“It was actually pretty easy”, “I felt invincible”, “I was in the zone today”… How many times have you heard comments like these in post-race interviews with elite athletes, when they’ve managed to peak at the right time? When everything comes together it’s a wonderful feeling, but not one exclusive to elite athletes – all of us can ‘get it right on the night’ if we simply learn to maximise our chances of success.
‘Peaking’ happens when you reach an optimal state of physical, emotional and mental preparedness – all at the same time. It describes a scenario in which you combine a low level of fatigue (achieved by resting) with a high level of fitness and energy (achieved by hard training and good nutrition), and then multiply both of them by an incredible level of motivation and determination to kick ass on race day!
So the concept of peaking is easy enough to grasp, but pulling it off when it matters most is the real trick. Not least because the first two points (minimising fatigue and being super fit) seem fundamentally opposed to each other. It’s also clear that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to ensure a perfect peak; what works for one seldom does for another, and because of this peaking has often been referred to as an art as well as a science.
There are, however, several fundamentals that hold true for the majority when it comes to smoothing the way for a peak in form. So here we’ve outlined the main ways to help you achieve a new peak at your next big event: tapering your training, optimising your nutrition, mental rehearsal, being confident, executing your plan on the day and avoiding common mistakes.
1. The Taper
Tapering, without doubt, has the most significant impact on your physical ability to peak. Repeated training imposes a load on the body that causes breakdown and fatigue. During recovery phases the body ‘ups its game’ by repairing and re-building itself to a higher specification in response to the increased demands you’re placing on it. This results in improved exercise capability (increased fitness) and so it goes on.
The whole concept of a taper is based on the fact that, while fatigue from training sessions can be accumulated and overcome quite rapidly, the fitness gains made by the body’s adaptations last a little longer after you stop training hard. Therefore, if you train a lot and then back off at exactly the right time, you can theoretically be fully over the fatigue of your recent training at the same time that you reach a peak in your fitness.
How long should a taper last?
All sorts of theories exist about how long a taper should last, but in general terms a longer, more gradual reduction seems to be best for long-distance races, when training volume has been high for quite a while. A shorter, more aggressive taper is usually applied before sprint- or Olympic-distance events. In reality, this means bringing training stress down for anything from two to three weeks before a long-distance race to maybe only five to 10 days before a short-course event. Of course, you can only pick two or three ‘A’ races to do a full taper for during a single season, otherwise you’d end up in a constant taper if you’re racing regularly.
Training intensity and volume
Whether it’s for long- or short-course racing, the consensus is that, during a taper, the intensity of training should be either maintained, or even subtly increased, as this keeps the body ‘stimulated’. However, the volume or mileage needs to be cut quite dramatically, because this is what promotes recovery and allows you to feel fresh and strong at the race itself. For example, if you’re doing interval work during a taper, the number of reps is reduced and the rest time between them increased, while the pace or effort is either maintained or increased above what it’s been in recent sessions.
Opinion is divided on exactly how much to cut volume by, but basically dropping to something in the region of 50-70% of your normal weekly total during the final week is a good rule of thumb (more if your previous training has been very hard, less if you’ve been training more moderately).
An example of a seven-day taper for sprint- and Olympic-distance athletes
|Tues||Short swim including 5 x 100m efforts at or just above race pace, long rest intervals between reps. Easy 30min run, including 8 x 1min intervals at 5km race pace with 2min recoveries.|
|Wed||60-90min bike ride, including 4 x 4mins at race pace with long recovery intervals.|
|Thurs||Short swim with 5 x 50m sprints, recovering completely between each one. 20min run with 5 x 1min intervals at race pace with 3min recoveries.|
|Sat||20-30mins on the bike with 3 x 2mins at race pace. 10min jog to loosen up the legs.|
How to adapt for long-distance racing
Having done a few weeks of big mileage, followed by a final long brick session three weeks out from a long-course race, it’s a good idea to reduce training volume by about 20-30% in the first week, then by another 20-30% in the second week, with the final week quite similar to the example above for short-course athletes.
From a nutritional point of view, when aiming to peak, you want to be stood on the start line with full energy stores, well hydrated and as lean and mean as you can be to maximise your power-to-weight ratio.
What this means is striking a balance during your physical taper of eating and drinking enough to top up your levels without going overboard and putting on unnecessary weight (over and above that which you will naturally gain due to increased glycogen and fluid storage). Most of the time this can be achieved by simply maintaining your normal intake as training tapers off, so energy input will naturally exceed what you’re burning off.
Avoid going crazy with the carb loading in the final few days, as you’ll end up stacking on a little bit of unrequired timber, as well as feeling sluggish as your body struggles to deal with all the extra calories. Be mindful to take in a little extra salt or electrolyte drinks in the final two days, especially if you’re racing long distance or in hot conditions, where sweat losses will be higher than normal. Also be careful not to drink too much water in an effort to hydrate, as this can dilute your sodium levels and even lead to mild hyponatremia.
One of the biggest issues you will have to face when tapering down training is the impact it can have on your state of mind. Often, even though your body will benefit from a rest, niggling thoughts will start to surface, such as “Are you sure you’ve done enough speed work?” and “Other people are probably still putting the miles in, so will get fitter than me.”
Remaining confident in your preparation is the key to ignoring these thoughts and not allowing them to derail your plans. A great way to do this is to read back through your recent training diaries and reassure yourself about just how much good work you’ve actually done. Having a coach or mentor to talk to during this time also helps, as they’ll often have a far more objective view.
If you find that certain situations (for example, going to club sessions where other people are still training hard) undermine your confidence, then simply drop them in the final week or two and do more training alone. Also, don’t be phased if you feel a little sluggish during the taper as your body recovers from hard training and readjusts. This is normal and to be expected.
Use the extra time you have to tick off jobs like getting your bike serviced, checking kit over, laying out everything you’ll need for the transitions and making sure all of your logistical arrangements for the race are in place. All of this keeps you focused in a productive manner on factors you can influence and that will help on the day. Above all, be reassured by the simple fact that it’s better to rest a touch more than you need and turn up to a race 99% fit but fresh, rather than be stale on the big day.
4. Mental rehearsal
Even if you’re 100% physically ready to race, when the day arrives, if your head isn’t in the right place it will prevent you from achieving your peak performance. This is especially true if you’re thrown off track by something like a mechanical incident on the bike or a navigational error in the swim. To pre-empt any issues, and to give yourself the best chance if anything untoward does happen, mentally rehearse how you want the day
to pan out.
Visualise each section of the race (it helps massively if you’ve seen the course before or at least looked at maps
and elevation profiles), and how you see yourself tackling it successfully. Do this several times and then go back through it to imagine how you’ll deal smoothly and calmly with any problem, such as a puncture or being overtaken by a rival.
5. Execution on the day
The key here is to have a plan in place so that you have something to follow if the emotions of the day take over. Race planning crosses over quite a lot with mental rehearsal, so ensure you’ve already decided things such as what heart rates or power output ranges you’ll be able to sustain, and roughly when and how much you’re going to eat and drink – this way, you’re much more likely to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment.
The trick is in striking the somewhat delicate balance between still racing ‘instinctively’, where you listen to your body for cues on how hard you can push, whether you need to eat and drink a little more or a little less and so on, and following broad guidelines that you know make sense based on recent training and current fitness levels.
Ultimately, what this means for a lot of people is using their brain to control their emotions in the early stages to avoid getting caught up in an unproductively hard start, followed by an expectation that you’ll have to work really hard later on to keep the pace high as fatigue kicks in and adrenalin wears off.
6. Mistakes to avoid
When you’re perfecting your own peaking strategy there are some fairly common pitfalls to avoid which are worth re-emphasising:
1. The ‘just one last session to test how I’m going’ routine. This is normally due to a lack of confidence and occurs with about three days to go. Don’t! The reason you feel like doing that is precisely because you’re ready, so stick to the plan and save the big effort for the day.
2. Adding new things to the mix – don’t add/buy anything ‘new’ to/for your race-day set-up in the last few days. This includes new nutritional products, swim kit, bike gadgets or run shoes, no matter who else might be using them or what the manufacturers claim. If it ain’t tried and tested, leave it alone as it has the potential to do more harm than good.
3. Going off too hard – you’ll be buzzing on the start line but you need to control this, especially in long-course races. Keep a lid on your exertions to begin with and you’ll come through stronger later. Remember that any idiot can go hard at the start but those who can push hard late on are the ones who achieve the best result