Peaking

 

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Peaking

 

Why did only three out of twenty-six track gold medalists from the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo win gold medals in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona? Why did so many athletes' finishing performances change so dramatically in just one year's time?

Injuries, race tactics, and competitive pressures probably played an important role in determining the Olympic results. However, one reason many of the defending world champions could not repeat their previous-year performances was their inability to fully reach and properly time their peak performances to occur during the Olympic Games.

It may come as a surprise that elite athletes are not always able to "peak" perfectly. Although their goals may be to peak for high-level competitions such as the National and World Championships, all of us have similarly important races where we want to do our best. Peaking for a race can usually be the difference between doing our very best or performing below our potential.

When done properly, training for a peak can put the finishing touches on your racing ability. It can give you the extra edge you need for a breakthrough performance or to run your best in the race or races that are most important to you.

Studies have shown that when the proper peak training is performed, significant improvements in racing times can occur in a relatively short period of time.1 In addition, peak performances can be timed with reasonable accuracy so that a runner can be at his or her best for the goal race.2

Tiny Siena College in Albany, New York, won five state cross-country championships in seven years from 1980 to 1986. In each of those five championship years, Siena's cross-country team was not the best team during the regular season.3

However, every year without fail, the other top teams would either (1) not improve on their regular season performances, or (2) they would actually get worse at the end of the season when the state championship meet rolled around. Fortunately, Siena coach Bob Reilly would have his harriers physically and mentally prepared to peak when it counted most.

The result was five state titles, one second-place finish, and one third-place finish in seven years. Retired from coaching since 1987, Reilly would be the first to admit that the years his teams did not win the state title were the years they did not reach their peak as a team at the state championship meet.

Unlike Reilly's Siena College teams, many runners and coaches do not understand how to bring about, or plan, peak performances for their most important races of the year. Therefore the goal of this article is to examine (1) what type of training to perform, and (2) when, and for how long to perform it in order to reach and time your peak for a goal race or series of races.

Tapering to Achieve Peak Performances

Reducing your training mileage in the days and weeks before your goal race, also known as "tapering," is the peaking tactic most frequently used by runners and their coaches. While tapering, in and of itself, will probably not produce a major peak in your running performance, it is an important element of a smart peaking program.

In order to get a better understanding of the elements that work to produce a peak in performance, let's take a look at some studies on tapering and peaking.

Tapering & Muscle Strengthfor College Swimmers

In 1985, Dr. David Costill, one of this country's premier exercise physiologists and the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, led a study to measure the effects of an end-of-season tapering program on competitive college swimmers. This study is often recognized by top coaches and scientific experts as one of the classic studies on tapering. Costill, who is a competitive runner and national-class age-group swimmer, performed the study on seventeen male college swimmers. Each swimmer was measured for arm strength and race times before, during, and after a two-week tapering period.

The study revealed that arm strength improved by an amazing 24 percent following the tapering period. More importantly, however, was that long-distance race times dropped by about 3.7 percent - an improvement that would help an 18:00 5K runner run 17:20 in just two weeks! Similarly, a 40:00 10K runner would run 38:32 with this same 3.7 percent time improvement.

Although muscle strength was vastly improved after the taper, the study did not necessarily show a strong link between the swimmers' increased muscle strength and their improved race times. This suggests that other physiological variables may have been at play in causing race times to improve.

Research shows that gradually reducing your mileage while continuing to perform speedwork will produce a peak.

How did these swimmers taper? They simply reduced their mileage gradually over a 14-day period before their championship meet. This gradual reduction in training mileage resulted in about a 50 percent decrease in weekly mileage over the 14-day period. However, the relative amount of training intensity during the taper was kept at about the same level as before the taper.4

How does all of this apply to the average runner? Since swimming and running are both endurance sports, runners can expect to attain similar physiological benefits from the tapering program used by swimmers. Costill's study suggests that you should gradually cut your average weekly mileage in half over a two-week period, but continue to perform about the same percentage of your weekly mileage in the form of speed or interval-type workouts.

For instance, a 45-mile-a-week runner who runs about ten percent of her weekly mileage (or 4.5 total miles per week) in the form of quality, or high-intensity, speed workouts might cut her mileage to about 28 miles in the first week and then to 17 miles in the second week before her goal race. This totals 45 miles for two weeks - or about half of her weekly mileage prior to tapering.

In addition, she would continue to perform about ten percent of her new weekly mileage at a high intensity by running about 2.8 miles (ten percent of 28 miles) of speedwork in the first week and about 1.7 miles (ten percent of 17 miles) of speedwork in the second week.

Finally, to ensure the best possible results, she would also allow two to three days of light jogging (or two days of light jogging and a day of complete rest) in the days immediately before her important race.

Blood Lactate & Race Times Drop After 2-Week Taper

A more recent study involving fifteen well-conditioned female college swimmers measured (1) the amount of lactic acid in the blood during hard workouts (a generally agreed upon measure of racing fitness), and (2) race times during each week of a four-week taper period - in order to determine the optimal length of a tapering period.

The researchers observed significant declines in blood lactic acid levels during hard workouts as the four-week taper period progressed. This is an indication that hard workouts had become easier and racing fitness was improving. In fact, performance times improved during the taper, with peak times achieved between 10 to 17 days after the taper period began.

These findings support the benefits of a two-week taper versus a longer or shorter tapering period. This study also offers another physiological explanation (besides increased muscle strength) for improved performances after a tapering period, namely, lower blood lactic acid concentrations during hard running.5

Recent Study on Runners

While both of the previously mentioned studies offer valuable scientific insights into the tapering and peaking process for swimmers, a recent research study has shown that similar results will also occur with runners after tapering.

This particular study analyzed the effects of three different types of tapers on ten highly trained, middle-distance male runners. The three different tapering programs included: (1) a high-intensity/low-mileage taper, (2) a low-intensity/low-mileage taper, and (3) a rest-only taper.

The runners were tested for race times, leg strength, aerobic capacity, oxidative enzyme activity, muscle glycogen concentration, red blood cell mass, and total blood volume before and after each tapering program. Significant improvements in running performance can usually be associated with improvements in any of these areas.

The results of this study provide us with even more information about how the body responds to different types of tapering and peaking techniques. While aerobic capacity was not affected by any of the tapers, leg strength improved by about the same percentage in all three tapers. However, the high-intensity/low-mileage tapering regimen proved to be superior since it produced considerable increases in muscle glycogen concentrations, total blood volume, red blood cell mass, and oxidative enzyme activity, all of which make for better distance running.

Recent research suggests that a 10 to 17 day taper period will produce the best results.

Most importantly, the high-intensity/low-mileage taper produced a major improvement in the runners' race times. These performance peaks were confirmed when the runners being tested ran at race pace on a treadmill for an incredible 27 percent longer after the high-intensity/low-mileage taper versus before it. With all of the physiological variables that improved following the high-intensity/low-mileage taper, it is no wonder that runners ran faster following this particular tapering program.6

Constructing Your Own Tapering Schedule

Now that we've reviewed (1) the various ways to go about reaching a peak, and (2) the many benefits associated with proper tapering, we can put all of this information together to provide you with a solid idea of how to construct a peaking schedule that fits your individual situation.

At the bottom of this page, Table 1 lists (1) the amount of mileage, (2) the number of days, and (3) the number of high-intensity or quality speed workouts that should be performed depending on your average weekly mileage before tapering.

Since one of the studies mentioned earlier suggests that 10- to 17-day tapering periods are optimal, the length (or number of days) of the tapering periods listed in Table 1 all fall within this range.

Performing Speed Workouts During the Taper Period

While you want to continue to perform high-intensity workouts during your tapering period, it is important to eliminate all long, hard interval workouts that tax your body's energy supplies. Therefore, it is recommended that you perform fast repeats of short distances with long jogging breaks for full recovery.

Jack Daniels, the outstanding physiologist and distance running coach at Cortland University in New York, calls this "repetition training." He suggests short repeats at a pace that is about two seconds per 200 meters or four seconds per 400 meters faster than your current 5K race pace. In addition, Daniels recommends recovery periods between each fast repeat that last about five times as long as the fast repeats themselves.7 This can usually be accomplished by slowly jogging about twice the distance of the fast repeats between each fast repeat.

For instance, an 18:45 5K runner races at a pace of 45 seconds per 200 meters or 90 seconds per 400 meters. Therefore, he or she might run (1) eight repeats of 200 meters in 43 seconds with 400 meters of slow recovery jogging between each repeat, (2) six repeats of 300 meters in 64 seconds with 600 meters of slow recovery jogging between each repeat, or (3) four repeats of 400 meters in 86 seconds with 800 meters of slow recovery jogging between each repeat.

Table 2 (on the left-hand side of this page) provides a sample tapering schedule for a 45 mile-a-week runner. You can use it along with the information in Table 1 (on page 3) to construct your own detailed tapering schedule to peak for your particular goal race.

First, count backwards the number of days required for your taper. Then schedule the appropriate number of speed workouts and space them out properly throughout the taper period. Finally, fill in the easy days to meet the overall mileage guidelines provided in Table 1, based on your average weekly mileage prior to the taper period.

Other Considerations for Planning Your Peak

In order to reap the full benefits of the tapering programs we've outlined in this article, you should first complete at least three months of consistent and reasonably challenging training - including five to eight weeks of interval training.

On the other hand, it is also important that you do not arrive at the tapering phase already feeling stale or overtrained. While a proper taper might be able to salvage your condition, there are no guarantees if you enter this final phase of training already wiped out physically and mentally.

Speedwork during the taper period should consist of short, fast repeats with long rest breaks.

Furthermore, distance runners are notorious for not wanting to ease up in their training - often afraid that they'll get out of shape after a few days of taking it easy. This basic insecurity probably explains more than anything else why so many distance runners have difficulty planning and achieving a peak for their goal race.

However, it is absolutely necessary that you let go of this tendency as you approach your goal race. The tapering program outlined for your particular situation does not offer any compromises, therefore, you must have the confidence that it will work and the courage to follow it through

. This will be especially tough since many runners actually report feeling sluggish and fatigued during their tapering periods. However, it is important not to panic, since these feelings are common during this final training phase as your body adjusts to the less demanding workload and begins to prepare for maximum performance. Take heart that the same runners who report these feelings yet stick to their tapering plan also will experience the rewards of a full peak. During their goal race, they will run effortlessly and feel full of energy.

Finally, you should not disregard the mental aspect of peaking. It is important to continue to prepare yourself by mentally rehearsing and visualizing yourself performing well in your goal race. In addition, you should be gaining confidence in knowing you have tapered properly and are well-rested for an outstanding effort as the day of your goal race approaches.

Summary

Planning to reach a peak for your goal race is a relatively simple process. According to scientific research studies, the most effective way to reach a peak involves a high-intensity/low-mileage tapering protocol.

This means you should gradually reduce your mileage over a 10- to 17-day period while maintaining about the same percentage of high-intensity speedwork that you performed prior to your taper. Therefore, since your mileage is being cut in half, the amount of high-intensity speed training should also be cut in half.

However, shorter and faster repeats with longer rest periods between them, should replace longer, harder interval or speed workouts. Repeats of 200 to 400 meters in length at two to four seconds faster than current 5K race pace, respectively, are recommended.

Finally, two to three days of light jogging before your big race will have you completely ready for your best possible effort. The biggest danger is overdoing it in those days right before your goal race. By following these guidelines in the days before your goal race, you can have the confidence of knowing that you will be ready for a peak performance!

References:

1, 4  D. Costill et. al., "Effects of Reduced Training on Muscular Power," The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 13, No. 2, February 1985, pp. 94-101.

2, 5  R.F. Kenitzer, Jr. et. al., "Blood Lactate Concentration in Female Competitive Collegiate Swimmers During End Season Taper," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 21, No. 2 Supplement #137, May 1989.

3  D. Brucker et. al., "Peaking the Siena Way," Siena College Cross-Country Annual, May 1986, p. 13.

6  B. Shepley et. al., "Physiologic Effects of Tapering in Highly Trained Athletes," Medicine & Science

 

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Last modified: March 24, 1999