This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Tapering for Optimal Performance”, please leave it below in the comments section…
The taper is more than just a much needed rest after all that hard training. It is a critical period where the ultrarunner must find the right balance between maintaining the new capacities gained and recovering from the general fatigue that was the price of all that positive training. It is of great significance therefore that the tapering be well designed and integrated into the overall training plan. Err too much on the side of recovery and you might lose the fitness. Not properly reducing your workouts on the other hand could result in injury or more stress on race day itself.
The challenge in tapering is to achieve the right balance so that on the targeted ultramarathon event you can deliver optimal performance. Of course this is easier said than done as there are no hard-and-fast rules about it. The default 3 week period for example is really more of a rule of thumb which just happens to work for most ultrarunners. To help you better formulate your personal approach to tapering here is a brief discussion of the factors involved.
Fitness and fatigue
According to most physiological research done on the subject and this is also backed up by testimonials from experienced ultrarunners, between these two points that need to be managed and balanced, fatigue actually slopes down at a much sharper curve than fitness. Runners and athletes in general don’t taper properly because they worry about losing the gains derived from the previous stages of training. If you think you’ve done your best in terms of building up your endurance, strength, and speed, then there is really no need to fear you’ll lose those advantages within those 2-3 weeks before the ultra event. This is the reason why it is often recommended to end your main training period with your peak long run and then begin the taper.
Volume, frequency and intensity
Training volume refers to distance and duration. Among the three, it is this aspect that needs to be reduced significantly in a gradual manner as race day approaches. This means you should lessen your mileage each week and preferably do no running at all in the 2-3 days immediately before the event.
In terms of frequency or the number of days you run, a reduction also needs to be made but at a much lesser degree than volume. This could simply mean removing a day or two of training each week or putting some spaces in between your training days.
Intensity is the one aspect that needs to be maintained. Throughout the tapering period keep up the new and higher pace you were able to establish in all of your remaining sessions. Studies have shown that between low-volume/low-intensity and low-volume/high-intensity approaches to tapering, it is the latter that is better at producing optimal performance at the target race.
The tapering period, particularly the last week, is also the time to start organizing and putting more emphasis on your nutrition. This the occasion for you to review for the nth time the trail maps and other possible informational materials included in the pre-race packet, finalize your list of equipment, the contents of your drop bag, maybe even have a final rehearsal with your crew, and all the other logistical concerns regarding the event. Since you’re going to need all the carbohydrates you can store on race day, you might want to focus on this aspect of your diet.
Remember that just as no two ultrarunners are exactly alike, no two ultramarathon races are done in the same way. You don’t taper for a 50 miler in the same way that you do for a 100 miler. And the other participants are likely approaching their taper in a manner best aligned to their own abilities.
Do you have questions about tapering, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.