taper week nutrition

Hungry hungry hippo

On Robben Island, 2003. Yes that is me. 

Photos in this post are from my time in South Africa in 2003.

Inevitably at some point during taper week the following conversation will take place:

Me: "I feel fat"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No really, I am feel like all I am doing is eating! I am going to be a hippo before I get to the start line"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No you aren't listening, I am stuffing myself. I just can't stop eating."
Nathan: "Yeah, you are getting really fat on all that butternut squash you are eating."
Me: "I hate racing. I am never racing again."
Nathan: "I loooove you. Taper crazy."

No matter how perfectly you plan your taper, or how precisely you execute it, chances are, at some point you will feel tired, sore, fat and out of shape, all of this will likely be accompanied by a ravenous, insatiable appetite. In other words, exactly how you should feel during taper. 

Despite racing 18 marathons and 28 ultras since I did my first race back in 2003 when I lived in Cape Town, I have yet to really make friends with this aspect of taper. I can know its coming, steel myself against it, but somehow some proliferation of these feelings occurs. I often ponder how nice it would be to arrive on race day not feeling like this. But I know, deep down, that these feelings and distractions are actually a vital part of getting to the start line with my mind and body right.


When I break it down, the hungry, hungry hippo I become during my taper (of any duration, usually a two week taper), makes a lot of sense. I come in to taper off of really high mileage, high intensity weeks. I feel primed and like I could do a little bit more, not exhausted or in need of a taper. Just one step removed. Coming off 100-120 mile weeks into a period of comparative rest allows your body the space to feel tired, sore, the flood gates of hunger opened. It is a necessity of a good taper not to be restrictive, to nourish your body to give it strength for the race and to recover from the work. I keep my diet super clean during taper, but there is really little departure from my regular day-to-day diet than usual.

The fat and out of shape feeling that accompanies the ravenous hunger is a little mind trick that comes out of simply having more time on my hands and nothing to do with it. When I start cutting back mileage, I am spending less time running and more time in my own head. I don't necessarily fill up that new found time with stuff and instead try to do what you are suppose to do in taper: rest. 


All of these things are crappy to think and feel, no one enjoys doubting them self or berating them self or questioning their training. The longer I race, the more I recognize this whole thing as a neurotic preparation process. Feeling like a hungry, hungry hippo who is utterly destroying my careful preparation through an imperfect taper process, destroys any unconscious expectations on myself and mentality prepares me to have whatever kind of day is in store for me. It makes me more present, because I ride the spectrum from feeling super fit and primed to feeling completely incapable, and therefore have no choice but to just accept my fate. Usually by race day, I am simply at a point where I say "we'll see how it goes".

Tapering is not a fun process. It is a necessary process however and absolutely vital to going into a race fully prepared. While I may never embrace the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies taper, I am slow learning to recognize the patterns, not fight it and let it produce the result it needs to.

I may still feel like a hungry, hungry hippo (yes, I know that I am not), but I as I enter my final week of taper, I am embracing the process, instead of fighting it. I am preparing to do battle, to enjoy the heck out of myself at Two Oceans in Cape Town running for the Nedbank Team, to return to where my running career (as an adult) began and to explore what is possible.

Besides, hippos are super cute.


Nutrition Navigation: Taper Week

Welcome to my new series: Nutrition Navigation. The idea behind the series is part of the vision behind the cookbook I am working on, that is, bridging nutritional knowledge/needs and great food. In this series, I will focus on specific training periods or training needs (like peak training or post-long run), on a specific nutrient (like Vitamin D) or a specific food (like Kale) and show you how that translates into real, healthy, gourmet meals. Often times that means I will provide a snapshot of a days worth of meals or a collection of ideas, recipes or methods. Have questions or want to see something specific covered. Email me with your special requests! Please note, I am NOT a registered dietitian and these views reflect only what have worked for me as a runner and personal chef.


I am nearly all the way through my second big taper of the year (already!) and thought to myself, this would be a great time to launch that series I've been meaning to do on my blog. After all, taper is the time when most people are thinking, what the heck should I eat? For me, leading up to the race, I have a few simple "rules" to guide me as I make my daily food choices:

  1. Don't introduce or reintroduce anything new. Through much of my training, I have been following a very specific diet to help support my peak training as well as navigate around all of my various stomach issues and intolerances. 
  2. Keep it simple. Keep it consistent. What has worked for me through my peak training should continue to work for me through taper, although my daily needs are lower, I am eating the same foods I was during training. For me, this means that my diet for most of my taper is still 40/30/30. That is 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat. I often feel like taper week is a "best of" from the various training meals I have enjoyed. I eat a normal healthy diet.
  3. Don't be restrictive but remember you are running a lot less. In peak training, I can be doing upwards of 120-140 miles per week which means I am taking in a huge amount of fuel during those times. During taper, my appetite may still be revved up but I am burning less calories. Find a happy balance between being satisfied and tapering your calories in accordance with your miles. You want to make sure you are fueling for your race and that means eating good fuel and eating often. Remember this shouldn't be a restrictive thing because if you keep in mind #1 and #2 you should have nothing to worry about.
  4. Carb up, without a depletion phase, in the last 3 days. Science has shown that you don't need to precede a carb loading phase with depletion. That means I eat my normal healthy diet Monday to Thursday and then start up'ing my carbs and lowering my fat and protein on Thursday to start powering up.
  5. Don't overthink it. There is no universal right answer of what to eat. Some people have iron clad stomachs and some people are hyper-sensitive. Look at what has worked for you and model after your own best practice.
What works for me:

I personally learn from examples. Even though I can understand a list (like above) or a set of instructions, often times I am able to synthesize it best by viewing an example. I thought for this series, I would include an example of what a typical taper week day of meals looked like.

Breakfast:
Throughout my training, I have developed the habit of having gluten free oats virtually every single morning. In fact, it is a rare day that I do not. Thus, during taper, I keep the habit alive. I believe in eating a hearty breakfast and setting myself up right. 


My favorite method of making oats is prepping them the night before, so when I return from my morning run, a warm creamy bowl of oats is only minutes away. I call this "modified overnight oats". Overnight oats are by far not an original creation, but since I like my oats hot, I don't just eat them out of the fridge.

Before I go to bed, I combine in a large jar:
  • 1/2 cup gluten free oats
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk (vanilla)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of cinnamon
  • teaspoon chia seeds
I put all the ingredients into the jar, seal tightly, give a little shake to combine and throw into the fridge.

In the morning when I return from my run, I take the jar of oats add 1/2 cup more water and pop into a small pan. I heat over medium heat, until it starts to bubble. When this happens, I take a whole banana, peel in and using my fingers, pinch of pieces and mix them into the oats. Once the banana is added, I stir frequently for 2-3 minutes, breaking up the banana further with a spoon. After 2-3 minutes, the mixture will have started to become thick and creamy. I turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup of liquid egg whites to get some good protein in there. 1/2 cup of egg whites has 12 grams of protein and only 60 calories. You get great bang for your buck on that and plus, they really make the oats smooth. I pour the oats into a bowl and top with two tbsp of nut butter. This morning I was enjoying some homemade roasted cashew and almond butter. The nut butter is key as it gives you some good fat and will keep you satisfied for a few hours. 



Lunch #1 and Lunch #2:


I eat two lunches during my training and therefore I eat two lunches during my taper. I use to only eat one giant lunch in the middle of the day but that left me feeling way too full for a while and then starving by dinner time. Now, I eat two moderately large lunches broke up by 3 hours. I like it way better than normal snacking. Typically my lunch #1 and lunch #2 are going to be a permutation of the same ingredients. Today, we went to the farmer's market before lunch so I was able to pick up some beautiful greens, kale and broccoli to highlight in my lunch.

I love salad and feel very incomplete without them on a daily basis. Ditto on the vegetables. Some might say it is too much fiber, but my body likes it, but I wouldn't recommend you take on salads in your taper week if you haven't been eating them in abundance in training. 

Each salad included:
  • Mixed Greens
  • Kale massaged with 1 tbsp of Udo's DHA Blend oil.
  • 1/2 cooked sweet potato
  • 1 1/2 hard boiled eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups roasted broccoli (lightly sprayed with oil, roasted for 10-15 mins in a 450 oven).
  • Mustard and Apple cider vinegar
Kale getting a massage

Salad #1 awaiting broccoli

Homemade grape kombucha on the side

Salad #2, three hours later with a glass of Nuun.

Clearly, I am like an elephant and like to eat my own weight in broccoli and leafy greens. In training and in taper, I actually have to think about ensuring that I have a good carb source (sweet potato), protein (hard boiled eggs) and fat (Udo's oil) to make sure I am getting enough in these salads. 

Dinner:

The Baker and I, over the past few months, have been pre-planning all of our dinners. We sit down together and figure out what we are going to have for dinner each night of the week and build a grocery list accordingly (I am going to be launching a series of blog posts called BYOPC- Be your own personal chef to highlight our menus and plans). Thus, it is easy for me as dinner time nears to execute our plan and not have to ask the question "whats for dinner". 

During taper week in our house, the taperer gets to lead the menu planning because of some of the aforementioned bullet points. For me, that means eating lots of veggies, sweet potatoes and potatoes and some lean meat.  Tonights dinner was a buffalo and veggie stir fry with sweet potato (for me) and rice (for the Baker) included:
  • ground buffalo
  • bok choy
  • red cabbage
  • carrot
  • ginger
  • garlic
  • gluten free tamari
  • roasted red chili paste
  • coconut oil
  • scallions
  • peanuts for garnish
  • sweet potato for me, coconut rice for the Baker

It was a pretty simple stir-fry. I heated a tbsp of coconut oil in a large pan and then put 1/2 of the garlic and ginger in the pan, cooking it for less than 30 seconds before adding the buffalo. I let that brown for a minute, added a couple teaspoons of roasted red chili paste, and cooked for another few minutes. I added a splash of tamari and then removed the pan from heat and put the buffalo in a bowl. I added a tbsp of coconut oil to the pan (since buffalo is so lean there was no fat left) and cooked the vegetables with the remaining garlic and ginger, which I had shredded into the same size (carrot, cabbage, red bell pepper and white parts of the bok choy. I added another splash of tamari, added the bok choy green parts and let that cook until the vegetables started to get tender. I added the buffalo back, tossed it all together and served. I served mine onto my sweet potato and Nathan's onto the reheated rice, topped with scallions and a scant tbsp of peanuts. Delicious!


As I said, these eats worked for me. It was a pretty easy running day and I felt sustained throughout the day. I really, really enjoyed all my eats today and feel like I successful married my nutritional needs with my desire to eat incredibly delicious food. Taper week nutrition couldn't be easier. Stick with what you know, stick with what you like and don't do anything new!