Monday, 2 June 2014

Final weeks before the West Highland Way Race : Tapering vs Tunning in

Taper -> Taperitis

It is now less than three weeks to the West Highland Way Race, and if I follow the standard recommended practice for marathons and ultras I'll progressive taper down my mileage for the next few weeks.  The theory is you cut the mileage to enable your body to recover from high mileage weeks at the end of your training cycle and leave your well rested and fresh for race day.

The trouble is feeling fresh on race day is something I found elusive with a standard three week taper, typically I'll be suffering from colds, or various aches and pains - classic symptoms of taperitis.  Getting all these symptoms increases the anxiety levels before a race which does nothing to help one get a good nights sleep, rebuild the body, support the immune system or restock energy reserves - undermining the whole purpose of the taper.

I haven't yet read a good explanation of the cause taperitis, my best guess is that this cascade of events in a taper is likely due to the lower mileage reducing the cortisol and growth hormone release associated with consistent training.  Cortisol helps energy release but also suppresses inflammation and the immune system, this is fine as long as it's balanced with a release of growth hormone to allow the body to rebuild itself after our training.  Cut training and cut associated cortisol levels and our bodies can respond with the immune system becoming more active, and more responsive to any niggles, be them colds or muscle strains.  This is mostly a good thing, but I suspect if we see a sudden change in training the big changes in daily hormone cycles can lead to an imbalanced response.  Could the immune system become over sensitive in this period?

Cutting training mileage and number of time your go also growth hormone release, this component of the immune system will them be less active.  If your body doesn't need lots of repair this shouldn't be a problem, but again I do wonder if the sudden change in daily hormone release could lead to imbalances.

Another factor may be that when we train we activate Autophagy, which is an immune response that cleans up cell debri.  With autophagy diminished it could be that our overall immune system is reduced and the balance of pro and anti-inflammatory processes are changed.

The may also be psychological aspects in play.  When we train regularly we can feel positive about preparing for the race ahead, we feel like we are doing something.  Reduce the training and we no longer have this mental stimulus and release of our pent up energy.  It's quiet easy to end up anxious and over fixated with every ache and pain that we'd normally ignore as a minor niggle when training.

We've all had these taper from hell.  There has to be a better way.

Learning from times when I haven't had the opportunity to Taper

Last spring during my build up to I ended up with a bout of Metatarsalgia in my left foot (pain under the ball of the foot) that refused to clear up, I ended up having to cut my mileage down lower and lower, finally less than 6 mile a week.  In the end I had to pull out from the Fling and tried my best to rest my injured foot and get it sorted.  Alas rest didn't work either.

I had signed up for the Devil O' Highlands and with one month to go decided I had to start training even if my foot wasn't yet healed up properly.  Curiously enough getting back into training was sore initially on my foot but it actually improved with as I upped the daily mileage.  I haven't yet figured out why, perhaps the dance between Cortisol and Growth Hormone was playing in my favour?

Given such a short training cycle I didn't have much time to ramp up my mileage before the Devil, I got up to doing 18 miles in one day less than 10 days before the race and then began my taper.  Despite the short amount of training and short taper I ran a great Devil, finishing a hour quicker than what I expected.  This got be wondering just how necessary a big taper was.

In all my races since last August I've gradually got more confident about doing training runs close to race day.  Before the Loch Katrine Marathon, this March, I ran a marathon paced test run of half marathon length just 6 days before the race.  Come race day I was perfectly fresh and got a 6 minute PB.   Before the Highland Fling, in April, I did a hilly 15 miler race pace test on the Wednesday before the race, did a 4 mile recovery run on Thursday, rested up on the Friday and put away a hour PB in the Fling on the Saturday.

Since the Devil last August I've now done four ultras and a marathon and the longest taper has been 10 days, shortest two days and in all these races I've ran really well.

Could it be that big three week tapers simply aren't necessary?

Final phase of training - Tuning in

The key objective of all our training is to prepare ourselves for race day.  Come race day we want out body and minds to be perfectly tuned for the demands of the race.  The last phase in training has to be increasingly tuning the mind and body into those specific demands.

The bulk of training where we do the majority of our miles and hard training sessions make our bodies stronger, increase our aerobic fitness and for an ultra runner ideally improve our bodies ability to burn fat efficiently.  The bulk of our training is likely to contain a variety of training sessions, some easy recovery days, some long runs, some back to backs to fatigued legs, some tempo, some interval or hill sprint sessions.  This big mix of runs can push our bodies in lots of different ways, the various stressors help build our overall fitness.

However, on race day we rely on a set of physical and mental capabilities that are specific to that event. For an ultra runner we'll need to be run and walking from start to finish.  We'll need to navigate, we'll need to deal with weather and terrain that are specific to that day and route.  We may need to deal with sleep deprivation, wet, cold or hot conditions.   Preparing physically and mentally for all these outcomes is likely to be the key to getting the final phase of training right.

Maintenance of Fitness and Physical tuning

In the final few weeks before a big race you are unlikely to be further develop your aerobic fitness, structural resilience or fat burning capacity.  You do however have the capacity to ruin all of this by trying to train to hard too close to the race, so there is little point in trying to push all your toughest training weeks as close as possible to race day.

Instead I believe the final few weeks should be about maintaining fitness.  Maintaining fitness requires less intense training than building fitness so reducing the weekly mileage and intensity of training sessions is sensible.   What I have found, from my tracking my own training and recovery, that my body can quite happily handle running for an hour each day without little stress, as long as I keep the pace easy to ultra race pace (9min/mile pace and slower for me), which means roughly 6 miles a day is safe to do, day in, day out.  Pushing my mileage below this level doesn't seem to be required, so for me this is means that during "taper" I can happily run 30 to 40 mile weeks - I just need to keep the intensity nice an easy.

I have also found that I can happily add a ~half marathon runs done an ultra race into taper weeks and still feel recovered the next day and not be carrying much fatigue over to the next day.  I wouldn't want to run back to back half marathons but a couple interspersed through the week is fine.

As race day approaches you want to tune your muscle tension to the level appropriate for the event, and for an ultramarathon this means nice and relaxed.  The best way to achieve nice relaxed muscles is to keep all runs in the final week around the same pace as your ultra race.   If you will be running of routes with lots of hills and walking then practising run/walking on routes at similar as your can find to the race route, and do them at a similar pace.   This will ensure your muscles tune into the appropriate muscle tension and your muscle memory can tune into the motor patterns you'll want to be automatic on race day.

Take care of what your eat in the final weeks

As we reduce the length of big runs and our weekly mileage the amount of glycogen we use up goes down, especially if you cut down faster runs like tempo runs and really long runs.   With the reduced energy needs, in particular for glycogen, if you keep eating the same foods and quantity of food you could easily end up filling your glycogen stores quite quickly then the access carbs will also be converted to fats and your body will reset itself to to storing carbs as fat and burning carbs as fuel rather than sparing them.

High Glycemic Index (GI) Foods foods in particular are likely to the biggest culprits for sabotaging your fat burning capacity so stay clear of sweet snacks, pasta and white bread etc as they elated blood sugar very rapdily and induce and insulin spike that tells the body to store blood sugar as muscle glycogen and convert it to fat and store in your fat cells.  The only time safe time to play with these foods is right after a run when your insulin sensitive is at it's highest, or as part of meal that contains plenty of protein, fibre and fat that reduces the overall GI of the meal.

Studies looking at eating low carb diet for two weeks and then carbo loading in the final days before a race have shown improvements in fat burning capacity and performance but the results aren't conclusive.

My recommendation would be to stick to a moderate carb diet right through to the final day before the race and make sure that the overall GI of the foods are low.  For an ultra you want to fill your glycogen stores but your don't want to risk over filling them as if you do then your immediately switch to fat storing rather than fat burning.

If you feel peckish in the final week and want a snack try something like an apple, or cheese on oat cakes as they are low GI.  Skipping breakfast and having bigger lunches and dinners that properly fill you up can help the body spend more time fat burning and less time snacking - this approach to daily intermittent fasting also activates the Autophagy thus maintaining this aspect of the immune system even as we reducing our training mileage.

Complete Race preparation and Relax

Anxiety in the weeks before a race can build, a little bit of stress each day can be healthy but only if you have down time where you can fully relax, if you carry anxiety with you all day and night it leaves you with chronically high Cortisol and erodes your aerobic fitness and muscle strength - absolutely not what you want before a big ultra.

For me I only find it easy to relax once I know I am well prepared, the earlier I sort out all the major elements of race prep. the sooner I can relax and enjoy my time off.  My goal for these final weeks before the West Highland Way Race is to plan the race out, for my own race and my support crew and get it written down.  Once I've written it down and agreed the details with my crew I'll be able to close a mental door on all those items.

To help get a handle on what I need to plan for and decide I have drawn up a mind map - it's too scrawled to publish online, but it does roughly contain all the major elements I need to look at over the next few weeks and steadily tick off.

Preparation wise I've now got a initial set of splits prepared, which I'll publish soon in case other might find it curious or useful.  The splits will help the next phase which is plan out food and drink for each stage of the race.

I have a number of foods like chocolate milk shake, yoghurt drink, home-made coconut oil+chocolate bars, sticks of liquorish that have been my stable for my ultra in the past year that have worked well and will be part of my food/drink inventory for the West Highland Way Race.  I'll add to these as well.  Rice pudding sounds good as does hot soup.  My aim will be to provide my body with a range of easy to digest sources of carbohydrate, protein and fats.  I'll avoid foods high in fibre for race day.

I plan to wear most of the same things as I wore for the Fling and other ultra's but still have a few items like shoes to try out before finalizing.  As I don't plan on changing too much there isn't too much to plan here save for extra changes of clothing for doing a day long race in the unpredictable Scottish climate!

Reading previous reports from runners and supporters will also be part of my prep.  This is to reforce the community tradition behind what I am undertaking - I am not alone but part of an extended family, as well as spot good tips and lessons to learn. Knowing that others have been through similar experiences as I'll likely encounter will give me a template of how to handle things when they go astray - so many accounts you see runners describe low points that they felt they couldn't continue yet they pull through and some even finishing really strongly.

I don't plan to specifically spend time and effort on visualize myself running or spend too much time training myself for positive thinking.  I will just instead just let positive thoughts come and enjoy them. If I happen upon negative thoughts then I'll embrace them - and look for the underlying problem that is causing them and do something to address that issue, ignoring and burying problems won't solve them, but finding a solution for them can be a really positive thing.

Don't "think positive", BE POSITIVE, Enjoy these final runs and weeks

I am really looking forward to race day.  Sure I would have liked to do a few more big training runs, or hit my target top weekly mileage but overall I'm healthy, happy and only have minor niggles despite the 200 mile months that I have done for the past four months.  I have never managed this amount of consistent training before, I have never been better prepared to run 95 miles.

The next few weeks are precious and I plan to enjoy every run. I won't count weekly mileage, I will just run often as I feel I want to and go as far as I fancy.  What I do know is that I'll do all the miles at a relaxed pace, walk when the hill steepens too much, play with a sprint or too if I the whim comes my way.  I have done all the hard work now it's time to enjoy the fitness I've built and tune in to pace and style of running that I'll employ on race day.

My preparation I'll tick off bit my bit each day and make sure that it's all coming together with plenty of time so I can relax in the final week.  I'll finish with a view from the end of Stank Glen looking down to the River Lenny taken on a 15 miler I did this week.  I love the route so will be sure to be run it a few more times over the next few weeks, doing such a long and hilly route might not fit a classic taper but it ticks all the boxes for enjoying my time and inspiring my love of running in Scottish highlands - just about perfect for tuning into running the whole West Highland Way!


  1. Thought provoking. Best of luck for the race:-D

    1. Thanks Dave, I hope the recovery is going well ;-)

  2. Great post.

    I think taperitis might be a lot more psychological than you're giving credit to. If you "believe" in the idea that every time you taper, you get ill, then it should come as no surprise when you're feeling out of sorts come taper time. In psychology, Emile Coué did a lot of work on this - his theory is that where the 'subconscious' mind and the 'concious' mind are in conflict, the sub-concious will ALWAYS win. From what I've had explained to me, but as a disclaimer I haven't followed up the quoted research to back it up, the part of our brain where the emotions and decision-making take place, the amygdala, is located within a section of the brain which has no involvement at all with logical thought, it's strongly operated by emotions. If it is presented with a strong enough imaginary visualisation, it has no idea it's only imaginary, and your 'fight or flight' decisions are dealt with through your emotions based on the messages it's receiving. So if you firmly create a visualisation/emotional belief of tapering being terrible, feeling under the weather and so on, that feeds the sub-conscious (and the amygdala), and then even if you say out loud "this time will be different!" it's too late - you already -believe- it will go wrong, and Coué's theory is that deep down, you will then MAKE it go wrong.... if that makes sense. The sub-conscious/imagination wins out.

    Of course, it could all just be a crock of sh*t. I have friends who absolutely hate the taper period, and I have friends who very firmly believe there is no such thing as 'taperitis', and they all perform just as well come race day. :-) x x

    1. HI Sarah,

      I used to believe in the value of traditional taper and didn't even know about "taperitis" and expected to feel better with the lower mileage. What I found it is that it wasn't uncommon for me to fall for colds, get progressively stiffer and measurably less efficient (looking at my HR/pace & Calories/mile) as the taper progressed. It's only after encountering the symptoms did I find out that that others suffered as well and this isn't anything unusual. I believe this rules out the idea that the idea that the symptoms are significantly psychosomatic in nature for all runners.

      I would also caution from latching on to any one explanation for physiological and psychological issues that we come across. Our bodies and mind are so complex and intertwined that there is very rarely one reason, instead a cocktail of interacting factors is usually in play. Our hormones affect our mental state, our mental state affects our hormones - they are never separate and one never dominates over the other all the time. Our hormones effect how energetic we are, how we repair our bodies and respond to illness. What we do physically and how we think affects hormones on so many levels, knowing that there is this mix of influences can help us to do better.

      This is why I finished saying "BE POSITIVE", rather than "think positive" - keeping active during the taper and doing the right type of physical activity is just as important for maintaining physical and mental well being as being adopting positive thinking. Negative thoughts are only negative if you don't do anything positive about them, if you can work out the reason for those negative thought and fix the underlying problem then you no longer have any reason for them.

      There are of course chronic mental conditions like depression that make it very difficult to turn around negative thoughts, but for the last few weeks before a big ultra I really do hope that the athletes aren't straddled with this. For sure it'll make for the toughest taper and race imaginable.

      Curiously ultra athletes after Ultra sometimes report feelings of depression. It can take so much our of you physically and mentally, and your daily routine before and after an Ultra can be so different that perhaps this isn't too surprising. This is a whole other topic though, but perhaps the common element is that in a traditional taper the daily activity is different than in the preceding months just as it is after an ultra in recovery. It's these differences that might tweak the soup of hormones and mental thought processes that affect our well being.

  3. Thanks for an interesting account of your experiences of tapering and your thoughts on the cause of problems during the taper.

    There is good evidence from systematic studies a taper can improve race performance, but the extent and nature of the taper that is best for each individual is likely to depend on several factors including the individual’s intrinsic ability to recover rapidly and on the degree to which the training was exhausting. As for the cause of the increase in niggles during a taper, I think that these niggles are mostly a matter of heightened awareness in many instances. However in at least some instances there might be an increase in vulnerability to symptoms due to hormonal or immune system changes. If so, I would expect that increased stress due to anxiety, and associated increased cortisol release, is more likely to be to be the problem than decreased cortisol due to decreased physical stress from training.

    I agree that maintaining a positive mental state is likely to be important. There are individual differences in the best way of achieving this.

  4. One further point, with regard to taperitis: maybe in some cases it is an example the phenomenon known as leisure sickness.

    1. Thanks the comments and link to article on Leisure Sickness. I suspect there is big overlap in causes between Taperitis and Leisure Sickness.

      W.r.t cortisol I suspect that at different points in a Taper we'll see different mixes of hormones at play, as your say as anxiety builds before the race it's likely the increase on average. Lack of sleep and lack of exercise is also likely to reduce the amount of growth hormone release - again the closer the the race the more I expect this would be at play.

      Less exercise and carbo loading is also likely to reduce Autophagy so might go some way to contributing to colds.


      W.r.t studies on taper, I have read a few papers/reviews of papers and the approach to taper that seemed the most compelling w.r.t results was a short cliff edged taper, where training in the last week is cut back almost entirely but short race pace runs used to maintain the correct level of muscle tension. I haven't come across any studies looking at Ultra requirements - normal races are run faster than the average training pace, while ultra's are run at lower.

      Ultra's are also unusual in that it's so critical that aerobic fitness and in particular fat burning capacity. VO2max is known to decrease less quickly than aerobic fitness so I suspect the change over point between recovery/building of muscle strength and loss of fitness is different for different races, with longer races stressing aerobic fitness more and VO2max less. This is why I believe that falling back to a maintenance level of training is important during a taper.

      Aerobic fitness is unlikely to degrade much over a week so cutting back significantly in the last week is probably safe.


      One thing I didn't raise in my post is the prospects for adaptation to heat. If we only ever work up a sweat during training then cutting training will impact heat adaptations. If the race is in hot conditions then this may well be a limiting factor. Hot taper has been found to be effective in both cold and hot races, but most effective in hot races. I suspect part of effectiveness of the hot taper is that it avoids the detaining of heat adaptation.

      In the these last two weeks I'll specifically try to maintain/build the heat adaptations by running when it's hot, having hot baths and plan to visit the swimming pool with it's sauna.