Tapering | June 20, 2011
Leave it to an ultrarunner to treat a 50K race or even a 50 mile or a 100K race as a training run, but in our world, it’s not uncommon. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone in a 50K say something like, “Yeah, I’m taking it easy today. This is just a training run for _______.” (Fill in the blank with the name of any hundred mile race.)
If you’re using an ultra as training or you simply don’t care about your performance in a particular ultra, you don’t need to worry about tapering. In fact, going into a race without interrupting your training regimen for a lengthy taper, can be desirable. Serving up a whole ultra on top of normal training fatigue is one way to force your body to respond by getting even stronger. On the other hand, if you are looking for your best effort in an ultra or a peak performance, you should taper; that is, reduce your training well before your target event in order to give your body a chance to rest and recover completely from the stresses of training.
The key questions to answer when you are planning your taper are: how long should the taper last, how much should I cut down on my usual mileage, and how intense should the running be. The length of the taper is dictated by the goal of giving your body enough time to fully recover from the breakdown process of training but not so much time that you begin losing the fitness you have worked so hard to obtain. A very common period of time chosen by many runners for a standard taper is three weeks, although it’s not uncommon to find runners who try to get by with just two weeks. So a final very long run or “training ultra” before the taper begins should be done at least two or three weeks before the target event and should represent the last time you seriously push yourself before your big race.
Your mileage during the first week of a three-week taper should drop by about 30%. If your typical training week is fifty miles, for example, dial back to 35 miles. Go for about half your standard mileage in the second week of the taper. In the final week before the race, do a couple of easy runs during the beginning of the week or take the whole last week off completely. When you taper for a marathon, you are often advised to run a few miles the day before the race to keep your muscles loose, but for ultrarunning, this practice makes less sense. In a marathon, you usually go hard right from the start. In an ultra, you should take it easy at the beginning of a race, essentially “loosening up” your muscles in the first few miles. The reduced mileage and especially the final week of almost no running should deliver you to the starting line well rested and bursting at the seams to get running.
What should your running look like during the taper? How intense? Avoid the really draining workouts such as interval training, hill repeats, tempo runs, and long runs. Any additional fitness you obtain during these last weeks might be offset by showing up on race day less than fully recovered from the hard effort. Keep to flat courses run at moderate pace. As you cut back your mileage, you can substitute long walks for the workouts you are missing if you are determined to get out the door. Relax during these final runs and enjoy the fact that just jogging along at a very modest pace is for once the smart strategy.
In addition to modifying your running during the taper period, there are other things you can do to set yourself up for the best possible result on race day. Get lots of rest and sleep, especially the last few days before the actual run. You may sleep poorly the night just before the race, but that is of no consequence if you’ve put some extra sleep in the bank. Eat good foods with lots of carbohydrates. Some runners like to refrain from alcohol leading up to a race. Keep yourself well hydrated. Focus on relaxing but don’t be too surprised if you find yourself feeling a little jumpy or start experiencing odd, phantom pains. Coming off your regular running routine and facing the prospect of the BIG race now that it has finally arrived can trigger a lot of stress. The stress probably explains why some runners actually seem more susceptible to colds and flu while they are tapering. Do your best to keep your thinking positive about the race. Think: “I’ve trained well, I’m rested and ready; the race will be a big reward for all my hard work.”
A three week taper followed by three or four weeks of easy recovery running after a big race can knock quite a hole in your training schedule. No wonder runners find they can only really peak for a handful of ultras each year. That may be a down side of tapering, but on the other hand, a proper taper gives you the best opportunity to achieve your peak result on race day. Nothing to sneeze at.