified 4 key areas you can focus on.

1. Limit Your Stress

When I was working for the Canadian Sport Institute, I did a search of all the research that had been done that tried to identify what factors determined whether or not an athlete would improve their performance at the Olympics. This was a really important question because only about 20% of Olympians achieve a lifetime best performance at the Games. So knowing what could help people get into that 20% was critical.

After lots of reading and analysis I discovered that there was one factor that, above all others, determined if an athlete would improve their performance. That one factor was stress. The athletes with the lowest levels of cortisol in their blood and saliva had the greatest improvements in performance.  

As I mentioned earlier in this module, acute stress is beneficial for performance, however chronic stress can be detrimental to health and performance. If cortisol is at an elevated level in your system consistently then it blocks adaptation. And when you're tapering you need as much adaptation as possible. You want new blood cells, stronger muscles, faster acting nerves and less inflammation in your body. If you can lower your stress levels and help your body to recover better you're well on your way to being one of the few athletes who can improve your performance consistently when it's race time. Here are a few ways to do that.

2. Sleep

As you learned in the Sleep Soundly module, you need a good solid sleep to repair muscle tissue and speed recovery. Therefore, for your body to adapt during taper you need to sleep more. You need 8-10 hours on a regular basis. During your taper and during racing I'd love you to add a 20- or 90-minute nap during the day (remember our discussion on the importance of the length of your nap). This includes a midday nap between sessions during a competition.

Also no screens before bed. This can be a huge lifestyle change, but television, iPads, laptops and mobile phones all compromise your ability to fall asleep and then sleep deeply. So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips and pick up a good book instead.

3. Relax

I want to introduce you to Progressive Relaxation, which is a technique used to relax the body and mind.

This exercise will further develop your ability to recognize and relieve tension. Muscle tension consumes energy inefficiently and decreases circulation, leading to physical aches and pains. Progressive relaxation can have significant benefits: improved digestion and cardiovascular function, relief from aches and pains, and improved sleep. All of which are important during taper.

Progressive relaxation consists of alternately tensing and releasing different muscle groups. Hold each muscle contraction for 3-5 seconds and each relaxation phase for 10-15 seconds.

Some basic instructions are provided below. As you try the techniques, notice the differences between sensations of strain and calmness. You can be seated in a chair or lying down for this.

  • Lean back and make yourself comfortable.

  • Close your eyes. Raise your toes as high as possible, hold, then release and let the tension go into the floor. Point the toes and repeat.

  • Tense the upper part of your legs. Experience the tension. Hold then relax, feeling your legs against the chair and your feet against the floor. Experience the relaxation.

  • Tighten your stomach muscles . . . then relax. Take a deep breath, feeling the tension in your chest. Exhale and relax. Concentrate on how calm you can get.

  • Make tight fists with your hands and hold for about 5 seconds. Unclench your hands and let the tension flow out, noting how it feels different to relax.

  • Do the same with your upper arms, then your neck. Frown, and then relax. Take a moment to notice any other areas of tension and concentrate on releasing those as well.

  • Take a few deep breaths and open your eyes – you will be totally alert and relaxed!

If you would like a guide to doing this technique check out The Inside Edge audio program by Dr. Peter Jensen on iTunes.

4. More Energy Less Tension

A few years ago I had the chance to go watch a training session with one of the Olympians that I work with – Adam Van Koeverden. You can check him out by visiting his website www.vankayak.com. Adam’s a kayaker and has won 4 Olympic medals and numerous World Championship medals – so he’s a reasonable athlete! During the workout we headed out onto the river and Adam did his workout in the boat while I watched from the motorboat.

During the workout I asked that Adam work through a descending set. It’s a tough workout but I love it because it lets me see where fatigue sets in and how athletes respond to the physical discomfort that comes with the buildup of lactic acid, carbon dioxide and other chemicals in the body.

What’s super interesting about descending sets is that different athletes respond completely differently to the same physical and mental stress. Some experience fatigue, muscle pain, hard breathing and then increase their effort and get tense and tight. They’re working really hard to finish the training. Others – like Adam – move into the very challenging part of the workout and they almost seem to relax more as they go faster. Their energy output increases but they don’t try “harder”. They just go “faster”.

They accomplish this by being ruthless about where they place their energy. Adam will activate the muscles that he needs to use to hold the paddle in the water and exert force on that paddle. But other muscles that are not being directly used to move the boat forward are completely relaxed. As a result he’s able to be efficient, paddle with better technique, and be faster while putting his energy right where it’s needed to achieve his objectives.

Tension makes us feel like we’re working hard but it leads to more distress, decreased circulation, bad moods and ultimately more fatigue and poorer performance. We need more energy and less tension in our training, especially leading up to a big competition.

The first step in learning how to do this is to be aware of your body and mind. Try the tension release exercise below a few times during the day to see if you can release tension, reset and recover better.

By focusing on these 4 keys during taper, we can make sure you take your performance to another level.