Tapering for a 50k trail race is just as important as any other aspect of training. If you’ve ever gone into a race a little over-cooked, you know it can drastically affect your race day performance.
The purpose of the taper is to allow your body time to recover from the training cycle, freshen up your mental and physical capacity, and place you on the start line chomping at the bit to run your best race. It’s a great thing!
It’s important, however, to tailor your taper phase to your specific circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all for tapering after a tough 50k training block. It’ll depend on a variety of factors that I’ll discuss below.
So keep reading to find out how exactly to taper for a 50k race and hit the sweet spot where you’ve got that wonderful pop in your legs, instead of feeling like lead.
Let’s dig into it!
What is Tapering?
Tapering is a gradual decrease in training load preceding a race. Ideally, you’ve stretched yourself and pushed your limits in training so that while you taper, you’ll make serious gains in fitness as you heal and strengthen through recovery.
A recently published scientific study, concluded:
“The tapering applied in conjunction with pre-taper overload training seems to be more conducive to maximize performance gains. Current evidence suggests that a ≤ 21-day taper, in which training volume is progressively reduced by 41–60% without changing training intensity or frequency, is an effective tapering strategy.”
In layman’s terms, if your taper follows an intense block of training, your taper can increase performance. The taper can be up to 21 days with weekly volume ideally being cut 41-60%. But be careful, you don’t start running everything easy during your taper, in fact, you are running just as often and as hard as usual, but for a lesser duration.
When to Start Tapering for a 50k Trail Race
The ideal time to start your taper depends on the intensity of your training leading up to your taper. If you completed a 16-20 week training plan and you’re feeling very fit but tired, you might want to start your taper three weeks before your race.
If you’ve been working on an abbreviated plan, somewhere in the range of 6-10 weeks and you feel like you’re making big fitness gains and would benefit from another week or so of training, maybe you decide to wait until two weeks or even 10 days before the race to start your taper.
I know tapers make people nervous, especially for you type-A athletes out there. One piece of advice that I’ve found to be true is that it’s better to be 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained.
Err slightly on the side of caution and make sure you’re feeling fresh on the start line. You want to have a reservoir to draw from during the race. Trust me!
How do you Taper for a 50k Trail Race?
Depending on the length of your training cycle and current fitness level, you’ve decided on a length of taper. The next decision you’ll have to make is how much to reduce your weekly volume. The study I referenced above found a 41-60% reduction to be effective, but that’s a pretty large range.
This decision requires an honest check in with where you’re at physically, emotionally, and mentally. What do you need? Tap into that intuition here. Have you been riding that red line for some time now? Maybe you’ll want to decrease your volume all the way down to 41%.
Do you feel like you need to keep pushing to retain that mental sharpness, confidence, and edge? Then maybe stick closer to 60%.
Okay, you have your duration and you have your percentage decrease in weekly volume, now it’s time to plan out the step-down in training in real numbers. I’ll provide four specific examples based on four common situations and my own personal experience.
50K Taper Example #1
Peak weekly mileage: 80
Duration (weeks) of training block: 20
Subjective perceived status: Tired, flat, drained.
Duration: 3 weeks
Volume decrease: 60% of peak volume for week 1, 50% for week 2, and 41% for week 3.
50K Taper Example #2
Peak weekly mileage: 50
Duration (weeks) of training block: 12
Subjective perceived status: Excited, motivated, making consistent progress.
Duration: 2 weeks
Volume decrease: 60% of peak volume for week 1, 50% for week 2.
50K Taper Example #3
Peak weekly mileage: 30
Duration (weeks) of training block: 6
Subjective perceived status: Nervous, sore, big jumps in fitness.
Duration: 10 days
Volume decrease: 60% of volume over prior 10 days.
50K Taper Example #4 (coach Chase)
For kicks, I’ll also throw in my most recent 50k race taper plan that I used for the McKenzie River 50k in 2023…
Peak Weekly Mileage: 85 miles
Duration of Training Block: 13 weeks
Subjective Perceived Status: Tired in a good way, couple sore areas, cautiously optimistic.
Duration: 2 weeks
Volume decrease: 68% of peak volume for week 1, 54% for week 2.
Tuesday: Easy to moderate workout. 6 by 1000 meter repeats with full recovery.
Wednesday: Easy 40 minute run.
Friday: Easy 25 minute run with four 100 meter strides.
|Peak Weekly Mileage
|Duration of Training Block
|Subjective Perceived Status
|Tired, flat, drained
|60% for week 1, 50% for week 2, and 41% for week 3
|Excited, motivated, making consistent progress
|60% for week 1, 50% for week 2
|Nervous, sore, big jumps in fitness
|60% of volume over prior 10 days
|Tired in a good way, couple sore areas, cautiously optimistic
|68% for week 1, 54% for week 2
Nutrition and Hydration During Tapering
During your taper, you don’t want to make any major changes to anything, including your diet. You should be drinking an adequate amount of water each day, somewhere in the 60-100 ounces per day, and trying to eat clean and healthy meals.
There is a pervasive myth, likely a remnant from your high school athletics teams, that “carbo-loading” the night before your race will improve performance.
If you eat four plates of pasta in adherence to this myth, all you’ll end up with is a few extra squats in the woods during your race. So stick to the foods that work for you and don’t change your normal consumption amount.
You may find that you are actually eating less during your taper phase because you’ve been burning fewer calories during the final few weeks of training. That’s okay. Eat to full, don’t restrict quantity, just quality. Try to stay away from overdoing the alcohol as it serves as “wasted” calories and dehydrates you.
Be smart, and again, eat clean and only the foods that have always worked for you, and you’ll be fine.
Also read: 15 Trail Running Tips for Beginners
Mental Preparation for Race Day
During the taper phase of your training, your body gets to relax and recover due to less training volume, but in many cases, runners experience greater difficulty on the mental side of things.
You may get paranoid that you are losing all your hard-earned fitness, you might think or feel like you are getting sick when you aren’t, and you might start to question if you even want to run the race at all.
These symptoms are very common so if you’re feeling lackadaisical, heavy, and unmotivated, it’s somewhat par for the course.
To mentally prepare for race day, I recommend adopting a mindfulness practice of staying in the present moment by focusing on your breath. When your mind starts to think negative thoughts or create unlikely scenarios around failure, come back to your breath.
Water the good seeds, the positive mental thoughts, and let the negative ones fall away.
Sometimes a strong set of mantras can also go a long way in helping you stay mentally sharp. Consider writing down two or three one-line mantras that you can draw on to remind you why you are racing and how much work you already put in to get to the start line.
My Closing Thoughts
How are we feeling? Better? I hope so! You now have a science-based taper framework, which can be customized based on your individual circumstances.
After deciding the duration of your taper and the percentage decrease in volume based on your individual circumstances, you have a plug and play taper protocol to trust. You are going to eat and drink healthy clean meals and not deviate from the types of food you customarily consume.
You are anticipating a mental roller coaster during the final weeks before your race, but because you know it’s coming and you’re ready to apply a few techniques to combat it, you won’t let it derail you.
If you follow these simple strategies, you’ll be clear-headed and ready to focus on what really matters on race day: pushing your limits and having a blast on the trails!
If this is your first 50k and you are tapering for an ultramarathon for the first time, be sure to pay attention to your mind and body throughout this process. If you do, you’ll be able to apply the lessons you learn to your next taper phase for future races.
Running is a troubleshooting game. To improve, you’ll need to tweak and adjust your training and processes as you learn more and more about how your body and mind adapt to the training. It’s all part of the fun!
I genuinely wish you the best in your upcoming 50k. You’ve already accomplished so much in arriving at the taper phase.
Pat yourself on the back for getting this far, follow your taper strategy wisely, and approach the start line with confidence knowing that you’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for success.
You got this!
Chase is a USATF Level 1 certified running coach. He has experience in both online and high school cross country/track coaching. You can find his writing in Trail Runner and Ultrarunning Magazine. As a lifelong runner with over 50 marathons and ultra marathons under his belt, he has learned the art and science of running by experience, sometimes the hard way. He is most proud of completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100 mile trail race in the Alps, or his 2:35 marathon personal best that he is intent on lowering to sub-2:30 before Father Time crushes his dreams. Find more from Chase at his blog, Treeline Journal.