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 )
“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:
- Schedule a Priority Race
- Develop the best aerobic base I can
- Take the last few days before the event to cut way back and rest up
- Take some easy recovery days afterwards
- 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!)
- 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?