When it comes to personality types it is a foregone conclusion that athletes are highly motivated individuals. If not they would be sitting on the couch wondering why those crazy people go out and run every morning. Being highly motivated is a real boon to achieving performance improvement goals, because more than anything else success depends on consistency. To get up and do the day's planned workouts is not always easy. That snug, comfortable bed can easily lure the unmotivated athlete off the path and onto the road to ruin. Elite athletes have the advantage of rare, performance enhancing genes. The rest of us must make do with motivation.
When motivation meets tapering the result is all too often a train wreak. The athlete knows they are supposed to cut back on their activity, but this is the time when the event they have been working so hard for is rushing towards them.
A common experience we all share is the feeling of panic that grows stronger as a significant event draws near. The event could be a wedding, a camping trip, an exam, a job interview ... anything with a deadline that is significant to us. For athletes that includes races.
The most common response to the panic caused by an approaching race is to get out and train harder. More is better, right? Wrong!
The reason for tapering is to let the body reach its peak ability. Training provides the stimulus for increased ability, but at a cost. The price we pay for getting stronger and faster is fatigue. The fatigue sets in quickly, but the beneficial results of training take time to appear. Fortunately fatigue decreases almost as fast as it increases, so after a few minutes our breathing is back to normal and after a day or two the deep-set fatigue our hard work produced is gone. In other words, we feel fine. But we are not fine. We are not 100% recovered. If we went out and did our race at this point we would probably fall flat on our face miles from the finish line.
Our goal then is to gradually reduce the amount of effort we put into training, without stopping altogether. The body needs reminders that demands will be placed upon it, so we need to do some short but intense activity.
This drives the highly motivated athlete crazy. The panic of needing to do just a little bit more will at least haunt them with feelings of inadequacy. At its worse it can lure them to get out and run one more tempo 10K, just to shake out the cobwebs. That is the beginning of the end.
Training Peaks has a really cool chart called the Performance Management Chart (PMC) that graphically illustrates the interplay of workout stimulus, fatigue, and the resulting rise and fall of fitness. Data is taken from the athlete's uploaded workout data, but it can use estimates hand loaded into planed workouts posted by the athlete on their calendar to predict the future. I make it a point to assign TSS estimates to all my planned workouts, to see if the projected result goes the way I intended. (It was from doing this that I discovered that skipping the Tantalus ride on my easy weeks was killing my progress.)
Here is my PMC as of today (click for larger version). The actual data ends where the blue filler ends; everything to the right is future estimates.
The Tinman, my next protected race, is marked by the vertical red line. The purple line that is high today is training load. The harder I work, the higher it goes. The yellow line is fatigue (from training, not from staying up all night). The blue line is the result, best described as fitness. You can see how my training plan has my training load starting to fall from here through race day, and as it does how my fatigue improves. Yes, this will cause a drop in the fitness line, but experience tells us that the best endurance performance comes just as fatigue goes above training load.
In case you were wondering, the last low point in my training plan, marked with a star, was the little vacation we took when our house was fumigated. Even though I squeezed in a run and some swim sessions, the effect of the reduction in volume is obvious. Not a bad thing, though. We need a break from tike to time, and with nothing going on, that was a perfect time.
Just the other day I was studying this chart and started to panic that my fitness line was dropping too much. I was about to add some more workouts, or increase the duration of what I had, when I caught myself. The goal of this period is to rest and let the stimulus already supplied take effect. For a moment there I forgot.