Sunday, August 9, 2009


One of the most important but least understood times in the season is the Peak period which usually starts two to three weeks before an A-priority race. If training goes well in this period you can come into great shape on race day. If it goes poorly much of the work of building up to the A race could be wasted. It's a critical time.

There are two mistakes often made in the Peak period. The first is training too hard. What's needed now is some mixture of rest and hard training — with an emphasis on rest. Self-coached athletes tend to do too much hard work in the last few weeks since they don't trust that what they've done so far is enough. On the other hand, a few rest too much and don't train hard enough because they've heard that rest produces greater fitness. They're not exactly right. Rest actually produces greater "form" (race “restedness”), but causes a loss of fitness.

There are three elements of physical preparation that you are trying to balance in the last three weeks before your A race – fatigue, fitness and form. Fatigue is a measure of how great your workload is in the last few days. If intensity and/or duration have been higher than normal for the last few days then fatigue is elevated. In this situation, fitness will also be high. High-workload training produces both fatigue and fitness simultaneously. But fitness rises slowly relative to fatigue. Three hard workouts in three days will produce a lot of fatigue but only a very small increase in fitness. Fitness occurs over long periods of time whereas fatigue occurs in short periods of time. During the Peak period we're not trying to gain fitness but rather reduce fatigue.

Form is also one of the key elements during the Peak period. This has to do with how well your rest is progressing. The more rested you are, the greater your form. You want to have high form (well rested with fatigue low), but must be careful that fitness is not lost rapidly due to too much rest. The trick is to gradually lower fatigue, maintain fitness at a relatively high level and steadily increase form. Then you are peaked and ready to race. So how do you do that?

Starting two to three weeks before the A-priority race do a race-intensity workout which simulates the conditions of the race every third or fourth day. For most athletes doing these every third day is better. These workouts gradually get shorter as you progress through the first week or two of the Peak period. With the workouts getting shorter the weekly volume is also dropping. That's good. It should drop rather rapidly. Something such as a 30% to 50% drop each week is about right. The intensity for these intense workouts should be at least heart rate zone 3 or tempo power or "moderately hard." Such intensity is the key to maintaining fitness. The two or three days between these race simulations are the key to reducing fatigue and elevating form. They should be low intensity, low duration workouts that also get shorter as the Peak period progresses. So what you are doing is mixing the two key elements – intensity and rest – to produce race readiness at the right time.

For the single-sport athlete, such as a runner or cyclist, this is pretty simple. For the triathlete the peaking process described above may be modified by sport. For example, running requires a longer taper than does cycling which is usually longer than for swimming. There are other elements to also consider such as the length of the race (long races mean long tapers), how fit you are (high fitness means long tapers), how easily injured you are (injury prone athletes should taper longer), and how old you are (older often athletes need longer tapers).

The week of the race I handle a little differently. Now you want to emphasize rest even more but still need to do just a bit of intensity to maintain fitness (note that longer duration is not necessary to maintain race fitness at this point). I like to have the athlete do three or four workouts this week in which he or she completes several 90-second intervals at race intensity (for short races) or at least zone 3 (for long races such as Ironman), with three-minute recoveries. Five days before the race do five of these 90-second efforts. Four days before do four times 90 seconds. The pattern continues throughout the week. I believe the easiest day of this week should be two days before the race. This is usually a day off or at the most a very short and low-intensity session. The day before should also have some racelike intensity within a very brief session.

I've been using this method of peaking with the athletes I coach for many years and generally have good results. But you must realize that there are many factors that influence your readiness on race day, such as diet, sleep and lifestyle stress. We're biological organisms, not machines. Regardless of how well we manage things, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. That's simply the way the real world is for humans. What you want to do is keep good records of what you did to prepare before an important race. If things go well try to repeat this process the next time. If things don't go well study what you did and make appropriate adjustments the next time.

You can find more on my peaking protocol on my website.


At August 9, 2009 8:32 PM , Blogger Jordan said...

Good post - what would the protocol be if you're peaking for a multi day stage race, which includes a variety of types of racing? What constitutes race simulation then?

At August 10, 2009 5:51 AM , Blogger Fabiano - FCA Sports said...

Hi Joe,

What do you mean by longer taper when peaking in certain situations (eg. high fitness)? 3-4 weeks?

Also, during the week of the race, your workouts are based only on those 90-second intervals or do they include other components like eg. M5 - 20'?

At August 10, 2009 7:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice info, thanks. I tend to lean towards the too much rest side. Conversely, on my recovery days in training I tend to go to hard.


At August 10, 2009 7:17 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jordan--Follow the same procedure as described. The race simulations should focus on those events and the portions of them that present the greatest challenge to your goal achievement (climbing, TT, sprinting, or whatever).

At August 10, 2009 7:20 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Fabiano--'Longer' means the 3 weeks (including race week) as suggested in the post. They could be shorter than this. During race week I typically have athletes just do the 90-second intervals.

At August 10, 2009 7:38 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Hi Joe, I’m a little confused by your definition of “form” in your blog as compared with how it’s described in the “Peaking to Race” document on your website. In your blog, form is listed as one of the three elements of physical preparedness, the others being fatigue and fitness, and the art of peaking is the successful management of these three elements. In “Peaking to Race,” form is described in terms of fatigue and fitness, and in that document it seems that top form will naturally result from the successful management of those two elements; in other words, getting those two right equates to top form. My question is, is form a primary element on par with fitness and fatigue, or is it a secondary element defined in terms of fitness and fatigue.

One other question I had relates to starting the Peak period 2-3 weeks before an A race. Does it matter if the week immediately preceding the beginning of the Peak period is a rest week or not? I.e., can you go straight from a Build week to a Peak week, or should you always separate them with a rest week.

Thanks for the great post, and thanks in advance for your replies. --Bruce

At August 10, 2009 8:15 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Bruce--Thanks for your comment. I'd rather not try to explain form as a secondary or primary element. All 3 are important and critical to success. Form happens to be a result of fitness and fatigue management. Form = fitness minus fatigue. In other words, you build fitness (which also creates fatigue) over the course of weeks and months. Then in the last few weeks while peaking you shed fatigue by resting more. This is the 'fitness minus fatigue' part. unfortunately, fitness is also lost while resting but fatigue is lost at a greater rate. This interplay causes form to increase and so you become race ready/rested.

As for your second question, I often have athletes take a few days of rest before starting to peak. But not always. It depends on how fatigued they appear to be and a few other variables such as how long we've gone without a significant amount of rest, motivation/burnout, level of fitness achieved so far and a few other variables.

At August 10, 2009 9:08 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

It seems that form is a convenient shorthand for “fitness minus fatigue,” but in terms of what an athlete needs to do to achieve optimal race preparedness, all they really need to focus on is losing as much fatigue as possible while at the same time losing as little fitness as possible. If they do that, they’ll be in top form. To say that form is an additional component that is critical to success seems redundant. It seems to imply that an athlete could successfully manage fitness and fatigue during the Peak period, but still not be in top form. If that's not possible, then I would submit that form IS a secondary component. The distinction reminds me of the triangular diagram in your Training Bible where the three primary components of fitness are strength, endurance, and speed, and secondary components are muscular endurance, speed endurance, and force (or something like that, I'm recalling from memory.) Maybe I’m misreading your definition of form, or maybe, as described in the “Peaking to Race” document, it’s still a mysterious and vague topic to me. --Bruce

At August 10, 2009 11:31 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Hi Joe,

I have a question that relates more to what to do after the peak, and the A race? How long should one rest before starting up a new training peak?

I am planning on doing IMOO next September, and my best guess is that it will be held on 9/12. I would like to earn a qualifying spot at this race, and know that improving my marathon would help my chances.

I was thinking of doing the Glass City Marathon on 4/25, and doing a full 24 week cycle to really peak for this race. That would leave 19 weeks before IMOO. In your opinion do you believe that this would leave enough time to build up to a peak IM, or am I not leaving enough time in between races? Any incite would be a great help. Thank you very much.


At August 10, 2009 2:45 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Justin--My opinion is that doing a marathon to prepare for an IM is worse than a waste of time. The IM run is nothing like a marathon PB run. After 6+ hours of swimming and riding you are going to run slowly. Even the fastest pros are running slow relative to what they could do in a stand alone marathon. The pace is not challenging. The key is becoming so strong on the bike you can hold back and still have a fast split. Then you have something left in the tank for the run. Running a fast marathon will do nothing to change that.

At August 11, 2009 6:22 AM , Blogger David Gearhart said...

I find that reaching a high number like + 20 TSS/day for CTL gives me a sluggish feeling, and I race better (Cat 3 cyclist) with something around +8 TSS. Is it possible that I am just not doing enough "high intensity" work when I taper which causes me to feel more ready to race at +8 vs. +20? I find that I'm rested at +20, but my body does not want to go fast, where I am ready to ride hard at +8 because hard efforts are still in my muscle memory very recently.


At August 11, 2009 7:15 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Dave--I can't say. When it comes to what works in training there are many individual variables. But generally i've found that if I keep fitness losses to 10% or so then form will be in high teens to low 20s. But it isn't allways that way.

At August 29, 2009 1:41 PM , Blogger Yet Another Runner said...

Hi Joe,

That's a very interesting and useful post! I recently read Total Heart Rate Training and have a question that (I hope) ties in with that book and your post.

I understand that the length of the preparation period will vary depending on the priority of the race and other races in the season. Do you have any guidelines for how hard to race?

For example: I have two more races this season. A half-marathon in 3 weeks followed by another 3 weeks after that. I have a better chance to do well in the second but I don't feel I can just back off completely in the first.


At August 30, 2009 4:37 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Mike--Thanks for your comment. The old saying in running is that it takes 1 day of recovery for every mile raced. That would mean 13 days to fully recover from a half marathon. That seems reasonable. The problem is that recovering means losing fitness. So you're less likely to do as well in the second half marathon. If both are A-priority races you need to make decision as to which is the A+ and which is the A- and race the first accordingly. Good luck!

At September 1, 2009 5:56 AM , Blogger Fabiano - FCA Sports said...


Based on your answer, these workouts when peaking will be very short since they will be doing only those 90-second intervals, right?

At September 1, 2009 6:54 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Fabiano--Yes, the workouts in race week are short and get progressively shorter. Each includes a warm-up, the intervals, and a cool down.


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