Tapering for Ultra Trail Cape Town: Lessons from Five Rooted In Dirt (RID) Athletes

Tapering for Ultra Trail Cape Town: Lessons from Five Rooted In Dirt (RID) Athletes

We’ve heard it so many times before, “last minute.com training”, “surely you can’t be doing that run – you’re supposed to be tapering?”, “#doyoueventaper?” – but the truth is not many people actually know what a taper is, or how to taper effectively. In this post, I will detail the taper period of five of our RID athletes who participated in the 100km, 65km, 35km (two runners), and 21km respectively at this year’s Ultra Trail Cape Town (2018). I’m going to give some insight into why certain decisions were made, and my thoughts on tapering – thereafter I’m going to give you my take-home points. Next week I will discuss the theory behind tapering and re-analyse the taper of these five athletes.

 

Let’s start with volume. Typically I like to reduce the volume of training when tapering, which is an effort to increase the race preparedness of our athletes by decreasing the amount of fatigue. This is an important balance however as tapering for too long and doing too little volume may lead to a decrease in fitness and the balance between fatigue, fitness and preparedness needs to be just right (preparedness = fitness/fatigue). Training volume is typically difficult to measure in trail runners, owing to their tendency to mix road and trail running in their schedule, and the relatively longer amount of time it takes to cover the same distance on trail compared to road. As such, I have moved almost exclusively towards assigning training volume as minutes of training per day/week/month, as opposed to kilometres. For your interest, I have documented the volume of training of our five runners leading up to race day in both minutes and kilometres below.

 

Volume:

 

Table 1: Weekly volume (kilometres and minutes) of five RID athletes in the three weeks leading up to UTCT 2018.

 Athlete Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
  Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km)
100k 889,0 94,4 697,0 74,8 350,0 43,8 78,0 13,7
65k 386,0 61,5 264,0 41,1 277,0 33,3 86,0 14,2
35k1 357,0 45,6 228,0 20,9 157,0 22,1 56,0 9,2
35k2 301,0 43,3 291,0 29,6 168,0 25,2 34,0 4,7
21k 174,0 24,8 325,0 43,1 214,0 31,1 83,0 14,2

 

Table 2: Weekly change in volume metrics of five RID athletes in the three weeks leading up to UTCT 2018 (represented by % change).

 Athlete Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
  Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km) Volume (min) Volume (km)
100k N/A N/A -22 -21 -50 -41 -78 -69
65k N/A N/A -32 -33 5 -19 -69 -57
35k1 N/A N/A -36 -54 -31 6 -64 -59
35k2 N/A N/A -3 -32 -42 -15 -80 -81
21k N/A N/A 87 74 -34 -28 -61 -55

 

Things that caught my eye on first glance at the two tables above were:

  • Some runners complete significantly higher weekly training volumes (both min and km) than others.
    • This is owing to the length of event they are preparing for. Runners going for the longer events have done significantly higher weekly training volumes than those preparing for the shorter races.
  • Regardless of race distance, there is a decrease in training volume over the three weeks leading up to the race.
    • This is in an effort to increase preparedness leading up to the race. However, you’ll notice that the 21k runner had a huge increase in volume from 3 weeks out to 2 weeks out. This spike was not supposed to be 75 – 85% big (please avoid spikes like this at all costs), but this particular runner went off program and did a crazy long run that weekend.
    • The (min) and (km) decreases tend not to match. This is because I tend to encourage the runners to get on the road more in the weeks before the race to reduce the fatigue of running up and down hills – as such, if a runner does more road running in any particular week than the week preceding or following, it makes the volume reduction difficult to measure.
  • Some runners have different “steepness” in their tapers.
    • This depends largely on the distance they are running, and the amount of training they have done leading up to the event. For example, the 100k athlete had an almost 6 month consistent training schedule leading up to the event, compared to the 21k athlete who only had a 2 month consistent schedule leading up to the event. As such, the 100k athlete had a taper of approximately 19 days, compared to one of about 10 days for the 21k athlete.
    • The gradient of the various tapers also change, with some having a steeper taper at 2 weeks out than 1 week out and vice versa. This completely depends on the preference of the athlete, and the training they have done.

 

Now let’s look at training intensity. Unfortunately, I didn’t have full datasets of the athletes’ respective heart rates and so I have chosen to illustrate the intensity of the athletes’ workouts leading up to UTCT as their average speed in kilometres per hour leading up to the race. Typically, you want to keep your training intensity up during a taper period, while reducing the training volume. This is because your sessions (while they should still be as frequent as they were before your taper), will become much shorter than they were before the taper. This decrease in training volume could result in a fast decrease in fitness unless you are able to maintain the intensity of your workouts over this period. Let’s take a look at their intensities below:

 

Intensity:

 

Table 3: Weekly intensity (average kilometres per hour) of five RID athletes leading up to their respective UTCT events.

 Athlete Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
100k 9,4 9,3 8,0 5,7
65k 6,3 6,4 8,3 6,1
35k1 7,8 10,9 7,1 6,1
35k2 7,0 9,8 6,7 7,2
21k 7,0 7,5 6,9 5,9

 

Table 4: Change in weekly intensity (km/h) as a percentage (%) of five RID athletes leading up to their respective UTCT events.

 Athlete Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
100k N/A -1,1 -16,6 -40,6
65k N/A 2,3 22,8 -37,4
35k1 N/A 28,2 -53,6 -16,3
35k2 N/A 29,3 -47,5 7,8
21k N/A 7,0 -9,6 -17,3

 

Here’s what you should notice when you look at table 3 and 4 above:

  • A negative means an increase in average weekly speed (km/hr).
    • For the most part, you’ll notice that most athletes increased their average speed of their runs in each subsequent week as they approached race week.
    • This is likely owing to the fact that they tended to run more on road leading up to the races, and as such, they ran faster even though they were maintaining the same intensity in training.
    • It is fair to say the training intensity was at least maintained over the tapering period, although it’s not easy to tell.

 

Lastly, let’s take a look at the climbing statistics of our runners leading up to the event. As I have said before, the fact that trail runners tend to mix up their off road and on road running is a unique challenge for the discipline, and it’s why I advocate for volume in minutes and intensity as heart rate (or rating of perceived exertion) when prescribing training. As I said before, I typically encourage my athletes to do less mountain running during a taper process, let’s see if the stats match this:

 

Climbing (Vertical Ascent):

 

Table 5: Weekly climbing (m) and average gradient (%) of five RID athletes leading up to UTCT 2018.

Athlete  Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
  Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%)
100k 4803 5,1 2559 3,4 1780 4,1 138 1,0
65k 1030 1,7 792 1,9 766 2,3 194 1,4
35k1 1280 2,8 750 3,6 321 1,5 159 1,7
35k2 1271 2,9 1705 5,8 593 2,4 160 3,4
21k 724 2,9 1146 2,7 809 2,6 375 2,7

 

Table 6: Change in weekly climbing (m) and average gradient (%) of five RID athletes leading up to UTCT 2018.

 Athlete Race Week – 3 Race Week – 2 Race Week – 1 Race Week
  Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%) Weekly Climbing (m) Avg Gradient (%)
100k N/A N/A -47 -33 -30 19 -92 -75
65k N/A N/A -23 15 -3 19 -75 -41
35k1 N/A N/A -41 28 -57 -60 -50 19
35k2 N/A N/A 34 96 -65 -59 -73 45
21k N/A N/A 58 -9 -29 -2 -54 2

 

Once again, let’s go through some of the trends of the data:

  • For the most part, the amount of weekly climbing and the average gradient tend to decrease in the lead up to UTCT.
    • Once again, the 100k athlete was doing significantly more climbing than the medium distance athletes, who in turn did more than the 20k runner.
    • The exception are athletes 35k2 and 21k , who both had the shortest period of training leading up to the event, and as such had shorter taper periods than the others.
  • While almost all athletes had a decrease in total weekly climbing, some had an increase in average gradient per run.
    • This is likely due to the fact that the runners were running a mix of trail and road, and so those who did more road running in this time had a decrease in average gradient, while others ran similar trail runs in this period and maintained their average gradient (which is also an indicator of intensity).

 

Concluding thoughts:

 

If you’ve stuck with me until now – then kudos to you (Strava joke right there). I decided to do things slightly differently this time round to show you just how messy the real world is in comparison to the theory of things. When people talk about tapering they make it sound like a very simple, precise, and obvious topic – but it’s not. Next week I’m going to delve a bit more into the theory of tapering. The reality is that if you sat down with me and asked me any questions about the specific tapers of any of these athletes, there would be perfectly sound logic behind all of the decision making – but when you line them up next to one another you notice that, for every trend or similarity (like general decrease in training volume, maintenance of intensity, and decrease in volume of climbing), there are the same amount of confounding factors (different gradient of taper, different surface run in taper period, etc.). With that in mind, here are my concluding thoughts from the real world of tapering:

  • First, and most importantly, there is no such thing as a perfect taper – those are only found in textbooks. The reality is that it will take you many times to find the type of taper that works best for a particular athlete – and sometimes that takes multiple attempts to get right.
  • Training volume should be decreased during a taper period, and trail runners should move towards a load monitoring system based on minutes trained and metres climbed rather than kilometres covered.
  • Training intensity should be maintained throughout the taper period, although it is yet unclear whether this means decreasing the average gradient over this time is beneficial or not.
  • Training load spikes should be avoided in this period, as they should in any other period of training.
  • Decide on priority races for the year. The 21k runner had this as a C priority race, which means he only had a short taper for this event as it was largely a training run for an A race taking place in February 2019.
  • Taper length is dependent on what your weeks of build look like prior to the race. Longer, more consistent training, requires a longer taper – this is the same for those who train at high volumes leading up to a race.
  • Surface continues to be a confounding factor in the lead up to a race. In my opinion, the jury is still out as to what the best strategy is leading up to a trail run, but regardless of that, changes in surface can make monitoring athletes over this period fairly challenging.

 

If you have any thoughts, challenges, advice or queries about tapering and the tapering of these respective athletes, please feel free to drop us a comment and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can – or if you want to share your taper with us please feel free to do so.

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