This is Part Three in a three part series about ultra distance race nutrition by Steve Dullack.
Ahhhhh, the Taper Phase of training. The time when you can ease off the gas a little, recharge the batteries both mentally and physically, and if you are not careful…a time when you can torpedo a lot of the work you have done over the last several months and completely lose your mind in the process.
So what is “tapering”? I am glad you asked. Tapering is the final phase of training (because, yes, you are still training in this phase) where the amount of physical training is systematically decreased to allow your body to be primed for race day. According to 2006 U.S. mountain running champion Nicole Hunt, who now coaches at Speedendurance.net, tapers “bolster muscle power, increase muscle glycogen, muscle repair, freshen the mind, fine-tune the neural network so that it’s working the most efficiently, and most importantly, eliminate the risk of overtraining where it could slow the athlete down the most.” That sounds better than anything I could ever come up with.
What a taper is NOT is a stop phase. You need to keep training, but at level adjusted down to allow your body to fully recover from the hard training you have put it through. Typically, you want to maintain the INTENSITY of your workouts, but decrease the DURATION. For example, one of my favorite workouts is 6x8min intervals at almost-race pace (85% ATHR) with 2 minutes rest in between each interval. It is a full blown ass kicker. When I am tapering, that workout decreases to 5×5 min intervals with 5 minutes active rest in between. Same intensity, shorter durations, more recovery. My weekly mileage the past several weeks has been around 50 total miles. During my taper that is closer to 25-30. I am still getting in a long 2.5-3 hour paddle but no more of the 4 hour/20 mile type workouts from previous weeks. One really long workout per week and a couple short workouts is a good formula for tapering as well.
Now let’s talk about rest. Rest during the taper, i.e. sleep, is as important as those 20 milers were several weeks ago. You can’t get one or two good night’s sleep before an ultra distance race and consider yourself “rested”. Often during the first week of the taper you will feel very tired. Sleep, nap, go to bed early, DVR that episode of Dancing with the Stars, get off your feet, whatever but you need to be resting these two weeks before the race. If you trained correctly, the last 3 weeks were the toughest part of your prep. Let your body heal itself after the training you have just put it through.
So we are tapering and resting; now we just need to feed the beast. Race week and race morning nutrition is NOT the time to try something new. You need to keep feeding the machine the same awesome nutrition (hopefully) that you have been eating during your training phase. And make sure you do EAT. In my opinion, you should not be cutting back the calories during your taper just because you are reducing your level of work. Your body is healing, it needs fuel. Just like one or two more workouts crammed into your taper week aren’t going to make you faster, neither will eating consistently through taper weeks make you fat. I eat the same during taper as I do during hard training. Stay disciplined in your diet and don’t stray in the two days before the race. This is hard when traveling for a race but plan ahead. The two days before are most important for nutrition.
Race morning before an ultra-distance race is always a very early start for me and is something I plan out. The folks at CarboPro who work with a ton of ultra-distance athletes recommend consuming 1,000 calories before a race. That means I start feeding 3 hours before start time. Like liquid nutrition, this is something I have worked out over time but overall I like soft, easily digestible foods. This is my pre-race chow down:
1 large bowl oatmeal- 300 calories
2 bananas- 210 calories
1 avocado- 235 calories
1 Peanut butter Clif Bar-230 calories
1 CarboPro gel- 100 calories
TOTAL= 1075 calories
That is a lot to consume before a race. That is why I start early so I don’t spew it all over my board 10 minutes after the start. I try to get the oatmeal, bananas and avocado into me in the first hour I am up. I eat the Clif bar about 45 minutes before the race and I pop the gel right before I start. And of course I am hydrating during all this too.
So that’s it, that’s what works for me. Remember during your taper to: 1) reduce your workout DURATION, not INTENSITY, 2) Rest, Rest, Rest, 3) Plan your race morning nutrition NOW, and 4) Relax and don’t try anything new. You have put a lot into preparing for this race, trust your training and trust yourself!!
Steve Dullack is owner of the Virginia Beach Paddleboard Company, a team rider for King’s Paddle Sports, and a lifelong Mullet.