You can hit the jackpot!
Hands up those who have tried their hands winning at a slot machine. Ah, quite a few hands I see. Now hands up those who have won a little. Hmm, a fair number.
Right, now let’s see a show of hands from those who have won the jackpot. None?
Peaking to race at your best is a bit like playing a slot machine and trying to line up the number 7s to hit the jackpot. To win the running jackpot, the slot machine windows should display that you have speed, endurance, and strength as well the fact that you are injury free and rested. And this must be on the day of the race, not a month before. So, don’t gamble, make it a certainty!
Rather late than too soon
More races are lost from runners peaking too soon, than from peaking too late. You can still put in a fine performance if you are still slightly off your peak or in slot machine terms, if you have, for example, lined up your endurance and strength but your speed is not quite there yet. But if you peak too soon you will have lost all the windows. Sorry, but you’ll have to pay and spin again! (But if you feel that you are peaking too soon there is a way to back off from your peak which is explained in another article Get Off That Peak).
Climb that peak
Your peaking phase should ideally follow a period of base training and a period of at least 6 week of conditioning in which speed and strength sessions are carried out (See the Intensity Pyramid article).
The principle of peaking is very simple – all you now need do is cut back on your volume of training, while maintaining or increasing the quality as rest + speed = peak.
If you have been carrying out a steady volume of training and simply cut back your training for 2-3 weeks you will start to peak. Which is why runners who are forced to rest through injury after a spell of hard training often bounce back with the race of their lives. The enforced layoff, provided it is not too long, has simply moved the runner towards her peak performance.
However, if we rest but also drop the quality sessions we become sluggish and our legs only come alive late in a race. I therefore have my runners do a light interval session about 3 to 4 days before a race. I avoid hill training in the last week as this can be damaging to the legs.
And ideal run-up to a race over the last week would balance rest with the need to still do some running. The format that I use for my runners is as follows (and this remains unchanged for any race distance from 5km to 100km):
4 days before race – light run of around 5 to 8km
3 days to race – light interval session (approximately half of your usual session and preferably short, high intensity intervals)
2 days to race – rest
1 day to race – a 20 to 30 min jog with some strides (fast bursts of 50 metres) to loosen the legs and raise the heart rate) and some stretching.
The long and short of it
Nature has conspired to make peaking a bit tricky. Some runners are better suited to a “short swing” peak cycle and others to a “long swing” peak cycle.
Those who are suited to a short swing peak cycle find that they improve rapidly and reach a peak quickly, but cannot maintain the peak for very long. Such a runner could be ready to start peaking after just 4-6 weeks of sustained training, and once they have started to peak, can only maintain this peak for between 3- 6 weeks. This would be typical of a 10km or 21km runner and it means short training cycles with numerous peaks of short duration. If you are such a runner you will find that timing your peaks is a bit trickier than it would be on a long swing peak cycle.
Those who are suited to a long swing cycle will find that they improve gradually over a longer period, but will hold their peak for longer once they reach it. This is ideal for ultra-trail and Comrades runners. Such runners will aim for fewer training cycles in a year, but will maintain their peak for longer.
So, which would I rather be?
It’s pretty much decided by your genes, but I wouldn’t say either of the two is better – just different. However, you can extend your training cycle by increasing the period spent doing base training. Runners training for the shorter distances such as 10 and 21km will be well suited to a short swing cycle as it enables them to peak frequently. Those training for a race such as the Comrades Marathon would find it easier if they are on a long swing cycle as they can follow a gradual build-up with less chance of peaking too soon.
But how do I know when I’m peaking?
Some of the signs that you are beginning to peak include higher levels of energy while runs start to feel effortless; your times suddenly improve when doing quality sessions on the track, or when doing hill sprints or short races.
But can I get off that peak and return?
Sometimes you will find that you simply improve faster than expected and with, say, 8 weeks to go to the race, are already running PBs over the shorter distances. I have often resorted to holding a runner back who I see is peaking too soon. In such a case, there is a way of postponing your peak (you could of course change your goal and race instead if you realise that you are already peaking and that you cannot maintain this level indefinitely).
You will recall that peaking is brought on when you start to cut back on the volume of training while maintaining or increasing the quality. To stave off a peak you need to increase your mileage BUT slow it down and drop all quality sessions for 2-3 weeks. In other words, you are essentially doing base work-type training again and the aim is to not allow your body to rest as that would make you peak. Then with 3 weeks or so to the race, cut back on your mileage and re-introduce the quality sessions and you will soon hit your peak again. This is normally enough to put a brake on your peaking while not sacrificing any fitness.