The Art and Science of Peaking

By Christopher Breen | Sept. 13, 2016, 9:24 a.m. (ET)

triathlete

It is every athlete’s goal to toe the line of his or her race in peak physical and mental condition. However, this is easier said than done. Many athletes push the envelope racing far too many races in a given season to be able to achieve peak fitness for every one of them. If you pick one or two races a year to try to achieve a true fitness peak, you will be much more successful in your attempts at doing so. The question now is how does one go about mastering the peak?

In order to achieve a performance peak, your body must be able to achieve a maximal physical and mental tolerance for the load and the stress you’re going to put on it come race day. However, the load of intense training you do up to your race decreases muscle strength, thereby decreasing your performance capacity. For this reason, it is important for many athletes to reduce their training prior to a race to give both their bodies and mind a much needed break. Many athletes and coaches refer to this period in training as a taper block or a race peak block. Whatever you decide to call it, the purpose is the same: to decrease fatigue and maintain fitness.

Every period and block of triathlon training revolves around maintaining consistency. The word cannot be used enough when discussing triathlon training. If your season has been periodized properly and you have been consistent in your training, then as you approach two to three weeks out from your race you will be able to decrease volume and maintain or slightly decrease intensity and still be able to maintain endurance performance. This is because in order to develop an optimum maximal oxygen consumption, you need a significant amount of training, but once it is developed much less is required to maintain it.

A general rule of thumb is to decrease your volume approximately 20-50 percent for each of the two to three weeks leading up to your race, depending on the length of your race. The longer your race is, the longer your peak phase should be. This is because the long-distance athlete has had a much higher volume of training leading up to their peak phase. Workouts in this phase need to be able to help you maintain the feel for your fitness without leaving you overly fatigued. Therefore, it is recommended most athletes decrease the volume of their workload, while maintaining frequency and only slightly decreasing intensity if at all.

By maintaining frequency, you will allow your body to keep doing what it has become accustomed to doing for the previous months. I recommend not decreasing the number of days you train, but decreasing the amount of time on those days. To simply stop by adding an overabundance of rest days, you would lose your feel for each discipline. Maintaining intensity allows you to maintain fitness. It maintains our body’s ability to recruit muscles. That doesn’t mean every workout should be an all-out effort. Every four days or so is appropriate.

Resist the urge to prove yourself in these sessions. By now you should be well aware of how your body feels during your intense sessions, so it would be a good idea to do them without the watch or computer, thereby minimizing the urge to test oneself. The peak phase is not be used to build confidence. That should be well established by now. All other workouts surrounding your high intensity efforts should be done at a recovery effort. Remember one of our purposes is to decrease fatigue and rest allows your body to absorb previous stresses, while at the same time preparing your body for future stresses.

The peak phase is also a great time to work on mental imagery and meditation, which are key techniques that many athletes overlook, but are valuable in helping us obtain confidence and composure come race day.  

It is normal that by the beginning of your peak phase you may notice your mood to be melancholy and you may feel like your head is in a fog. This is because of your accumulated fatigue. As you begin to shed some of this fatigue your mood will elevate and you will begin to feel strong and fit. It is now time to unleash your peak performance on race day. This is what you have been training your body and mind to do.

Christopher Breen, PA-C, ACSM EP-C is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in sports medicine and orthopaedics, a Certified Exercise Physiologist by The American College of Sports Medicine, and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. He is the founder and head coach of ARIA Endurance Coaching, LLC and also works at Winthrop Orthopaedic Assoc., PC in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at ariaendurance@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.