Peaking to race by Joe Friel

28 04 2009

A good article on the thorny subject of training and resting. I must say i usually err on the side of resting just because its easier! BUT i am strating to see the benefits of actually training and not just tipping the legs. The other question that is on my mind is if a race is on is it better to do it or to train for something specifically that you need to work on ie. endurance or sprints? 

This weekend will be a test of this when i spend it training instead of racing. Conclusion will be posted in the coming weeks!

Peaking to Race

© 2006 by Joe Friel

An issue that most athletes find mysterious is coming into competitive “form” at

the times in the season when their most important events are scheduled. Form is

a vague concept used by athletes in some sports to describe when they are

ready to compete. The word has its roots in eighteenthcentury

horse racing

when sheets, or “forms,” would be provided for race track bettors showing the

past performances of each horse.

Exercise scientist Andrew Coggan, Ph.D., defines form as the timely combination

of fitness and freshness. Fitness has to do with how well the body’s many

systems function at a given point in time. A fit endurance athlete has optimized

the cardiovascular, metabolic, respiratory, muscular and nervous systems. A

fresh athlete is one who is rested and ready to go. It’s possible to be fit but not

fresh due to lots of heavy training but not much resting leading into an event.

You’re tired. It’s also possible to be fresh but not fit. You’ve been taking it easy

for too long and are undertrained. Bringing fitness and freshness together at the

same time is called “peaking” and is the underlying purpose of training for the

competitive athlete in the last few days and weeks before a race.

To increase freshness as you get closer in time to the competition you cut back

on the training workload by reducing the duration and frequency of workouts. You

include more easy, recovery workouts or days off each week. As a result you

become more fresh. To maintain the fitness created over the previous weeks and

months of training you do a few key workouts at race intensity and otherwise

train easily between them. Getting the intensity of your workouts right is why your

heart rate monitor, powermeter and/or pacing device is so critical to peaking.

How Peaking Works

Actually, sports scientists don’t fully understand the physiology of why tapering

the training load by increasing the amount of rest over a few days or weeks

before a race results in increased fitness. But they do know of several changes

that occur in the body with such reduced training. The most notable is an

increase in strength and power. Others are reduced blood acidity, increased

blood volume, greater red blood cell concentration for oxygen transport,

increased carbohydrate storage in the muscles and sharper mental skills.

Although tapering the training load before important competitions is widely

practiced by top athletes, many are afraid that cutting back on training will cause

a loss of fitness. They are wrong. There are numerous research studies that

support reduced training. Several using athletes in many sports have found that

reducing training by more than half of what was normal for two to three weeks

produced no losses of fitness or performance. Others have shown improvements

in performance when the taper was done in a certain way.

In a classic study conducted at the University of Illinois a group of runners and

cyclists who greatly cut back on their training by reducing the frequency and

duration of workouts while keeping their intensities the same improved their

aerobic capacities, an important measure of fitness, and endurance performance

significantly. Those who reduced intensity but kept frequency and duration the

same lost fitness. Do not decrease the intensity of training as you approach your

most important races.

Take special note here of the ingredients for a successful taper according to this

and similar research studies—reduced weekly volume (freshness) and an

emphasis on intensity (fitness). So the key to tapering is keeping workout

intensity—heart rate, power, pace effort—at high levels while resting more.

The tapering of duration and frequency occurs during the final two periods before

the competition—the Peak and Race mesocycles.

The Peak Mesocycle

The Peak mesocycle typically begins about two or three weeks prior to the

competition. The length of this mesocycle varies by sport, fitness level and nature

of the targeted event. Sports that are orthopedically stressful, such as running,

require a long period of tapering. Reducing frequency and duration starting three

weeks or even more before an important competition is common for runners. A

sport such as swimming that does not have any hard surface pounding

associated with it can benefit from a shorter taper period. For swimmers seven to

fourteen days of tapering is common. Other sports, such as rowing and cycling,

will fall between these two extremes. A triathlete will taper each of the three

sports at different rates.

The greater your fitness is the longer the taper should be. Another way of looking

at this is that if your fitness is poor due to, perhaps, getting started late in

preparing for your event, you need all of the time you can get to build fitness. So

in this situation the Peak period is shortened in favor of a longer Build period.

The taper may only be for ten days.

The longer the event is you are training for the longer the taper should last. For

example, a runner may taper for three weeks for a marathon but only taper ten

days for a 5km race. Longer races usually mean greater training loads with an

emphasis on longduration

workouts. Long workouts take a greater toll on the

body than short workouts and so more time is necessary to recover and rebuild


During the Peak mesocycle reduce training volume by twenty to thirty percent

every three to four days. The shorter the taper length is, the greater the reduction

should be. Again, do not decrease the intensity (heart rate, power, pace, effort) of

your workouts, only the duration.

The frequency of your workouts, how often you train, may also be slightly

decreased while tapering so long as you have been doing at least five or six

workouts in a sport in a normal week during the preceding Build mesocycle. A

triathlete, for example, who has been doing three swims, three bike rides and

three runs weekly should not decrease the frequency of these sessions as it is

already marginal. When the frequency of training gets too low you may

experience a loss of economy—how efficiently you move. Essentially, your

movements may become sloppy as the muscles forget how to move

economically. Swimmers call this losing their “feel” for the water.

The basis of the training structure for the Peak period is to simulate the intensity

of a portion of the targeted race every 72 to 96 hours until seven days before the

event. To do a simulation workout you select a segment of the event that is

critical to your success and practice exactly how you will gauge output (power or

pace) and input (effort and heart rate) for that segment. For example, there may

be a hill on the course that is critical to how well you perform on the day. Find a

similar hill, warm up and then simulate the intensity you plan to use in the race.

Or it may be that the course is flat and you need to maintain a specific intensity to

reach your goal. Rehearse that intensity in each of the simulation workouts. That

intensity could be based on heart rate or on pace, power or perceived exertion as

compared with heart rate.

Whatever you decide is the portion of the race that is critical make the simulation

a dress rehearsal in as many ways as possible. This may be clothing, equipment,

mental approach, refueling or anything else that is a part of your raceday

strategy. One or two of the simulation workouts in the Peak period may be a Cpriority

race done as a tuneup.

Note that while the intensity of your simulation is critical to the success of your

Peak period going beyond the targeted race intensity is not beneficial and may

even be counterproductive. For example, a marathoner who sets a goal of

running a sevenminute

pace in Zone 3 should do simulations only at this

intensity—not at sixminute

pace in Zone 5.

So if you do a race simulation every 72 to 96 hours in the Peak period what is

done in the two or three days between these workouts? You do short, easy,

recovery workouts or take a day off. The idea is to be fully recovered and ready

to go again for the next simulation.

Joe Friel is the founder and President of Training Bible Coaching and the author

of numerous books on training. He may be reached at