Question:  How do I peak for my big race.

Answer:  This is a tricky question as 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, especially in running. 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, runners tend 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 blogs 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 the runner 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 runner's 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 reduction in weekly volume of about 50% and also 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 a reduction in weekly volume and include hard intervals once or twice a week while all other riding is easy.

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 riding 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.

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