I believe an effective “peak” in fitness first starts with a well thought out training plan and more importantly, a prioritized race schedule.  This all sets the stage for the peak process, making your run fitness as race specific as possible. Peaking is a mysterious art and for many reasons, it is just not easy to achieve one’s highest possible level of performance on the day of a major goal race or peak part of the season, despite all the effort and care that goes into planning and training to produce peak results.

I see it all the time, athletes to race very well early in the competitive season and fall flat toward the end of the season, when they should hit their peak.  The reason, I believe, is that they start to do race specific training too early in the season and do too much cardiovascular conditioning in preparation for early season races.  I have mentioned in previous posts that the development of endurance is associated with the functional specialization of the skeletal muscles, particularly the enhancement of their strength and neuromuscular qualities, rather than the improvement of prolonged cardiovascular ability.  And to experience great gains in strength and speed endurance, one should aim to eliminate the disparity between the anaerobic and aerobic abilities of the muscles.  If this is not the focus early in the season and carried out to some extent all season, there is a tendency to do too much endurance or cardiovascular training and peaking too soon or plateauing, which many times cause runners to over train.  To drive this home, here are some points to ponder:

  • Why do athletes with equivalent VO2 max levels perform different results?
  • Why do VO2 max results in elite athletes stabilize as results continue to improve?
  • Why is there a decreasing correlation between VO2 max and improved times?

This could indicate that VO2 max or cardiovascular efficiency on its own is no guarantee of an outstanding performance and that a runners body can only progressively adapt to race specific training for a few weeks until a limit is reached. For this reason, I assign about 6 weeks of race specific training leading up to the athlete’s seasonal peak or race occurs.  Once the athlete hits the peak phase, they are now ready for a heavy dose of hard intervals.  These hard intervals heighten neuromuscular coordination and enhance economy, in concert with the easier overall weekly volume for recovery.  As coordination and efficiency at high speed improve from these hard intervals, the athlete’s previous race pace is now faster, because the oxygen cost of running at that speed has fallen. Thus, one reaches VO2 max at a higher speed than previously, and might explain why there is a decreasing correlation between VO2 max results and peak performance.

Merely regulating or limiting the duration of your race specific or peak phase of training will not guarantee a successful peak, however.  There are a few tricks you can use to reliably increase the odds of peaking successfully.  As mentioned above, your peak phase should include some hard intervals once or twice a week.  If you feel you are peaking too soon or need to extend your peak longer than a 3-4 week period, integrate some tempo runs to ‘massage’ your form and prolong it for the duration required.  If you are in your peak time of year, your heart rate should be very responsive, elevate quickly, and be higher than during your heavy training phase.  If  you notice this is not the case and your heart rate is low and slow to respond, be sure to take 2-4 days of recovery running or reduce you peak training volume even more.  Your legs need the recovery and a lower heart rate is NOT an indication of peak fitness.

And finally, you should taper not just before your big races but on a monthly basis. After all, since tapering is such a great thing, why reserve it for just a couple of times a year? If you taper for the last five to seven days of each month, you'll find that your fitness will move upward in sizable jumps, instead of just creeping up a little or - worse yet - stagnating at the same level.

Hope this helps - E

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Comment by Lori Enlow on July 17, 2015 at 2:47pm

Timely!

Comment by eric p mccarty on October 21, 2011 at 6:57am

Timely post and excellent advice as always Eric.

The monthly taper will now be part of my training arsenal.

Thanks!

 

Comment by Eric Orton on October 21, 2011 at 4:55am

Hey Jason - rest and recovery is WHEN we get stronger and faster.  We tear muscles down during workouts and rest is required for rebuilding.  So I guess I do not believe in the accidental taper, as I build this into every four weeks of my coaching programs.  Glad you enjoyed the post and let us know how this helps your running going forward.

E

Comment by Jason Shattuck on October 20, 2011 at 6:41pm
Wow, you have some great information and advice in this blog.  I have accidently experienced a "jump" in fitness before when unable to train for a week due to travel and work.  Maybe that could be a topic: "The accidental taper".  While I assumed that my performance would suffer, it actually increased!  Thanks for the reminder.

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