The Perfect Ultramarathon Taper

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

26 February 2019

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Race day is coming up, you’ve put the hard work in, covered the miles, ticked off the equipment list and now you have been told it is a good idea to taper. But what does this mean? How do you approach it? And is it essential?

What is a taper?

A “taper” is a block incorporated into the final few weeks of a training plan before a key race where the training load is less than usual. This gives the body time to recover, build up glycogen reserves, and rest so that an athlete can be at peak performance on the start line.

Whether you are a seasoned ultramarathoner or are doing your first Ultra X, a good taper will help you consolidate training gains and help freshen up the body, meaning that you can be in prime condition for your race and enjoy the experience as much as possible.

How long you taper for depends on the duration and intensity of your training, as well as factors such as age, fitness, fatigue levels and physiological influences. Getting the balance right is key – a runner must rest enough for the body to overcome fatigue but ensure that the gains of training are not lost. It is vital to understand the common misconception that it is not just about rest, rather maintaining muscle conditioning whilst limiting stress.

Runner Receiving Massage at Ultra X 125 England

How should you approach it?

The taper period

If you are a newbie to ultramarathons or if you have been maintaining very high weekly mileages, a two to three week taper period is recommended. This doesn’t necessarily mean peak mileage should be at this point though. For something like an Ultra X, aiming to peak your miles around six to eight weeks before the event means that you have time to build some consistency at this level before you hit your taper period.

Training volume

The aim should be that you reduce mileage to around 30-35% of your maximum training week, by shaving volume off each week until race day. This should initially be done quite quickly, and then more gradually with the focus shifting to reducing the overall volume of runs, rather than the frequency (ie if you are doing three runs per week, still do three runs but keep them shorter).

As an example, if your biggest training week is 60 miles, your last three weeks should look something like:

Week 1 – 40 miles (approximately 20% drop in peak mileage)
Week 2 – 30 miles (approximately 30% drop on peak mileage)
Week 3 – 20 miles (approximately 40% drop on peak mileage)

It is important to note that everyone is different, and for some ultrarunning veterans a three week taper will be too long, as their body is used to running long distances and can recover quickly.

Intensity

Research suggests that maintaining levels of intensity in a taper ensures better race-day performance. Many runners continue to include one or two higher effort workouts, such as tempo runs or fartlek sessions. These keep the body “race ready” and help counter the taper blues. But keep these workouts short to avoid fatigue.

Final word

At the end of the day, you are the best judge of you so don’t be afraid to personalise and tweak when there is a solid reason to do so. The above is simply some guidance – the most important thing is that you are well-rested and raring to go come race day.

Sometimes competitors feel like they need lots of exercise in a
taper just to avoid the self-doubt spiral. Don’t worry about this. You must trust that you are not going to be losing fitness.

By preparing for your taper ahead of time, using the anticipation of it as the motivation for your last big training block where you can put your feet up a little and focus on the fact that you have done all the hard work you will ensure success for the good bit – race week!

For those who are preparing for an ultra marathon in a warm environment, such as Ultra X Sri Lanka or Ultra X Jordan, the taper is also a good time to incorporate some heat acclimation into your training.

Runners at Ultra X 50 England

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