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Race Day Preparation: Peaking for Races or Events

Peaking for a big race requires both practice and planning

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Updated July 10, 2013

One of the most important aspects of race day preparation is to time your training in order to peak on race day. Athletes use the term "peaking" to describe being in the absolute best condition (physical, emotional and mental) at a specific time for an event or race. Peaking is not easy to do, and it requires a lot of experience and planning, but there are things that can make peaking much more likely.

Keep in mind that you can have many "peaks" during the year and during the season, but most elite athletes aim for one primary event or goal, and plan the rest of the training season around that. Recreational athletes can easily have multiple peaks of a lesser degree. This is common if you race many different "fun runs" during the summer. If you are on a recreational league or team you probably have a built-in season, and your training is planned so you continually improve and peak during play-offs or a final event.

Start your planning by getting out a calendar and writing down your one or two goal events and work backward to today. There are many ways to plan your schedule, and working with an expert coach is probably the best.

The following tips will help you build a general plan of your own. Your training program will include four phases:

  1. Building a base of fitness
  2. Building aerobic capacity
  3. Building speed
  4. Tapering for the event

Phase One: Building a Base With Long Slow Distance

About half of the your training time between your start day and your first goal event should be spent building a solid base of fitness for your sport. This can last months if you are a new exerciser or if you goal event is a long way away, or weeks if you are in shape and looking at an event next month. Most of these early workouts focus on easy endurance training. These workouts can feel too easy for many athletes who like to go fast or hard to feel like they are getting something out of it. Don't make this mistake. Stay easy and slow, focus on improving technique, strength and endurance.

Base training is extremely important to peaking and cannot be rushed. If you start intense work too soon, you are risking injury or illness later on. Base training allows muscles, joints and tendons to get stronger slowly and adapt easily to increased loads and efforts. Base training includes some easy cross training as well.

This is a good time to play with training and add skill drills, plyometrics and strength training to build a nice overall level of conditioning. It's also a great time to find the right combination of equipment (shoes, clothing, bike position, racket tension, etc...) or food and drink that works for you.

Base fitness is all about getting out there and moving and having fun. Pace, intensity and effort really isn't important.

Phase Two: Building Aerobic Capacity Through Sustained Efforts

The next phase of a standard peaking program comprises the next quarter (or so) of your training time between the start day and the race day. During this time, you focus on increasing your aerobic capacity, power and speed and getting more "sport-specific." You also need to adhere to the 10 Percent Rule to avoid injury. During this phase you increase training effort by maintaining long, higher intensity sustained efforts. Your training volume may stay the same and you'll include more rest days. Your strengthening program becomes more focused on your sport.

Phase Three: High Intensity Intervals for Speed
After you've built your base, speed and power, you are ready to focus on specific training needed for your race or event. You add interval work of high-intensity, shorter duration efforts (60-90 seconds sprints). This is very intense training that requires more rest between work outs. Injuries are more likely too, so following a rest and recovery schedule is critical. For an example of a treadmill interval workout, see Interval Training.

Phase Four: Tapering Before the Event
The final phase of race preparation is the taper. This comprises the last two weeks prior to your event. In this phase you reduce your training volume (mileage) by half. You continue to do high-intensity intervals, but reduce the number of repeats that you do by half and rest fully between them.

The final three days before the event can include some light, aerobic exercise, but remember the goal is to rest so you will have peak potential on race day. Training three days before the race never helps you performance. These last few days are also a good time to focus on the mental aspects of performance and visualizing a perfect event. And consider your pre-race meal choice.

You can only stay at this peak fitness level for a short period of time, and you must rest and recover again before a second event. Trying to hold on to such a peak often leads to injury, burn out and overtraining syndrome. Consider using Active Recovery for a faster recovery.

Source

Mujika, I., Padilla, S., Pyne, D. and Busso, T. (2004). Physiological changes associated with the pre-event taper in athletes. Sports Medicine. 34(13): 891-927.

Neary, J.P., Bhambhani, Y.N. and McKenzie, D.C. (2003). Effects of different stepwise reduction taper protocols on cycling performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. 28(4): 576-587.

Trappe, S., Costill, D. and Thomas, R. (2000). Effect of swim taper on whole muscle and single muscle fibre contractile properties. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 32(12): 48-56.

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