Tapering for a 100 Mile Race
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I read a lukewarm article about tapering and the "taper tantrums" from UltraSignup the other day (read it here, or don't). It was weird because the bulk of the article was an interview with a guy who struggled so heavily with reducing his mileage that he started binge eating (to the point of gaining 10 pounds) before one race and doing excessive step aerobics (to the point of excessive soreness) before another. "Taper tantrums" is runner lingo for going a bit mad due to a reduction in mileage. If you're used to high mileage and consistent physical movement, it makes sense that slowing down will have some effect on your mental state. I'm just not so sure that we're talking about tapering in a healthy, helpful way.
Tapering usually occurs in the final week or two of your training plan. I've been running consistent 60-65 mile weeks during my current training block. Two weeks out from my race, I bumped that down to 45 with no high intensity runs. The week before my race, I'll run once or twice, three to four miles each. Tapering systemically reduces your exercise intensity and training load leading up to race day. It allows the body to rest while maintaining fitness. The point of tapering isn't to rest completely, but the hay is already in the barn, so to speak.
A few tips for your taper week(s):
1. Remove or lighten strength training. The week before my race, I'll do some light mobility work and body weight exercises, along with a yoga session. Lifting creates micro-tears in the muscles, which can leave you feeling sluggish or heavy during a run. If you've ever taken a week off, you know how good you feel when you jump back into things. Save the heavy lifting for later.
2. Decrease mileage. My basic rule of thumb is to start decreasing mileage three weeks out. The first week, I'll reduce it by 20%, then by another 40%, then 60%. How much you choose to reduce mileage depends on your skill level, race distance, and preference.
3. Keep moving. I don't subscribe to sitting totally still, even during a taper week. Instead of running in the morning, I'll take a walk instead and enjoy the benefits of movement without pounding my legs. It's important to note that I would never recommend starting something new during your taper. It's not the time to start paddle boarding or swimming if you aren't used to it.
4. Mentally and physically prepare. Most races, especially a 100 miler, are mental challenges as well as physical challenges. I like to make sure I have everything I need for a successful race; all the right gear, a downloaded course map, nutrition, and a game plan. I've gone into races without looking at course maps before, and I wouldn't recommend it. Take some extra time to make sure you have everything you might need. My packing list includes things like eye drops, chaffing cream, extra clothes/socks, plenty of Spring Energy, Liquid IV, salt tabs, chap stick, trekking poles, wipes, etc.
5. Keep your brain busy. The worst thing you can do during your taper, or any other time, is to ruminate. Avoiding the taper tantrums is as simple as keeping your brain occupied with productive things; read a book you've been unable to finish, focus on work or a side project, clean out your closet, get some extra sleep. I always notice an uptick in creativity during my taper, and use the time to capitalize on the creative energy I don't always have.
Runners often run because it helps their mental health. It certainly helps mine. But there is a fine line between exercising because it helps your mental health and exercising because you rely on it to stay sane. Part of the reason so many of us struggle to taper is because we've become dependent on running to stabilize our moods, help us concentrate, and keep us happy. It is a myth that we need to run excessively to be happy or mentally well, and it's a myth that we don't need to rest. You may be able to handle a higher or lower training load that someone else, but at the end of the day everyone benefits from rest, and from tapering, and from a well-timed break.
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