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.