A Day-By-Day Training Guide For Race Weeks And Tapers – Trail Runner Magazine

A Day-By-Day Training Guide For Race Weeks And Tapers  Trail Runner Magazine

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When I first started running, I remember so much stress approaching races. I’d Google search every random question you could imagine. “How to taper?” “What to do with strength training?” And most of all: “Ways to stop pooping while running.” After I started racing, it seemed like all of my targeted ads became designed to sell me hemorrhoid cream, and I can assure you that there’s a reason Google’s market cap is $1.3 trillion.

I took years to figure it all out for myself, then a bunch more years of coaching and researching to settle on a general approach that works for most athletes as a starting point to develop individual plans. Using this approach, you still might poop yourself at mile 10, since rapid up-and-down movement is incompatible with the law of gravity and the structural orientation of the large intestine. But at least you won’t wake up on race morning with flat quads.

This article provides a day-by-day breakdown of training and life considerations that can apply to any distance. The big disclaimer is that different things work for every athlete and for every training/coaching approach, with tapers being one of the most controversial areas in exercise physiology and training theory. The taper that works perfectly likely invokes individual physiology like muscle fiber typology and metabolic parameters, plus training approach, chronic and acute stress levels, and race distances. My co-coach Megan and I start with the general framework in this article, making deviations based on individual responses. As soon as an athlete knocks a big race out of the park, exceeding expectations from our fitness models, we just repeat that taper until we have evidence that it’s no longer working.

RELATED: Run Your Best Races In 2023 With Our Training Plans For Every Distance

Tapers are massively variable for each athlete, and that can be daunting. But by starting from some simple rules, you can trust that you’re on the path to figuring out the perfect approach for you. 

Race Week Taper Plan

7-10 Days Out: Final long run

Description: Easy long run on race-specific terrain, fully engaging aerobic system

Wrinkles: Optional workout for races up to half marathons; Optional moderate tempo running for events up to 50k (or pro athletes doing 50 milers)

Considerations: Avoid muscle damage; Fuel well during and after run; Reduce distance if chronic training or life stress is high

If you look at elite athlete training for long-distance events, you’ll usually see a long run between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours (or even more for ultrarunners!) in the 7-10 days before a race (article here). What we are seeing on Strava aligns with a 2022 study in Sports Medicine–Open, which examined the training of world-class runners and found that “most long-distance runners do not report a substantial decrease in training volume until the last 7–10 days prior to competition.” That contrasts with some conventional wisdom, with a 2007 meta-analysis in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise calling for an exponential decrease in training of 41-60% volume over 2 weeks.

RELATED: The Art of (Realistic) Tapering

That is SO COOL! Why are elite athletes bucking the trend in taper research with their long runs? While the answer is uncertain, in coaching, we have seen more reliable race results when athletes don’t fully shut down longer runs in the final 2 weeks, possibly due to some mix of metabolic variables and slow-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Before longer races, 12-16 miles is a sweet spot for most athletes, on race-specific terrain, at easy efforts. For marathons and 50ks (and very advanced athletes doing 50 milers), it may help to include some moderate running for 20-30 minutes, between aerobic threshold and lactate threshold. For races up to half marathons, consider a shorter tempo or cruise intervals around lactate threshold. 

Just make sure to avoid muscle damage, particularly from excess eccentric muscle contractions after running steep downhills too fast. One marker of muscle damage, creatine kinase, can sometimes remain elevated for a week after very steep, faster running. So if your race-specific terrain is steep, consider doing the longer effort closer to 10 days out than 7 days out.

RELATED: Should You Change How You Think About Tapers For Long Races?

6 Days From Race Day: Post-long run recovery run

Description: Easy and shorter run to recover after long run

Wrinkles: Optional strides for shorter events or athletes that need to reinforce speed

Considerations: Purely aerobic day; Start of full recovery window; No strength training from now until race

After the final long run, it’s purely recovery and sharpening time. For example, Kilian Jornet did a final 22-mile long run 6 days before UTMB, then short jogs or rests all the way until the race. 6 days pre-race, the ideal run aids recovery (an hour or 60-80% of normal volume, whichever is less), with optional strides for shorter events.

After that long run stimulus, lay off any strength work that risks muscle damage. Mobility or activation style exercises (including single-leg step ups) are fine for a day or two longer, but it’s not worth risking any breakdown. Race week is a strength break! Thank god, because strength work is impossible.

RELATED: How Much Do You Really Need to Taper?

UTMB cc 2022

5 Days Out: Rest day for race week

Description: Start the process of dialing back and stay in your rest-day routine

Wrinkles: Good day for sauna, walking, and staying active within reason

Considerations: It’s ideal to start to feel antsy by the end of the day

The very easy day straight into a full rest day often has athletes feeling a combination of stale and antsy. That’s a good place to be on the Monday before a weekend race! Stay active, but don’t go on any epic excursions with the dogs. Light heat exposure like the sauna or a hot bath may be a good blood volume stimulus, given evidence that plasma volume can contract relatively quickly as training is reduced.

RELATED: The 3 Keys To Race Day Fueling

4 Days Out: Biggest stimulus of race week

Description: Engage race-specific sharpening processes with a final gentle stimulus

Wrinkles: Optional interval workout for events under 3 hours or aerobic tempo for all other events; Optional light strides

Considerations: Neuromuscular tuning; Speed for fast races

The next day might be the trickiest, and one that always stumped me when I started out. What type of key run should you do as the race approaches? There are mixed theories out there, with some athletes swearing by race-week intensity, and others dialing it back to almost nothing. You may have been told “you can’t gain any fitness on race week,” and that is true, but is counterbalanced by the fact that some athletes can definitely lose fitness on race week via blood volume contraction, reduced metabolic efficiency, and muscle fiber recruitment changes. 

The way to prevent any of those negative changes is to keep one run around aerobic threshold or a bit more effort (think top end of Zone 2 into low Zone 3 in a 5-Zone model). For long ultras, it can be as simple as a trail run with some uphills. For marathon/50k, 10-20 minutes of relaxed intervals easier than lactate threshold can work (though athletes who get flat without workouts can do those intervals up toward critical velocity, ~10k effort). The ideal distance is 6-10 miles, with higher-volume athletes going at the high end of the range. Athletes can finish with some light 20-30 second strides to dial in muscle tension if they thrive with some race-week speed. Big goal: rev the aerobic engine without pushing into the red, experimenting to find what works for you.

RELATED: Five Workouts To Get You Race Day Ready

3 Days Out: Post-workout recovery run

Description: Pure aerobic stimulus that doesn’t burn much glycogen

Wrinkles: Can progress pace if feeling great and popping off the ground; Optional light strides for shorter races

Considerations: Dial back life stress if possible; Caffeine taper optional but not encouraged; Final day for heat training stimulus

Now we enter into the window that might look a bit more like what you’re used to in a traditional taper. Keep it relaxed, with the option to progress effort into Zone 2 if you feel perfect. If the race is 50k or below, you can throw in 4-6 light 20-second strides (3k/5k effort, rather than 800 meter/mile effort). If you are doing heat training, stop either 3 or 4 days out to prevent excess stress from accumulating. According to a 2018 review in Sports Medicine, there is only a 2.5% decay in HR response to heat per day, so you’ll still have almost all of the adaptations on race day even for very hot races.

Some athletes like to do caffeine tapers, where they dial back their caffeine intake on race week. If you do that, a few days out is a good time. However, we’ll often see athletes who do longer caffeine tapers have major heart rate increases on race day as they ingest that sweet elixir of the gods. So our suggestion is to consume caffeine as normal (as long as you don’t drink 3 pots a day), with slight reductions to encourage better sleep if needed, but without the risk of caffeine withdrawal messing with mood and physiology. 

RELATED: Don’t Psych Yourself Out On Race Day

2 Days Out: Pure recovery

Description: Rest day or very easy run with no stress

Wrinkles: Stay active and mobile

Considerations: Allow body to build up glycogen stores with normal nutrition and adequate carbohydrates; Practice positive psychology

Resting two days out is the ultimate insurance policy. Your body can build up glycogen stores without substantial changes in nutritional approach, since you’ll be burning fewer calories. Any small injuries or lingering fatigue can have a day extra to clear. And the 2 rest days over a 4-day window will make you PUMPED to go run long and/or hard. 

If an athlete feels stale in a race, the two places we look for changes are the pre-race workout and this rest day, either adding a harder session on race week or an easy run here. Err on the side of more recovery to start, before adding one variable at a time.

A 2021 study in Frontiers of Physiology laid out the wisdom on pre-race fueling: “Intakes of 8 to 12 grams per kilogram carbs per 24 hours are recommended in the 36 to 48 hours leading up to a prolonged endurance event to ensure well stocked muscle glycogen, with a further 1 to 4 grams per kilogram in a pre-race meal during the final 1 to 4 hours recommended to top up liver glycogen stores.” We like thinking about small changes in fueling approaches starting at 36 hours pre-race, with a fun, carb-heavy dinner. Changing fueling much before that seems to come with a higher risk of losing a race in the porta potty.

RELATED: Strong Downhills Late in Races May Determine the Fastest Finishers

1 Day Out: Tune-up celebration run

Description: Easy run with light strides

Wrinkles: Fully engage aerobic metabolism and keep any strides relaxed; Focus on carbohydrate intake at 8-12 g/kg; Caffeine reduction encouraged for athletes who struggle with pre-race sleep

Considerations: You want to be ready to race this day if you had to!

Some athletes like to rest the day before races. That can work really well, but also risks having them wake up with soggy noodles where their quads should be. An easy run of 30 minutes or so keeps the routine and could help the body synthesize more glycogen. Adding 4 x 20 second light hill strides (around 5k effort) can help with neuromuscular system priming. If an athlete has a busy travel day or likes more rest, it can be as short as a 10 minute jog or be a brisk trail/airport terminal hike.

The day before the race is when all athletes should focus on carb intake. That 8-12 g/kg ratio is helpful, though stay toward the lower end unless you practice higher intakes in training. Daily planner: Fun breakfast, run with light strides, post-run snack, fun lunch, fun early dinner focusing on carbohydrate intake, fun dessert. Please, for my sake and the runners who will be behind you, keep vegetables and fibrous fruits to a minimum. 

For athletes that struggle with sleep before races, we like them to practice reducing caffeine substantially the day before the race. Sleeping comes easily when the lack of coffee or tea makes consciousness feel extremely overrated.

RELATED: Here’s Why Negative Splits Are the Key to Racing Faster (and Happier)

The next morning, wake up 2-3 hours pre-race and consume your normal pre-exercise caffeine and meal, rather than doing anything differently. Even for long races, consider a short 5-10 min slow jog 30-40 min before the event to get the GI system moving, with 2 x 30-second strides for sub-ultra events. AM Planner: wake up, a caffeine and carb-rich breakfast like you have practiced (trying liquid fueling if you have GI issues), 16 ounces of sports drink 75 minutes before the start, warm-up jog 30-40 minutes before the event with optional strides, another gel and some water or sports drink, CELEBRATE!

If you try this type of taper for a training race and you feel too fatigued, move everything backward one day, so that you’re racing a day later in the pattern (with another short and easy jog thrown in before the race). If the taper leads to flatness where you feel over-rested, add a harder workout 4 days out or remove one of the rest days. 

Most importantly, trust whatever taper you choose. When athletes feel off in the 10 days before a race, I assure them: “we have this taper down to a science.” And that’s true–we have gathered huge reams of data for athletes of all levels. But that doesn’t change the fact that every athlete is an N=1 experiment when it comes to individual taper practices, and data that applies across groups of similar athletes might not apply to a single athlete at all.

RELATED: Priming Is The Key to Feeling “Springy” and Racing Faster

So find what works for you, starting with a baseline of training theory and science, then making changes based on your experience. Because it’s cool when you have a taper down to a science, but it’s magic when you have your specific taper practices down to an art.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.