Race Week: To Taper and Peak or Not?

The standard for endurance coaching is periodization: dividing the year up into distinct training periods with specific goals. The theory is that you can only make progress for a while in a particular type of training, then you plateau. Plus, you need periodic breaks to allow for recovery and to absorb the training before hitting it again. In a way, you flirt with overtraining, although coaches will call it “overreaching”. Right before edge, you pull back and recover, with the body getting stronger. The Eastern Europeans devised and perfected this method, getting great results. Amateurs can be divided into two groups: those who organize, periodize and peak, and those who don’t.

I’m not a periodizer. In the past I tried to periodize by changing my training to prep for ski season, and then again for summer endurance sports, like mountain biking. Now that endurance racing is more important than skiing, I don’t bother with periodization. I just try to improve fitness and race when I feel like it.  But I have races that I want to improve in, and that suggests that I should periodize by tapering and peaking for a big event.

Here is what Joe Friel, a fantastic coach and author of the “Training Bible” series of books says about peaking:

 “When a true peak comes about, you will experience several physical changes that combine to create a performance that borders on astonishing. These changes include inreased leg power, reduced lactic acid production, increased blood volume, a greater red blood cell concentration, and increased fuel storage. Top these physical transformations with sharper mental skills such as concentration, confidence, and motivation, and you are truly in top race form. All of this, and no illegal drugs are needed.”

(The Triathlete’s Training Bible  3rd edition, p. 33 )

The catch?

“Creating that moment when racing seems effortless makes months of hard work and sweat worthwhile.” (my emphasis)

What?! Months! That means lots of planning. Right, not for me.

I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants. A “pantser”, if you will, when it comes to training and racing schedules. And I like to race a lot, which makes peaking harder. What to do? What I did do was just give up and wing it. Then I discovered the Maffetone Method.

Maffetone has this to say about peaking:

 “The concept of ‘peaking’ as it’s been used through the years, isn’t healthy for endurance athletes. As I’ve seen it in practical application, it usually involves a gradual overtraining. In this first stage of overtraining, performance can actually improve just before more common signs or symptoms of overtraining begin. However, this increased performance window is short, and athletes quickly enter the second, more serious stage of overtraining where injury, ill health, and performance loss occurs.”

(The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, p. 79)

So what I do is combine the methods a little:

  1.  Schedule a Priority Race
  2. Develop the best aerobic base I can
  3. Take the last few days before the event to cut way back and rest up
  4. Take some easy recovery days afterwards
  5. Race again!

I think this approach fits my personality. I have suffered numerous times from overtraining, and while I never dug myself as deep a hole as many racers, I lost a lot of enjoyment.

Benefits of Pantsing:

  •  Flexible scheduling
  • Easier planning (none!)
  • Simpler
  • Less stress
  • Easier recovery (if workouts are aerobic)


  •  Lower performance
  • Slower times
  • Less progress
  • Less recovery (if fatigue keeps building without adequate recovery time)

One thing that I have learned from the periodizing planners:

It’s far better to go into a race over-rested and under-trained, than the opposite. You’ll probably be faster, and you will definitely have more fun.

One Thing Maffetone Got Right:

Minimizing anaerobic training makes it much easier to go into a race rested and ready, because aerobic training is lower in stress.

One Thing the Periodizers Got Right:

If you’re aiming for a specific, high stakes goal, like a qualifying spot for Kona or Boston, may require you to peak for it even with the risk of overtraining.

What about you? What have you tried? What worked? What broke? Any good ideas?


About vegpedlr

Plant powered off-road triathlete

Posted on July 19, 2012, in Racing, Training and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Last November my aunt and uncle purchased for me a virtual coaching subscription with a Boston based coaching group that centered their training around heart rate zones. Their training plan was very restrictive. They would assign runs lasting only 21 minutes in some cases. And they assigned me a “recovery” heart rate zone that was so slow, I simply could not slow down enough to stay in these zones. Not only that, they usually assigned me 2 to 3 “recovery” runs per week. I rebelled and decided to just try to keep my heart rate under 140 or 145 most of the time.

    But in February, while surfing the web, I stumbled upon two running coaches: Dean Hebert and Joe English. They collaborated on a series of videos. The take home message from the videos is that if you want to run at a specified pace during a marathon, say 8 minutes per mile on average, the bulk of your training should be at that specified pace or faster.

    Basically, for Hebert and English, it all comes down to Goal Paced Miles (GPM) and how GPMs you run in training. Anything slower was a waste of time. in their minds, the number of miles you run isn’t as important as the average training pace. They do not believe that heart rate monitors are very valuable to runners. In fact, their opinion is that heart rate monitors might prevent runners from reaching their full potential.

    I might be exaggerating their views to some extent. But go ahead and watch a few of their videos for yourself and see if you come away with the same impression.

    I ended up with knee pain, likely caused by a tight IT band, about a month before the big race. I suppose I do not have any proof that this injury was related to my attempts to follow their training ideas. Still, when I didn’t meet my goal for the half marathon (I ended up running two half marathons, two weeks apart), I concluded that LSD is better than speed. For the non-drug user, this means that Long Slow Distance is a better training strategy than doing lots of goal paced miles.

    Maybe at some point I will be willing to throw some speed work or some GPMs back into my training. But it won’t be until next year at the earliest and I will keep the amount of speed work and/or GPMs to a very small proportion of my training. My body seems capable of running lots of miles, so long as those miles are at a relaxed pace.

    • As for recovery workouts, I don’t believe there is such a thing as to slow. I use walking a lot more now to good effect. As for Goal Pace training, I’m familiar with the theory, although not those particular coaches. It looks risky to me. I can see myself getting overly ambitious in setting a goal pace and running myself into the ground or getting injured. Oh wait, I HAVE done that. That’s why I prefer Maffetone, it forces me to stay in the present and train at my current level of fitness, not my fantasies. Tapering is an arcane art according to the coaches I read and listen to, so I wish you luck! It’s different for everybody, and won’t always be the same even for the same person. My philosophy is that it’s better to be over-rested than tired, sore or stale. I’ve been resting the past few days for my race this weekend, which has been a strange experience. At first I was edgy from decreased exercise, then the fatigue hit me. I hope I’ll be good for Sunday. Try not to wilt in the heat!

      • As for not wilting in the heat. I am now going to be doing my runs in the mornings before I go to work, instead of in the afternoons after I get off work. I purchased a light that I can strap around my head so I can run on a lighted path as I start my running well before sunrise.

        You mentioned that you don’t believe there is such a thing as too slow of a recovery workout. I tend to agree. I think the purpose of a recovery workout is not so much to build aerobic capacity, but to move the blood around ones muscles to assist in repair. In theory, at least.

        The problem I had with this Boston-based coaching group (their name is QT2 and you can check out their web site at yourmarathontrainingplan dot com) is really a combination of factors. By themselves, their training ideas might have worked for me. But in combination, they seemed too restrictive then and I still believe them to be too restrictive now. By comparison Maffetone and Hal Higdon seem more acceptable to me.

        Here’s what I mean. (I realize I am giving you more details about QT2 than you bargained for.)

        They assigned me an aerobic heart rate zone called Zone 1 (or Z1) which is between 131 beats per minute and 141 beats per minute. They also assigned me a recovery heart rate zone (or ZR) between 106 beats per minute and 126 beats per minute.

        Now, if you go to their website, yourmarathontrainingplan dot com, and you look at the free training plan for beginning marathoners, you will see that recovery workouts are rare. A recovery workout is usually only assigned for the day before a 5K “training race” or the day before a hill workout.

        However, my aunt and uncle purchased for me a “custom training plan.” That’s sound great, doesn’t it? Problem is that my custom training plan included 2 to 3 recovery workouts each week.

        I felt like they were treating me like a stroke victim instead of a reasonably fit (although still somewhat new) runner.

        I asked Tim Snow (who is apparently a very good triathlete and so is his wife, Cait Snow), “When I am assigned a recovery run, can I just do them as though I was assigned a Zone 1 run?” He said no. But I don’t think he knew that his wife had assigned me so many recovery runs. I probably had been assigned more recovery runs in the first 6 weeks of my custom training plan than the beginner marathoners, using their free training plan, were assigned for the entire 23 week plan.

        So, if I was asked, “If you had to do it all over again, would you have followed QT2’s custom training plan?” My answer would still be in the negative. I would, however, be willing to follow the free marathon plan combined with the heart rate zones that they gave me.

        My uncle told me that I approached QT2’s training plan too seriously. He thinks I should have simply tried the best I could to be in compliance and not worry about 100 percent compliance. Sounds good in theory. But I still think that QT2 made a mistake when they threw so many recovery workouts into my training plan. And they weren’t willing to re-negotiate my training plan when I complained about it.

        Who would have thought that a free training plan would be a better fit than a custom training plan?

  2. Oh. And as for the issue of tapering and peaking.

    I often visit Hal Higdon’s web site, which features several training plans for the half marathon and the full marathon. It is interesting to me that Higdon’s full marathon plans taper from peak distance in the two weeks leading up to the marathon race day. But for the half marathon, there is no taper. The peak long run is one week before race day. Higdon argues that the half marathon is a short enough race that a taper beyond several days is not necessary.

    I plan on including a bit more of a taper prior to my September 22nd half marathon and my November 3rd half marathon. I will probably bring my long run down to 6 or 8 miles the week before the race.

    As for peaking, I don’t plan on being exact in terms getting my body in peak condition by race day. I just hope to have my body well conditioned, yet also well rested and most importantly, uninjured this time.

  3. Vegpedlr, best of luck to you this weekend in your race.

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