Just over a week ago, I ran the Hellbender 100 mile ultramarathon.
Now, I could talk for hours about the race experience, but today, I want to focus on the days leading up to the race.
The two weeks when everything begins to shift from build-up to wind-down.
It’s called tapering. And if you’ve followed any sort of training plan for a longer distance race, chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Tapering seems like an easy enough concept — reduce your training to rest up for race day.
And at its core, that’s all it is. But like with anything in running, dig a little deeper and you discover there’s a way you can do it that will maximize its effects and leave you better prepared for race day.
Then, I get to eat vegan pizza and drink beer for two weeks straight-type of expectations.
So before I get into what a proper taper should look like, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way…
What Tapering Isn’t
- An excuse to do nothing.
- A reason to eat copious amounts of junk food.
- A prescription for late nights and lots of beer.
- A time to drastically switch up your routine or stop running entirely.
Now don’t get me wrong — You can still kick up the feet and relax in a hammock with your favorite craft beer (or smoothie). In fact, that’s encouraged.
But there’s still work to be done. Tapering remains a very important and structured part of your training.
My Six Rules of Proper Tapering
So what does a proper taper look like? Here are my six go-to rules for getting it done right:
Rule 1. Drastically reduce mileage in the first 3 days by about 50%. Reduce the remaining mileage over the course of the remaining 7-10 days.
If you’re currently running 40 miles per week, cut down to 20 for the first three days. With the remaining days, reduce to zero the day before your race.
Rule 2. Maintain a similar running routine.
Let’s say you’re like me and have been running five days per week, with rest days on Monday and Friday. Continue running nearly that exact same schedule of 4-5 days during the first week, and 3-4 days during the second week of taper. To account for the reduced mileage, run shorter runs.
That way you’re not running all your weekly mileage in 2-3 days with lots of off days, but spreading it out just as you would during regular training.
Rule 3. Continue with the same mix of intensity as you had before.
Just as you keep your same running frequency, you should maintain a similar mix of intensity.
For example, if you typically run one-speed workout per week, keep a tempo or light speed session on the calendar, but again reduce the length of that workout so it’s not as taxing.
During the final week, make it very light, but keep in some level of increased effort.
Rule 4. Eat more (of the good stuff).
Remember what I said about what tapering isn’t? It isn’t an excuse to overdo it when it comes to food and beverages.
Instead, focus on eating clean, nutrient dense plant foods. The week before your race, start favoring carbohydrates a bit more to build the stores.
It’s common for races to offer a big pasta dinner the night before. The truth is, that’s often too late to make any difference and can leave you feeling heavy or bloated the next morning. Instead, I like to eat carb-heavy dinners like pastas, rice, and bean burritos, and pretty much any grain, green, and bean combo the final several days leading up to the race.
That way, the day before, I can eat something I know will sit and digest well, leaving my stomach light and comfortable on race day.
That said, have fun with food while you’re tapering. If you want an extra serving, go for it. Dessert when you normally wouldn’t? Trust me, I did plenty of that over the past few weeks.
You’ve earned a bit treat, so enjoy it. Just remember that you are still training.
Rule 5. Get more sleep.
Sleep, beautiful sleep. My favorite thing about race week is turning my alarm back by 30 minutes and guilt-free naps. (I’m the king of mid-day power naps.)
Sleep is vital for recovery, and as your body settles in before your big race, it needs a bit more than usual. Luckily, you’re running less, so you’ll likely have more time in the mornings or evenings to spend in bed.
To me, the key night for getting the best sleep in two nights before the race. The night before you’ll likely be nervously tossing and turning, plus you’ll have to wake up early to make it to the starting line (my race started at 4:30am, so I had a 3:00am wake-up call.) While I still try, I think of that night as a wash.
That’s why two nights before race day is important for quality sleep time.
Rule 6. Use the extra time to prepare mentally, decompress from the training session, and plan for the race.
With less time spent running, you have more time to do other things…
Like thinking about running! Or at least planning for the race. This is arguably just as important as anything to do with running.
I mean think about it, you’re coming off months of intense training and a rigid routine. Early mornings and long miles. Missed hangouts with friends, and time away from your family…
All building up to one single day on the road or trail.
No pressure or anything.
Use the taper period to reflect back on all you’ve accomplished throughout training, and plan for and envision yourself executing the race of your dreams.
By now it’s just a few days away. You’ve got this.
A Quick Word on the Taper Tantrums
Reduced mileage, more free time… Your body is going to love it, right?
Unfortunately, reducing your mileage so drastically can result in some weird side effects. Your muscles may actually get more sore and achy than they do during more intense training. Or if you’re like me, you just start feeling tired.
For me, the last week of running before a race almost always results in runs where I feel heavy and lethargic — not a good mental boost going into race day.
But fear not, this is normal, and often referred to as a “taper tantrum.”
And just as tantrums pass for my 2-year-old, so too will yours.
By the time you get hit race day, most of that weirdness will be flushed out and you’ll be primed for the challenge ahead.
Don’t Underestimate the Taper
The hard work is done. You’ve followed your plan, logged the miles, and pushed through doubts. All that lies between you and race day glory now is a few weeks of tapering.
Don’t treat it like a vacation, but instead approach it just as you have the rest of your training — with structure and purpose.
Because once you get to that starting line, primed and ready for race day, your legs, mind, and body will be grateful.
And that extra pizza and beer you’re craving now? It will be waiting for you at the finish line.
About the Author: Doug is an ultrarunner, coach, and the co-host of NMA Radio.
The Kickstart Plan includes:
- A 7-day meal plan, built around the foods worth eating every single day
- 14 of our favorite recipes that pack in the nutrition, taste great, and are easy to make
- Focused on simplicity and speed, to minimize stress and time commitment