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How to Avoid Peaking Too Soon For a Race

Avoiding premature peaking requires a strategic, patient, long-term view that builds over months and seasons.  

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Continued improvement and controlled peaking are both the products of patient, physiologically-sound training.

You can’t just throw hard training against the wall and hope some sticks. And you can’t stick your fingers in your ears and keeping layering hard workout upon hard workout, regardless of how loudly your body screams, “Stop!”

The Tyranny of the Urgent

When I first started as a personal running coach, I was surprised to discover that most athletes weren’t interested in adopting a new approach to training. Instead, they wanted me to make their old approach to training work better (or at all). The idea of patiently transforming their running engines from 4-cylinders to V-8s just didn’t appeal to them. “That works for you,” they’d say, “but I’ve got a big race in three weeks.”

They wanted to train hard. They wanted to peak for an upcoming race. And then they wanted to continue to train hard and peak for the next upcoming race. And they wanted to repeat that cycle year-round. As for me as coach, they simply wanted me to make that work.

But it doesn’t work like that. Incorrect training leads to inconsistent and unpredictable results.

long gradual trail to distant peak
photo: Shutterstock

Better Each Season

But if you train correctly—and patiently—you can both avoid that premature peak and continue to improve from season to season. This might mean adjusting your race goal from one “big race” in the near future to a different race or races following a less aggressive training approach. But speaking as someone who’s 58 years old and has been running since he was 13, I can assure you that it’s the accumulation of big race moments and consistent performances across many years that matters the most, not a single “big race” in any given season.

With that in mind, most successful runners employ one of two training approaches to ensure both top performance and control over their “peaking” phase:

  1. Periodization – Training is broken into separate phases throughout the year, often including a base-building, race preparation, tapering/peaking, and recovery phase.
  2. Revised Periodization – A less-formal approach in which the elements from each traditional periodization phase are mixed together during a prolonged period of both training and racing, followed by a short period of recovery/downtime.

Limited Life Span

The important thing to understand about both approaches is this: The physiological demand of training and racing—which involves breaking down your body and then rebuilding it, over and over and over—can only be sustained so long before your body cries uncle.

To better control this process, you must carefully monitor the volume and intensity of your training to ensure you do, in fact, continue to recover and adapt (i.e., get fitter). And then, if peaking is your goal, you should include a taper—a short period of reduced training volume and intensity — to trigger maximum adaptation, recovery, and race-readiness. But be aware that tapering isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. As a 2016 review of studies on peaking and tapering concluded: “Despite its use and popularity, there is no common consensus on the optimal design or duration of a taper in endurance athletics.”

Finally, once you’ve trained, tapered, and knocked your big race out of the park, you should schedule two to three weeks of down time, during which you run only a little (or not at all), catch up on Netflix, and think non-running thoughts.

reached the peak
photo: Shutterstock

Coach Tom Cotner of Club Northwest contributed a quote to my first book, Build Your Running Body, that I think applies here, “If you don’t take planned breaks, you find yourself taking unplanned breaks.”

So let’s look at your original question: How will you know if you’ve peaked too soon? Well, workouts that seemed easy a week before will suddenly seem darn near impossible. Your legs might feel heavy. Your muscles might hurt. You’ll be tired during the day, restless at night. You might get clumsy — drop your keys and bump into chairs and the like. Worst of all, you might start dreading your runs. That’s because mental burnout often precedes physical burnout.

Who wants that, right? So train smart, taper, race well, and recover. Rinse, repeat.

About the Author 

Pete Magill is a running coach, world-class runner, and author. As a coach, Magill has led his masters clubs to 19 USATF National Masters Championships in cross country and road racing and has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. He holds multiple American and world age-group records and is a 5-time USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year. Magill is author of Fast 5KSpeedRunnerBuild Your Running Body, and The Born Again Runner