Tapering for an Ultra Marathon

It has finally arrived, the 50 mile ultramarathon taper. For someone who really likes to run, not running quite as much isn’t exactly a vacation. Sure, it’s nice to sleep in a little later and have slightly more energy, but there’s also a little more anxiety and nervous energy that doesn’t have a convenient place to go. At least I have a nice distraction in the fact that we recently moved, and I still have a whole lotta stuff to hang up. All the Target runs help, too. But tapering for an ultra marathon (or any race to be honest) is not my strong suit.

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Related Post: Training for an Ultra Marathon – In a Pandemic

I had to swap my longer weekend run this week, since I was only able to get in 10 miles on Saturday.  So Sunday was a good 15 miles on the trails that I had been missing since we moved a little further out.  My husband and I started checking out CrossFit boxes in the area, and it’s been really nice to follow programming.  I forgot how intense those workouts can be, and how much more you push yourself when you’re working out with other people.  I do still have some mixed feelings about getting back in the box, so I’m taking a little extra time to make sure I find a place that I feel like reflects my values.

My husband and I have been working to get the new house set up, and we’ve got pretty much everything unpacked. Of course there’s lots of little things that need to be worked out, like replacing a hot water heater, so it doesn’t feel like we’re fully settled. We also had to order some new furniture, and let me just say that buying furniture during a pandemic is not a fun process. We’re going on 6 weeks waiting for our new couch, and I think we’ll get our dining room table some time before our son goes off to college. But, I won’t bore you with anymore first world problems.

We did take advantage of my decreased mileage (and increased energy), and bought tickets for a haunted house.  It has been years since we’ve gone to a haunted house, which is really tragic since Halloween is my favorite holiday.  We bought tickets for us, my cousin, and her fiance online, and had reserved time slot, so we didn’t have to wait in hours of lines.  I guess the old ‘Rona has had exactly one good side effect.

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Related Post: Trail Running Gear Essentials

Next week will be my final week of tapering, and I’ll probably spend most of my time making lists, eating carbs, watching scary movies, and trying not to freak the f*ck out about the fact that I’m running 50 freaking miles on the 24th.  Tapering for an ultra marathon is different from tapering for a traditional road race.  The overall concept of decreasing mileage (and having some tantrums) is the same, but there’s a few tweaks in the execution that are newer to me.  Here’s how I’m adjusting my typical tapering plans for next weeks 50 mile race.

Tapering For a Trail Race

When I first started training for trail races and ultra marathons, I just assumed that the taper process would be fairly identical to tapering for a half-marathon or full marathon.  And while a lot of the conventional wisdom holds up, there are a few changes runners can implement that are specific to trail racing, and might give the trail runner a slightly better result. 

What’s the Purpose of a Taper?

If you’re newer to racing all together, you might wondering just what the heck a taper is, and why runners are so obsessed with it. Well, the taper portion of training is the last little bit before a race, where your reduce your mileage, and have a few fits. This might seem counterproductive, but it has a few purposes. The most obvious reason you would want to cut back on mileage is that this allows your legs to feel just a little fresher and rested on the morning of the race. Since there’s lots of fun things we can’t control about race day (like whether it will be a perfectly cool, sunny day, or a raining mess that looks more like a tropical storm), we want to give ourselves the best shot at feeling good. Rested legs help.

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Similarly, it theoretically prevents runners from doing something that will result in feeling sore or stiff on race day.  Think of all those runs you had the morning after a hard work out, and picture yourself looking like a newborn baby elephant running all day in the woods.  If you reduce mileage, and respect the taper, you can probably prevent this.  It also allows your body to complete a full adaptation cycle at the end of your training.  The entire training process should look like multiple cycles where you build, push, and then rest, to allow muscles to stress, strain, recover, and then build.  Scheduling in more rest at the end of training gives your body once last chance to take all those tough workouts and absorb more strength and resiliency.

How to Taper

So now that you understand the purpose and benefits of a training taper, hopefully that will be convincing enough to help you stay on the couch a little longer, even if your brain is screaming at you to get up and do something “productive.”  Much like training plans, taper schedules can vary considerably based on the runners overall fitness, racing goals, and racing distance.  But there’s a few things that should be incorporated into just about every athlete’s plan.

  • Mileage reduction – Some runners take their highest weekly mileage and cut in half for the last two weeks. Others prefer to slowly reduce mileage over 10 days. The best way to really figure out what kind of reduction you need is to have a running coach either review your plan or create one for you. At the very least, make sure you don’t run more than half the distance of your longest long run the week before your race, and keep your overall volume lower than your training peak. But don’t try to squeeze all those miles into 1-2 days and sit for the rest of the week. Plan to cut back on one day of training (so maybe 4 week days instead of 5), and spread your weekly mileage over those days.
  • Lower intensity – This is more of an art than a science. You want to prevent fatiguing your legs or creating any soreness in the final days leading up to your race. You also don’t have enough time to really derive any benefit from a workout within 10 days of your race. And you definitely don’t want to risk some sort of injury right before your race. But you also don’t want to show up on race day feeling sluggish or “flat.” If you’re used to 1-2 speed workouts, make sure one of your runs is a little more speedy than your recovery paces, but don’t push to redline level. Sometimes I’ve found 1-2 minute intervals or even just some short strides can be enough to keep the turnover in your legs strong, without running the risks that come from true running workouts.
  • Focus on recovery – The last 10-14 days of your training are the best time to break out all the recovery tools. Roll around on the foam roller that is hopefully not collecting too much dust, get more rest and sleep, and eat enough to support your bodies recovery efforts. Also, now is not the time to do something like unpack your entire garage or build a new chicken coop. It might be tempting to tackle some projects that haven’t been done, or go for a 70 mile bike ride, since you’ve got some extra time on your hands. But your body needs to rest and recover, and finding fun ways to make yourself achy and sore is not advised.
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How Tapering for a Trail Race is Different

If you’ve previously trained and ran some road races, you’re probably familiar with all the basic do’s and don’ts of tapering, but here’s how tapering for a trail race is just a little bit different.  The taper doesn’t need to be quite as long or dramatic, especially for ultra marathon distances.  This might be surprising, since you’re likely to be spending more time on your feet, but here’s the rationale.  Trail running is generally a little easier on the joints, so there’s a little less to recover from.  And if you’ve been training for an ultra marathon, you’ve trained your body to run well on tired legs.  This doesn’t mean that you can skip the taper all together, it just means that you can probably keep a little more consistency in your schedule.

Additionally, you’re also probably pretty safe keeping some intensity in your training. Since your pace and speed are more variable in trail running, it’s more likely that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time running your “race” pace. This is very different from road races where you very rarely run your goal race pace in training. So you probably don’t need to drop quite as much intensity in the weeks leading up to your race, but you do want to be more cautious, even on your easy runs. It’s a whole lot easier to trip over a root and twist your ankle during an easy run on the trails than on the roads, so make sure that if you’re running technical trails to take fewer risks. No one wants to end up with stitches the week before an ultra marathon.

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Finally, your body has learned how to run in a sub-optimal state of fatigue; now is the time to make sure you brain won’t sabotage the whole thing.  You should be working on mental strength throughout training, but trail racing and ultra marathons rely more on mental stubbornness than road races.  You can generally build your mileage up to something pretty close to race distance for road races, but you’ve probably got a much bigger delta between your long run and race distances in the wonderful world of trails.  In order to get you to the finish line, you have be willing to suffer.  So use these last couple of weeks to mentally commit to the distance, learn the race profile, and get excited.  All of these mind games will come in handy when your feet are swollen and the last 10 miles feel like 200.

This Weeks Workouts

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Total Miles: 64
Total Workouts: 4
50 Mile Training, Week 21
How the Runs Felt
My mileage didn’t drop drastically this week, but I typically start reducing at 10 days out, which meant Thursday for me.  I was so happy to get out on the trails at Freidrich on Saturday, and it felt so good be back on familiar dirt.   Tuesday was a hill workout, I felt like I was able to move pretty efficiently.  I’m hoping this is a good sign for the race to come.  Wednesday’s run was an interesting experience.

I met my cousin on the greenway for an 8 mile out and back. After she left, I had planned to do a 3 mile out and back, which would have given me 11 total miles. I set my watch to lap at 1.5 miles to remind me to turn around, but I was so enthralled by my Crime Junkie podcast that I somehow didn’t even notice it went off. By the time I realized I had missed the alert, I turned around and stopped my watch at 12 miles. I ran/walked about another mile back to my car. So what I had planned to be an 11 mile easy run turned into an unplanned half-marathon (give or take). Good times!

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I made it back out to the trails on Thursday, but this time in the afternoon.  I almost never run in the afternoon, especially in the summer, but Henry had to work earlier than usual.  So I took the opportunity to sleep in later, workout during lunch, and then run on the trails after work.  Thankfully, it wasn’t a million degrees, and I was able to enjoy a sunset run.  Back on the roads on Friday, and then a casual half-marathon on the trails on Saturday.  It was a soggy, slippery mess when I went out Saturday morning, so I took it extra slow.  Not interesting in spraining my ankle during a taper!  But it was absolutely perfect fall vibes.

How the WODs Felt
My first workout for the week was at LifeTime, and it was a pretty simple AMRAP.  Light weights, and steady movement.  I worked out at home on Wednesday, and honestly was surprised at how much those three movements kept my heart rate up.  Thursday and Friday, I dropped in to some local CrossFit boxes.  Thursday’s workout didn’t seem too difficult, in fact it was movements that I’m generally pretty good at.  But it really wore me out.  I knew Friday’s workout would be brutal, and I wasn’t wrong.  I felt like my arms were going to fall off during that last round of burpees.

What I’ve Been Listening To
I started listening to Murderbook, which is a true crime podcast that really focuses on the judicial work that was done to close a 30 year old cold case.  It’s definitely different from other true crime podcasts I’ve listened to lately, but it’s pretty fascinating in my opinion.  I’m still loving all the other true crime series that are on going, like Paper Ghosts and True Crime Reporter.  And the spooky episodes of the Morbid and That’s Why We Drink have been amazing.  Spooky season is the best!

What Went Well
I’ve been able to keep the taper tantrums at bay so far, and I got in some good core and mobility work this week.  I also had a really good time dropping in to a couple of boxes this week.

What Went Shitty
Henry’s schedule has been busier than usual, and home schooling, unpacking, running, and all the things are definitely not easy when Henry’s got more work on his plate.  We need a nanny or house manager or something.  Haha.

Plans to Improve Next Week
Next week, will be race prep week!

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