Perfecting the Art of Race-Day Peaking


, by Chris Case

Photography by: A.S.O. / James Mitchell - Jacvan events

There are several key ways to optimize your form just as the big race comes around.

Peaking represents the pinnacle of perfect race preparation. We all strive to be in our best form for our target races—but it’s easier said than done.

Many athletes work with coaches to craft training plans intended to deliver a personal best for the biggest race. Self-coached athletes might follow a six-week process found through a Google search. Some will simply rely on intuition.

Regardless of the method, all too often athletes find their best legs for the training race the week before the big event, or they hit race day with flat legs. Peaking can seem elusive—many times it seems like it comes down to luck.

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But it doesn’t have to. Part of the reason why peaking can seem so challenging is that it is both a science and an art. Sometimes those two aspects feel at odds with one another. For example, while scientific research suggests a very specific four-week peaking plan is optimal, many athletes know from experience (this is “the art”) that a peaking process has many individualized nuances. Sometimes two weeks just works better.

Photography by: A.S.O. / Morgan Bove

Let’s take a closer look at how both science and experience can inform your peaking routine, in order to achieve your best performance at your next target event.

Tapering is resting

The first thing to remember about peaking is that it involves tapering or reducing the amount of training you do in the lead-up to a race.

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Think of it this way: You smash your body in training, which means you are creating muscular damage, while simultaneously depleting your body of essential components for optimal health, from hormones to hydration levels to energy (glycogen) reserves. That’s half of the training process. The other half involves allowing the appropriate time to repair all the damage you’ve done.

This is the key: It’s during rest and recovery that you get stronger. That’s why it is such an integral part of the peaking process.

Photography by: A.S.O. / Morgan_Bove

But before the rest, a taper ideally involves one final big training block (often called an overreaching or overload block). The science suggests this ideally happens four weeks from the target event. When you look at what elite pros do, it is often three weeks, on average, from the big race.

Then the taper begins. Interestingly, while the science and what athletes practice don’t always agree, one commonality among peaking protocols is a change in intensity distribution, with an added emphasis on high intensity. So, in the three to four weeks leading into a target event, the overall training volume typically drops, but the intense workouts remain or even increase slightly.

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Let’s put some numbers on those general guidelines. Again, it needs to be individualized, but the research suggests an approximately 15-20 percent drop in volume, while the quantity of high-intensity workouts remains at the same level as before the taper began. And, for some, an increase in the number of intense workouts may work better.

Photography by: A.S.O. / Bastien Seon

Five tips for optimal peaking in sport

No two peaking routines will be the same, both because every individual’s physiology warrants a different process, and also because the nature of the event and the personal circumstances of the athlete will dictate variations.

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However, there are several universal truths. To help you refine your personalized routine, follow these six guidelines:

  1. No matter when you do your overload block or how long you make your taper, above all else make sure you get as much sleep as possible. Quantity and quality are imperative for recovery, and we all know that recovery is at the heart of peaking.

  2. If your target race is truly your target race, then do everything you can to treat it as such. Clear your calendar of extraneous events, tasks, and projects, at home and at work. Save those things for the other 50 weeks of the year.

  3. Use the extra time you now have off the bike to get prepared: focus on the logistics of easy travel to the event; dial in your gear if it isn’t already perfect; prepare your nutrition and hydration for race day; rehearse your warmup routine; and so on.

  4. Focus on the mind, not just the racing mindset. Use visualization techniques or self-talk to psychologically prepare for the pressures of race day. Use mindfulness techniques to improve your sense of presence, which has been shown to improve performance and enhance certain cognitive functions—not to mention provide calm and composure during stressful moments, either leading into or while racing.

  5. It almost goes without saying, since the purpose of this phase is to improve recovery, but now is the time to replenish energy stores. Reduce stressors. Get more massages and do more foam rolling. Relax. This is the calm before the storm… that is race day.

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