Tapering before you race: Less is more!
D-Day is quickly getting closer. Your excitement and nerves are growing. Intense training weeks are behind you, and yet you keep asking yourself over and over: “Have I really trained enough?” The worry about not having trained sufficiently is something many runners know all too well. Especially recreational athletes. The result: Despite tired legs and a weary mind, you give it your all in the last few weeks before the race, and train for all you’re worth. And that is precisely one of the biggest mistakes you can make before a long-distance run or an ultra. Because it’s just too late at that point to make up for any failures or mistakes in a training plan. You can’t work wonders in the last few weeks before a big run. In fact, the opposite is true: If you put the pedal to the medal in the final training phase you can do more harm than good. It’s not unusual that big performance breakdowns, exhaustion on race day, or even injuries stem from an overload of intense training all the way up to the end. Instead, you should put up your legs more often. Because the body has to recover to be able to call up your highest performance on D-Day. The magic word: tapering!
Tapering: What is it, and why do we do this?
The term “tapering” is of course English, although it’s used in other languages, and can be translated with something like “reduction” or “sharpening.” In running, “tapering” is the phase prior to the race during which endurance workouts and training load is significantly reduced. It has nothing at all to do with “taping,” which is the use of colorful, stretchy strips of tape for stabilization or strains. “These two terms are often confused by many when they hear them the first time,” says Markus with Outdoor Physios. The 29-year-old physical therapist from Munich, together with his business partners Sandra and Andreas, specializes in trail running races and himself is a passionate athlete. He and his colleagues will be on-site at the Grossglockner Ultra Trail to help runners as best as possible. “With tapering, what it comes down to at its core is to maintain your trained conditioning until the race, but not to improve it any more. The body has to recover and get the chance to heal any smaller injuries and to regenerate. That brings back toughness and liveliness for the race. A well-planned tapering phase can optimize performance on race day. Running efficiency is improved. In other words: You need less oxygen for the same performance. Not only that, the mind is granted one last break and has time to refocus,” says Markus.
Regeneration is the key to success
Tapering is thus a fixed part of preparing for any competition. In particular for long-distance runs and especially in ultra, the tapering phase is essential in getting to the finish line. “The longer the distance and the more ambitious the runner’s goal is, the more important tapering is. A recreational runner who participates in a 10k run and just wants to finish won’t really benefit from tapering. But as soon as the goal is to call up a personal best or to run very far, then tapering is not to be bypassed under any circumstances. Ultra runs are an extreme stress on the body – no matter how trained you are,” says Outdoor Physios’ Markus.
This is how proper tapering works
But how do you taper correctly? Ultimately, you don’t want to lose all the conditioning you worked so hard for because you started your rest phase too early. Do you just put up your feet in the last few weeks before the race, or do you do other activities instead of running? “Of course, every runner is different, and over time one has to develop his or her own strategy,” explains Markus. “In general, one can say: The shorter a race, the shorter the tapering phase. For a half-marathon you start about two weeks out with reducing training loads. For a marathon, it’s about three weeks, and for an ultra, it’s more like four weeks. But you also have to differentiate between pro and recreational runners. For pro athletes, the tapering phase is often somewhat shorter. Amateurs on the other hand will take a complete break in the last few days before a race. That happens very rarely with pros or not at all.”
Tapering doesn’t therefore mean that you don’t do any physical activity whatsoever or you take on alternative activities. More so, it’s all about a continuous reduction of training loads while keeping the same intensity. “The 20% rule is tried-and-true in tapering for a runner. When you start tapering for an ultra-marathon four weeks prior, then you cut back on running kilometers in the first week by 20%, in the second week then it’s 40%, and so on. The paces remain the same, however – also, for example, in tempo and interval workouts. You just run in total less. A smaller race just before starting the tapering phase is also a good idea so you can test your conditioning. For example, a 30k trail run before an ultra could be in your plan,” says the physical therapist. “Any cross-training you normally do can still be done during tapering. But it won’t help at all if you suddenly pick up a new activity or go climbing every day just because you are running less.” Compensating for the off-time is not really part of tapering. It also doesn’t make any sense to suddenly start up with balance and stabilization exercises at the end of your prep phase. That should be integrated into the plan from the start of your training. In general: At the end of the tapering phase you should also minimize if at all possible, any cross-training.
Less is more – In quiet is where you find power
In addition to the reduction of training load, nutrition and general wellness plays a vital role during tapering. “Normally, the body sends you very clear signals. Just before the big day, many runners somehow feel empty and depleted. Those are precisely the signals you should listen to. Lots of sleep, stretching and rolling or even a massage from your sports therapist can help tired legs. Also, medicinal foot care can stimulate regeneration. In the end, feet have to take a lot in an ultrarun. You can totally treat them really nice for once,” says Markus. And when it comes to nutrition, the expert advises care. He doesn’t think much of marathon diets or excessive pasta parties: “Of course you have to fill up your carbohydrate reserves before a run. But in first order it’s all about balanced nutrition – during training in general but in particular also during the tapering phase. Pasta alone is not the answer.”
Tapering plan: Hannes Namberger
Taper like the pros – This is what ultrarunner Hannes Namberger does
What does a potential taper actually look like for a pro runner? For DYNAFIT athlete Hannes Namberger, the winner of the 75k race at the 2018 Grossglockner Ultra Trail, what he does he more or less the same before every race. Over time, the ultrarunner has determined his own personal strategy, but he emphasizes that everybody has to figure out the best plan for their body. The best thing is to log your training and the key information of your taper to be able in the future to learn from it!
Hannes Namberger’s personal tapering plan
His specialty: distances between 50k and 75k with 3,000 to 4,000 meters of climbing.
10 days out: Last long run of about 3-4 hours.
10 days out: Avoid carbohydrates for a week preferably. Lots of salads, soup, meat and fish.
7 days out: One interval workout of 7 x 3 minutes with 1-minute rest to raise your heart rate and empty your stores.
5 days out: Starting now only short, easy runs of no more than an hour, just to keep the legs fresh.
3 days out: Low-carb phase is now over. Now, you need to fill up your stores. Thus, lots of potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, and add vegetables and some meat or fish.
2 days out: Normally a Thursday so an early, short run and then feet up.
1 day out: Tomorrow is race day so it’s essential to eat well and sleep well.
My pre-race meal is always a coconut curry stir-fry with sweet potatoes and rice, with vegetables, but no meat.
Race day: Have breakfast 3 hours before the start (absolutely not later) so the body can have sufficient time for digestion.