With every event, whether it is a 10km or a 100km race, there is always a peak in training, and there is always a taper. Or at least, that is the idea. For those who don’t speak run lingo (and many don’t), a ‘taper’ or ‘tapering’ is the reduction of exercise before a race or an event. And it is important.
When I first started running I didn’t appreciate the importance of the taper period, and I didn’t actually taper as I was meant to (sneaking in an unplanned run or gym session when I shouldn’t have!). I would struggle to slow down and decrease my exercise, mainly because I was doing it so routinely up to that point, it felt weird to stop. I also always had this fear in the back of my mind that by reducing running and increasing rest, I would somehow lose my fitness and lose my ability to run that long distance.
But I know now, that is not the case. You actually do yourself more harm than good by carrying on and not resting – you increase your risk of injury, you continue increasing muscle fatigue and creating micro tears in your muscles. In the lead up to a race, in the ‘taper’ period, your muscles need to start resting and recovering for the big day where you will be putting it all on the line and (in my view) going out at 110%. It’s taken me time to learn that the taper is good, it is necessary, and it will help. It won’t make me go backwards, it will only help me go further towards my goal – a PR, a new distance, or a great day out running an event.However, tapering doesn’t mean just stopping and going cold turkey – it is a gradual decrease, to condition your body and allow it to receive an adequate level (and balance) of rest and exercise over that time. For the Tarawera ultra, my taper is three weeks. This is the same as my marathon taper, but obviously the content of those two tapers is different.
Many running coaches believe that for a marathon or ultra, you should decrease to 80% of your normal training volume three weeks out, 60% two weeks out and then down to 30% the week before. Three weeks and two weeks out, the training still ‘counts’ in the sense that you are still working on keeping your fitness and your ability up, but you are also aiming to reduce accumulated fatigue and allow you to feel fresh on race day. I keep up my workouts and my long run, but slowly decrease the duration or mileage, and decrease the frequency. I will add back in some speed training and lighten up on those weights at the gym, so that my muscles don’t feel as tight and fatigued for days following.I am already one and a half weeks through my taper – it is 12 days till race day. For me, my taper period looks like the following:
- Change my long Saturday runs (24-55km) to a shorter run at race pace (so really pushing myself during the run) followed by a tough hike (to allow for a longer duration but less impact on the knees and body)
- Last Saturday = 20km on-road run at race pace followed by a 2.5 hour hike (three weeks out)
- Yesterday = 15km off-road run at race pace followed by a 3 hour hike (two weeks out)
- This coming Saturday (one week out) = no long run
- Getting back into intervals by eliminating my Wednesday lunch threshold run (I worked my way up: 2km, 4km, 6km, 8km, 12km and 14km) and replacing that with interval training:
- 2 1/2 weeks ago = 8x800m with 90sec rest (three weeks out)
- Last week = 8x400m with 90sec rest (two weeks out)
- This coming Wednesday = 10x500m with 90sec rest (one week out)
- Next Wednesday (three days before the event) = complete rest
I am still doing my lower body strength sessions and metabolic sessions, but starting to take it easy and decrease frequency and duration. And of course this entire tapering period occurred after my main peak, my 55km run. It is the fine tuning phase some would say. The time to rest, recover and begin to mentally visualize the finish line.Mentally visualizing the finish line is the easy part for me – I haven’t actually seen the finish line in person but I have on the website and via Instagram. Ever since my 55km run when I realized I was both physically and mentally prepared for the ultra, I’ve just been so ready to do it. To run Tarawera. Get it over and done with. Time won’t speed up fast enough! You work and train so hard to increase your fitness and physical ability to do an event, once you get there (which should always be prior to the event itself) it is so easy to think ‘can we just get this over with already!?’ That is me right now. Just wanting to get it done. Which is great in some ways – feeling mentally and physically prepared for an event (I’ve gone into some events not feeling at all ready but giving it a go regardless).
But it is also bad because it means on my long training runs I am completely unmotivated – I don’t want to run 21 or 15km or go for a 3 hour hike, I just want to run the event itself, the 60km race. I want the rush of adrenaline from race day, I want the excitement and new terrain. Because currently I am bored. I am even bored of the music and the podcasts I am listening to. But I know that the taper and the decrease in running serves a purpose, and I just have to get through it. It will help my body be sufficiently fueled, hydrated, refreshed and rested for the big day.Part of the taper has been my time to wear and re-wear my race day clothing, my shoes, my socks, my hat, to ensure that everything fits well, there is minimal chafing and that I am going to be comfortable on the day. I lost my Nike cap on my 55km run so I purchased a new one at Lulu, so I have been wearing that during every run to ensure I am comfortable with it and to see how hot I get when I do wear it (as I may not wear it on the day!). I’ve also been wearing my Ultimate Direction Jenny ‘Ultra Vesta’ on all my long runs to ensure I am ok wearing it and that it works with stashing my food and gear – I have been putting SOS hydration powder into the two 500ml water bottles, which are on the front of the vest for easy access, and then plain water in my 1.5L bladder in the back. The vest fits quite a bit of food, and has a nice spot for my iPhone in the front. I can get two gels in my sports bra, two in the back of my shorts and then two sandwiches and some frooze balls into the backpack itself – it’s amazing what you can fit in it when you try!
I have been trying different foods on my long runs that will be available on the course – chips, pop corn, ginger beer, water melon, oranges, jelly beans. Things I don’t usually consume on a run and never would normally, things that feel odd buying at the supermarket (so much junk!) but will be there on the day if I want them. I want to make sure I have had them in my training to ensure they sit well with my stomach in case I do want to grab a piece of watermelon or a glass of ginger beer on the day.I have also been looking after my body a lot more than I usually do. I am getting weekly sports massages. Rolling out. Stretching. In the morning, in the evening. Warming up more before my intervals and before a gym session. Making sure I get enough protein in me to repair my muscles.
And I’ve been trying to learn to trust myself more during the taper period – trust my instincts and trust my body. Know when a niggle is just a distraction or when it is something more serious. Know that while it may be tough it is all worth it. And that there is a purpose behind doing 8 rather than 5 400m intervals, why I am doing the plyometric work at the gym, why I have to do yoga during the week – because there is a purpose and I just have to trust it.
Because that is the most important thing at the end of the day, to trust in yourself, to trust in your goals and your ability, and to trust in the process. If you don’t trust the process, you won’t have true unfettered faith and confidence in yourself on the big day, and you won’t know that “You got this”. But (I think) I 100% trust myself right now. I’m at a point where even if my legs are saying no, my mind is saying “you can do this, you have to do this, don’t ask questions just go.” Which the entire process, but also this period right now, the tapering and the rest, the cabin fever but mindfulness that comes with it, has helped me achieve. The ability to breathe, to keep going, to live in the moment, to love myself, to run like I don’t know how to stop, and trust the process.