Knowing that a well-constructed taper can improve my running performance by as much as 3%, I set about researching and putting together a plan. The most common taper plan for a trail marathon to an ultra-distance run starts two to three weeks before race day. The idea is to reduce the training load gradually over those weeks, specifically reducing the volume, but maintaining intensity levels during shorter runs.
At the core, the importance of a taper is to increase mental preparedness and to ensure the body and mind feel rested before race day. This can be achieved in different ways for different people, what makes one runner feel rested can look very different from another runner. For ultra distances, your longest training run should be about 3 weeks before race day, and from that point on the taper should begin.
So, how exactly do you taper for a trail race? The most common approach to a taper is to decrease mileage by 20 to 40% over the last 2 to 3 weeks before a race. Focusing instead on shorter, intense workouts. One week before a race should be the final long run, but it should be slow. For a trail marathon distance, this long run should be between 40-60 minutes, at an easy pace. Three to four complete rest days in the last week will also go a long way to make your body feel fresh and ready to go.
Tapering for my first 50k trail race!
In one week, I’ll be running in my first 50k trail race. After six months of training, I can’t wait to get on that start line and see if it will pay off. During this training block, after running my first 5k six months ago, I’ve been amazed at what my body can do with a little consistency. I couldn’t have imagined going into a 50k with the confidence I’m feeling now.
I started running to challenge myself physically and mentally, and I’ve gotten out of it more than I could have hoped. Running has become meditative time for me where I spend time alone in nature, where I take note of my surroundings; the colors and the smells, where I think about my plans for the future, and maybe also do a bit of day-dreaming.
It is restorative and invigorating, and as dramatic as it sounds, it has influenced most areas of my life for the better.
About four months into my training I learned a good lesson; that a taper really does work. I knew going into this training, that a taper is deemed important. But as a naive first-time ultra-runner, I’m not sure if I would have trusted the process had I not learned this lesson earlier on.
Four months into my training I managed to strain (mildly) my quadricep. This led me to slow down my training and even have some full days off. I was paranoid during that time that it would take a long time to get back to the level I was running at, but I was wrong. Once my leg was feeling back to normal, my first two runs I hit two PRs!
I couldn’t believe how much good that downtime and rest had done, and I knew at that moment that when it came time to taper my training before the big day, that I would take it seriously.
Don’t forget about nutrition and mental readiness during your taper:
There are a couple of other important factors to consider during the taper period; nutrition, and mental readiness. During the first week of the taper, protein intake should be adequate or increased to ensure there is plenty to go around for muscle repair.
In the last 48 hours, increasing consumption of complex carbohydrates is important; rice, pasta, whole grains, and legumes will assist in maximizing glycogen stores to provide energy for race day. It’s normal that body mass could increase during this period, as every gram of glycogen stored will cause our body to retain 2g of water.
Although this can seem like a negative, going into a race, the performance benefits outweigh the potential negatives of being slightly heavier on the start line.
Other than nutrition and physical training, the last and a critical aspect of the taper is mental readiness. There are a few things that you can do leading up to race day that can potentially have a huge impact on performance. Consider your race plan, memorize it, go over the course map, and visualize the run. Visualization is a powerful tool in mental readiness.
Make some time to do some visualization by finding a quiet place, a great place and time to do this in bed just before going to sleep. Start by closing your eyes and picturing the morning of the race; what you will be wearing, where you will be, who will be with you. Imagine how you will feel getting on the start line.
Imagine the start of the race, how will you feel during the early kilometers, imagine your thinking and your strategy. Continue like this until you’ve visualized the whole race up to and past the finish line, imagining how you will feel to have hit your goal, how all the hard work has paid off. The more detail you can add to make this exercise feel real the better.
“Taper tantrums” – prepare for a bit of stress and anxiety:
It’s common during a taper period to feel stressed and anxious about reducing a training load. It’s easy to think that reducing training will mean missing out on getting stronger, or worse yet, that you might get weaker. Reducing the amount of training during a taper period often means a big change in routine and lifestyle when compared to the months of training that preceded it.
All of a sudden you will have hours of extra time on your hands. This can lead to over-thinking about the race and let doubt sink in. It’s important during this time to reflect on your hard work during the training block. Have faith in your preparation, and remember that extra training now won’t make you faster or stronger.
The taper period is a great time to enjoy hobbies outside of running or to spend extra time with friends and family that maybe we haven’t had as much time for during training.
Tapering for a 50k vs 100 mile trail race:
The biggest difference (other than the distance) between running a 50k race and running 100 miles is the mental toughness you need to get through it (assuming that you have done the physical training). Hence the main difference during the taper is the spend extra time focusing on mental readiness and visualization, especially if you are running the distance for the first time.
Reading an inspiring book about an athlete’s journey, or watching documentaries (whilst foam rolling of course) is a great way to energize the mind and maintain a high level of motivation during the reduced training period.
When should your last long run be before a 50k?
The last long run before a 50k should be 2 to 3 weeks before the race. This will give you enough time to recover from the long run and build up your fitness again. It also gives you a chance to test out your race gear and nutrition.
Some experts recommend doing your last long run 2 weeks before the race, but I think 3 weeks is better. This will give you a little more time to recover and be ready for race day.
Of course, everyone is different, so you may need to adjust this based on your own fitness level and experience. But if you’re following a 50k training plan, your coach should be able to give you more specific advice.
What to do during your final week of tapering:
During the final week is where it all comes together. You will have run your last easy long run 7 days before the big day, the rest of the week should only include a two to three short runs or workouts. Getting lots of sleep is very important to ensure our muscles are recovered and ready, as is drinking lots of water.
Focus on nutrition and consuming a good amount of complex carbohydrates for the last few days before the race. Simply eating a big carb-heavy meal the night before the race is likely to simply make you feel bloated and heavy, it’s better to build up the glycogen stores over a few days.
Take time to go over your race plan and during the three to four days of rest, use the extra time to go over race logistics such as gear, race-nutrition supplies, preparing drop bags, going over the course map, and communicating the plan with your crew if you have one. Spend extra time with friends and family, read a book. Focus on getting your body and your mind in a restful state.
Tapering is a simple concept – reduce your training in order to feel rested and fresh for race day. It’s not a difficult feat to achieve, but it’s possible to overlook the importance of tapering and to think that any extra training before race day will mean an increase in performance.
Knowing that it takes weeks to improve physiologically, it doesn’t make sense to push our training to the max all the way until the big day. Tapering is not an excuse to stop training and start eating large amounts of junk food. But it is a great time to ease up on the strict training routine that we may have followed for the months leading up to it.
Get more sleep, eat more carbs, reflect on your accomplishments during your training, and get your body and mind in race day mode.
Once you have put in the training and followed your taper plan, you can get on that start-line knowing that you’ve given yourself the best possible chance for success. Now it’s time to execute and see what you’re made of!
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Tess Gard is a freelance writer and trail runner.