Anyone who enters a race wants to perform at their best on the big day. But given that it's impossible to operate at peak fitness for twelve months of the year, how should you plan to peak and what training sessions should you focus on to make sure you're performing at your best? Running coach Nick Bester explains.
It’s impossible to maintain peak fitness all year round - thinking you can is a common mistake that a lot of runners make.
Peaking for a race takes both physical and mental strength. But after the race, it’s just as important to give your body the rest it needs to rebuild itself. An analogy that I like to use is that training our bodies is like building a house; it takes a long time to build (that is the hard part), but once it is ready all you need to do is maintain it to ensure that it stays in immaculate condition. Of course, your house can get damaged, but it’s how we react and repair that damage that is the important thing. In essence, race day is the mere coat of paint on your house; it’s the victory lap that showcases all the work that has gone into the build.
If you’re a marathon runner like myself, it’s always good to try and peak twice a year - once for a spring marathon and once for an autumn marathon. This works nicely with the way the running year is planned, and means that the build-up starts pretty much at the beginning of the year.
Peaking in the marathon season
The build–up from January until the Spring marathon season (races like London, Boston and Tokyo) is the perfect period of time that you need to hit your peak and give yourself the best opportunity for getting a personal best.
After the Spring marathon, I always find it a good idea to schedule two months or so of less intense exercise, getting a bit more balance back in my life. I find this period to be as important as the build-up to a race both mentally and physically. I actually think that feeling out of shape is a good thing from time to time - it often gives you the motivation you need in order to build back up again as you look towards Autumn.
Progression through the ‘build’ stage
Over the past few years there has been a much bigger focus on progression runs, and rightly so. Progression runs are sessions that will start with easier efforts that gradually get harder as the session progresses. I am a huge fan of progression sessions and I’ve felt just how much these benefit me as well as the athletes that I coach.
Something that all runners need to be wary of is that we are creatures of habit. We find a route and pace that we are comfortable with, and rarely deviate from it. If you don’t progress your training, you’re not going to get quicker and you’re not going to improve your times. As such, adding a tiny bit every week to your training is crucial. Whether that is a small amount of distance, pace or intensity, always make sure you’re moving forward. If you stop doing this within the build phase of your training, then you run the risk of not peaking for your planned event.
Scheduling a recovery week within a race build phase is completely fine, especially if your mind and body needs it. In fact, recovery weeks can often make your training more productive. However, following that week it is crucial to get back to the training plan and keep building the base of yours for the big day.
Nothing is more rewarding and motivating than getting quicker, so work hard on progressing week on week to give yourself the best possible chance of peaking for a race. We all get comfortable and hate being outside of our comfort zones, but I’ve come to realize that it’s required in order to keep getting better.
Tapering into a peak performance
A good time to taper for a race like a marathon is with around 10 days to go. In this context, tapering means cutting down on mileage and volume, and bringing the muscles and legs to life. This doesn’t mean you stop running; You want to keep the rhythm and flow you’re hoping to achieve on race day. But you also don’t want to do anything too intense that could fatigue you, and so jeopardize your race - especially after the hard work you’ve put into training. Tapering is probably the most important phase of the training block. Get this right and you’ll peak at the perfect time!
Onwards and upwards,