Is Taper Over-Rated?

Another great weekend of racing has got my mind flooded with thoughts again about the in’s and out’s of ultra-running. One such notion that struck me following Mick Donges fine win down in Victoria last weekend was whether of not taper is over-rated or to be honest, that necessary? The week prior, Mick had raced a hard 35kms at Bogong to Hotham, and while not a huge  distance in ultra terms, there’s  good 2,000m of climbing in that first 35km. Coupled with a few training runs, and it could be suggested that Mick might have been a little weary come Two Bays race day. But far from that. He ran a quality race, pouncing to win at just the right time.

So do we really need to taper for races? I posted this very notion on our Facebook page a few days ago just to see what the general consensus was, and its clear we all have very different views.

First of all, I think actually defining what we mean by taper is an important next step to take, as I must admit, for the first couple of years running, it was clear that I had no idea what taper was. When I first started out running, taper to me pretty much meant a three-week break before the big race. I’d slogged my guts out for weeks and weeks, and taper was a chance to rest up… or so I thought.

Taper now for me is about sharpening up and increasing the intensity of my workouts. There is a drop in mileage, but things get faster and shorter – to a point though, injury is the last thing I want on my plate. I must admit I never really got this, and I often think that taper does get a little confused with just ‘chilling out’ for a few weeks. Nowadays, my taper involves less kilometres, but the work rate is still right up there. Even during the final week leading up to a race, I’ll still clock up between 20-30kms, but at a much more reduced intensity. However it does differ for different people admittedly.

Getting the intensity levels right in taper is an important part of the prcess

So with the above in mind? Does taking the foot off the pedal really matter when it comes to racing? We’ve seen that for Mick, it didn’t really appear to affect his performance, but then again I don’t have the insights into his programme, so what he did may have been just right for him. Would he have gone even quicker had he not raced Bogong the week prior? It’s very hard to say, and of course needs some more in-depth scientific testing to be done before we can answer it. However, I’ll give you a few more practical examples.

I raced Great Ocean Walk 100km last October prior to GNW. I didn’t taper for this one, and if anything I actually increased the mileage, knocking up 160kms in the 6 days prior to the race. Of course, I was pretty tired come race day, but I ran a 1.5 hour PB for that course and to my expectations. Naturally I accept that I am a lot fitter and leaner than when I first attempted that run back in 2009. But again, would I have gone even quicker on that course had I had the proper ‘taper’ as we call it? This is where we need to ask some of the experts for their opinion…

Whippet at Hardrock - Australia's most successful runner in this event

Ultra stalwart Andy ‘Whippet’ Hewat seems to follow my GOW taper theory: “The taper can be over-rated, especially for high volume ultra runners. Your body adjusts to regular long, hard sessions and the race can become just an extension of that routine. Provided you are not over training, haven’t trashed your quads recently and allow a few days to freshen up, you can be better off maintaining some regularity and keeping your body in the groove.

“Defying all traditional theories ultra runners are known to employ the famous “reverse taper”. Used most often coming back from lay-off in a short lead-up, as the name implies, you simply continue to increase volume right up to the race with the aim of shocking your body into submission. Not for the feint-hearted!”

Andy however, and indeed I would like to add in a caveat here though and stress that this does not work for all runners, especially those new to the sport, “Novices or low volume runners need to be more cautious. The experts advocate lowering volume and upping intensity but for ultras these runners should simply lower volume from a couple of weeks out.”

In researching this article, what was clear from the responses we received is that taper is a very personal thing for each individual, and once again as with most things ‘ultra’, there is no rule book and the old adage of ‘listen to everyone and follow no-one’ is again very apparent here for when you work out what your own idea taper is.

Martin Fryer is one of Australia's most successful ultra runners

Someone who knows a thing or two about tapering for races is Martin Fryer, one of Australia’s 24hr track legends. Over a number of years he tried a variety of approaches, but thinks he’s got it down to a tee now, “My typical taper for an “A” event ultra of less than 24 Hour duration is a 4 week training volume taper consisting of 3 weeks gradual and 1 week steep, with increased sharpening intensity of speed and racing. A typical “B” race taper for me is simply a reduction in training on the week of the race such that total training volume is retained when the race distance is taken into account.”

So there you have it from one of the Gods! But is taper over-rated? According to Martin there’s plenty to be gained, “I looked back at my diary before my best ever performance of 433K in 48 Hours in Surgeres and I did stuff all for 8 days or so pre-race and ate very well (in France), had a few wines, and had lots of power naps and easy bicycle rides.

“While there are some that swear that they race better with little taper I’ve heard many more stories, particularly of great performances, from people that were almost forced to taper through sickness or injury and then were surprised by pulling out a blinder. Everyone gets nervous and twitchy and irritable in the taper and many get symptoms of sickness- I think the trick is to keep some leg turnover going on there without doing any damage – so that any muscle microtears and sub-clinical remnants of hard training heal up over 7-10 days or so.”

Devon in action - one of the few runners at the top of her game in both road and trail

But what do our international friends think of this taper malarkey? Devon Crosby-Helms is a member of the US Team Salomon, and just this last weekend, ran in the US Olympic trails where she finished a very impressive 36th in a time of 2hrs 38mins. For her, taper is a hugely important part of training process, “Taper is important because it allows you the time to recover from the hard training you’ve done and let the adaptation your been working on, happen. It also is important so that you go into race day with a full tank and fresh legs.

But she stresses that she only employs a two week taper for all her races and says that people shouldn’t be tapering too much. “Your body gets use to a certain level of intense training so you don’t want to back off too much too soon.”

So there we have two very contrasting views of taper, one 4 week, the other 2 week, but one could argue for two very different types of runner.

But what about the view from Ultraman Champ and Aussie 100mile record holder Mike le Roux. He moves slightly towards the ‘chilling out’ method with very little focus on intensity as he explains, “Typically my length of taper is around a week and half. It finishes with my last big mileage on the Wednesday or Thursday, and then I maintain the next ten or so days with something generally every day. I find that the frequency of whatever I’m doing (swim, bike or run) is most important. I don’t focus too much on intensity because I feel that is a waste of energy particularly given that most of my racing is ultra in length, and raw speed doesn’t count. It also opens you up to injury. For me, tapering is important and is highly rated. My taper is generally 7 to 10 days and it is a sharp drop off from my last big session.”

Mike has experience across a number of disciplines and puts this to good use in his training and taper

So how do we make sense of all of this? Four people, all with very contrasting views as to what makes the ideal taper. Some short, some long, some intense, some more chilled. The best advice it seems is that to find your own perfect taper, you have to experiment and work out what’s best for you personally. It’s quite clear that taper isn’t over-rated as we all taper to some extent, we just do it in different ways. Having posted this very topic on our Facebook page as a precursor to this, one thing is clear, train like a mother and make sure you’re hanging onto that taper for dear life!

But what do you think? What’s your taper like?

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

11 thoughts on “Is Taper Over-Rated?

  1. The week before i raced Narrabeen 12hr I ran the black stump quite hard then the next day i ran the trotters around the bay 37.1km in 2:47 then 5 days later i won Narrabeen doing just over 130km

    So i guess i didn’t taper much and had a good result

    1. You ran a top race Darren, and this was off the back of GNW to. Some guys just seem to be able to handle the increased workload and mileage better than others. I’ve tried a variety of tapering techniques, but you’ll never know the true effectiveness I feel as each situation is very different.

  2. I always feel strongest in the 4th of 5th runs into a heavy training phase. Sometimes after a layoff, I feel terrible first run back.

    I reckon tapers work well for 800/1500m runners, but for me its “Dont do anything stupid the week before”, but keep training.

  3. i reckon your mad not to do some sort of taper in the 7-10 days prior to race day(assuming your race running not fun running) ; theres alot you can do to stuff up race day in that time but not much to improve performance in that time….. cheers

  4. I remember Tim Craddock in 2010 was training for a 100k race. He ran over 100k between Monday and Friday and that weekend ran a 3:49 6 foot track.

    I think anything too intensive makes your blood too acidic which will have a negative effect on performance.

  5. The research shows that tapering can be effective. Google the following study

    SHEPLEY, J.D. et al. (1992) Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 72 (2), p. 706-711

    The results of the study show that those who reduced the mileage and increased the intensity had improvements against those who did nothing and those who stuck to their regular training.

  6. This read made me reflect about tapering. With what the others are saying, i would agree that one needs to experiment and try it out which works best. I believe that 2 weeks before race day is crucial in decreasing the intensity and go into a ‘relax mode’.

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