Long story short, I have no idea how to taper. When I didn’t think about any of this stuff and I just went running, I had no taper issues. I was running around 35-40 miles a week and then I would just take Monday, Wednesday and Thursday off, run like 5k on Tuesday and Friday and show up for my 50 mile race and feel great.
Now, I’m running a lot more (at least 75 miles a week) with much bigger weeks peppered in during a big training block. I’m also running a lot faster. Things have fundamentally changed. But I’m still trying to hydrate, eat and taper like everything is status quo. I need to figure my shit out. I’m on a mission to master my nutrition. Determined. That’s a whole different post. For now, let’s talk taper.
When I’m running 90-100 miles a week, I feel incredibly strong. Tired, but strong. It takes me a bit to get going (or even out the door a lot of the time) but when I get warmed up, some of my strongest training runs have come as I’m closing down back to back 100 mile weeks with tons of volume on my legs. Things I didn’t even think were possible. I perform better deeper into runs. At mile 25 or 30 of my training runs, I feel strong. I need to capture this during race day.
For my recent Backbone Ultra (110k), I ran three consecutive 100 mile weeks followed by a 93 mile week heading into my taper. I ran just over 15 miles leading up to the Saturday race and while I initially felt fresh and rested, it seemed to turn bad on me very quickly (after only about two hours, which seems insane considering the training I put in). If I had just kept running that week like my training, how would the result have been different? My previous Saturday run on tired legs was great.
In an attempt to figure it all out, I took a look at what some elite trail runners, those who actually have consistent success at distances beyond 50 miles, do in their taper. I’m not talking about the guy on social media you follow who puts up photos of himself eating donuts under the hashtag #tapertantrum. I’m talking about the big boys. Let’s see if Jim, Kaci, Gary and Tim can help us amateurs figure it all out.
Jim Walmsley, Western States 2016:
We all know how this went down. Despite his wrong turn, he obviously had his fitness dialed in. Jim runs a ton, so this should be a good indication of how to taper down from high volume successfully:
Six: 140.7mi 17h 29m 22,530ft
Five: 141.1mi 17h 3m 14,285ft
Four: 120.0mi 14h 19m 10,268ft
Three: 100.3mi 12h 34m 15,349ft
Two: 65.2mi 8h 37m 11,993ft
Race Week Prior to Western States: 27.2mi 3h 5m 1,689ft; Days run race week: Tuesday (8.2) Wednesday (8.1) Thursday (6.2) Friday (4.4)
Jim (somewhat surprisingly) does dip down in volume the last two weeks. Two weeks out from race day, his volume is approximately 46% of his six week mark. He only took a single day off the week of the race (Monday) which, from what I can tell, seems to be the way to handle the final leg of the taper: increasingly shorter runs leading into the weekend, keeping the effort easy but not necessarily jogging slowly. Like David Roche has pointed out, you need to keep your muscle tension high in order to maintain your speed. Jogging slowly in your runs before a race doesn’t do that for you. Short and fast. This certainly worked for Jim.
Gary Robbins, Barkley 2017:
Obviously, Barkley is incredibly unique. There are not a lot of other courses out there that pose the challenges a race like Barkley does. The training is specific. It might be a waste of time to look at this data, but Gary Robbins is a smart, calculating dude and this was Gary’s second time running Barkley so he knew exactly what to expect and how to train specifically for the task. Let’s see what we can glean:
Six: 47.2mi 14h 35m 30,446ft
Five: 43.5mi 13h 22m 30,453ft
Four: 56.9mi 18h 14m 40,322ft
Three: 43.9mi 14h 42m 27,828ft
Two: 33.7mi 8h 9m 11,040ft
Race Week Prior to Barkley: 9.9mi 2h 50m 4,134ft; Days run race week: Tuesday (5.0) Thursday (4.9)
The crazy part about comparing Gary’s Barkley taper with Jim’s WS100 taper is how similar they actually are. You would think those two races and their different demands would render wholly different training cycles, and yet, in terms of time spent running these two tapered very similarly. Following them both on Strava, it definitely seemed like Jim was running a lot more, but he was hanging significantly more mileage, not necessarily spending a lot more time on his feet. Gary was tackling Barkley-esque terrain on the BCMC everyday in Vancouver, eating up massive chunks of vert each and every time he stepped outside.
If you start three weeks out, Gary actually tapered a lot less than Jim in terms of time and vertical gain. He only ran ~10 miles race week prior, but the three hours he spent was the same as Jim (who almost ran 30 miles). Both athletes were very specific to the demands of their individual race but tapered in a shockingly similar way when you compare the numbers side-by-side. We might be getting somewhere here…
Kaci Lickteig: WS 2016:
Kaci is a beast. She runs a TON. And fast. She’s similar to Walmsley in that regard (although she probably trains on flatter terrain than him day in and day out, living in the Mid West). She looked so, so smooth at last year’s WS100 and according to her Strava data, she spent less than twenty combined minutes stopped at aid stations during her 100 mile win. She just kept rolling and never even looked tired. I want to taper like her. Let’s take a look:
Six: 102.1mi 14h 18m 10,410ft
Five: 111.7mi 15h 48m 9,429ft
Four: 129.8mi 17h 56m 10,282ft
Three: 100.4mi 13h 34m 5,902ft
Two: 86.6mi 11h 7m 2,365ft
Race Week Prior to WS100: 27.9 3h 5m 787ft; Days run race week: Monday(10.2) Tuesday(10.4) Wednesday (7.1)
She tapered down her volume less than Jim, but her peak wasn’t as high. She’s running at 85% of her six week total two weeks out from race day. She peaked in volume four weeks out (just like Gary did for Barkley) which is in contrast with Jim’s peak six weeks out. Kaci and Jim’s race weeks were eerily similar in terms of distance/time:
Kaci: 27.9mi and 3h 5m
Jim: 27.7mi and 3h 5m
Jim grabbed about twice the amount of vert but the big difference here is that Kaci took Thursday and Friday off, while Jim did not. Unless she’s not putting a run on Strava (and she seems to log just about everything) Kaci took two full days off before Western States after averaging over 106 miles per week the five weeks leading into the race. Something David Roche suggested not doing (which made a ton of sense to me when I read it). But it definitely worked for her. Interesting…
Tim Tollefson UTMB 2016:
Tim is an impressive dude. He almost never takes a day off. Sure, he took a couple after UTMB and single day after this year’s Hong Kong 100k, but in his training cycle, never. He comes from a background of consistency in his running and he sticks to it. Even if there’s 10ft snow of the ground in town in Mammoth Lakes, Tim is out there getting it in. And, as far as I can tell, he runs everyday leading up to his races (Side note: Tim’s Strava really makes me want to live in Mammoth Lakes. Like really bad.)
The 2016 UTMB was Tim’s first 100 mile race (easy first, haha) and he threw down one of the best performances ever by an American athlete. He ventured into unknown territory and did it flawlessly. As someone who hopes to race 100 miles for the first time in the future, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at his training and preparation for this race. (Fun Fact: Tim stood on the UTMB podium without running longer than 55k in training.)
Six: 101.2mi 15h 4m 15,942ft
Five: 86.9mi 11h 36m 7,251ft
Four: 107.1mi 15h 32m 17,074ft
Three: 92.9mi 12h 30m 9,195ft
Two: 75.3mi 11h 25m 9,889ft
Race week Prior to UTMB: 36mi 3h 19m 2,503ft; Days run race week: Monday (10.0)Tuesday (8.0) Wednesday (8.0) Thursday (6.0) Friday (4.0)
Thirty-six miles seems like a lot leading into a race like UTMB, but when you look at his overall time, he only ran 14 minutes longer than Walmsley and Lickteig leading into Western States. He did hang a lot more vert than Kaci and Jim that week (which means he was running FAST; muscle tension!) but that’s specific to the demands of a course like UTMB which has much more vertical gain/loss and poses a more technical challenge. Not the vert or technicality of Barkley, but somewhere in between the two, where it seems like Tim found that sweet spot in his training.
Looking at his last six weeks, Tim peaked four weeks out (the same as Gary and Kaci) and had a small dip in volume during week five (the same as Gary and Kaci). Something about that small stagger in their training weeks is interesting to me. Sure, Walmsley’s nice straight lines that are always building toward or descending away from his peak are strangely satisfying to look at, but there seems to be something to the five-week-dip into a four-week-peak. Take a look at Dominic Grossman’s training for the AC100:
Dominic Grossman AC100 2016:
Six: 72.2mi 11h 30m 13,480ft
Five: 45.6mi 6h 33m 7,424ft
Four: 54.1mi 13h 34m 19,114ft
Three: 66.3mi 11h 30m 13,555ft
Two: 36.3mi 6h 2m 7,520ft
Race Week Prior to AC: 18.4mi 2h 49m 3,109ft
While Dominic may not be running as much as the rest of them (he has a full-time job to balance with his pro running career) he is super consistent and he has a ton of experience, especially when it comes to running the Angeles Crest 100. That’s his race. So, despite slightly lower volume overall, you would expect him to have his training and taper dialed in.
With him, you see the same four-week-peak (the most time by over two hours and 5k more vert than the other weeks) after a similar dip during week five. Dom’s training is very specific to the course demands (almost all of his training was done on the course) and he clocked the appropriate amount of vertical gain and wound up with a third place finish. On a rugged, high-elevation, point-to-point mountain course that eclipses Western States in difficulty in all categories.
Tapering is a specific thing. Each race offers a different list of challenges and demands. Everyone has different goals. That being said, it’s very interesting to me how similarly the elites taper. Even for races as different as Western States and Barkley. They’re doing it right based on experience and wisdom. And, surprisingly, essentially in the same way. If I want to run 100 mile weeks and train at a volume similar to elite ultrarunners, I need to start tapering like one.
During last year’s pre-race briefing for The Rut 50k, Mike Foote, standing behind a podium at the Bozeman Running Company store, was asked how much we should be tapering the final two weeks before the race.
Mike smiled and said, “Well, at this point the hay should already be in the barn… but you don’t want to turn the faucet off completely, you want to keep it running.”
Well said Mike. Well said.