Peaking – Reaching Your Competitive Best
A peak is a period within a racing season when a rider is at his or her competitive best. Most serious riders plan to do many races during a season, but have a few particular races or periods of racing at which they want to do especially well. Some get fired up for the biggest races in their region or in the world, while others just want revenge or another shot at a favorite race. The more experienced riders thought about this shortly after the end of last season and planned their peak or peaks to coincide with the important races of this season. Peaking is a challenging but essential part of preparation for high-level athletic competition. While there is a lot of luck involved, there is little mystery, at least for the rider who works with an experienced coach. Peaking at a desired time requires tracking many variables and sticking diligently to a plan. Peaking requires bringing training volume, specificity and intensity to a crescendo, and then resting up in time to be fit but not tired for the target event or events. Sometimes the crescendo and taper themselves are referred to as peaking.
Who needs to plan peaks?
Whether a rider needs to consider peaking depends on individual talent, goals and experience compared to the competition. There are riders who are talented enough that they can get on the podium routinely in local or even national races all season long with no special emphasis on one period over another. There are riders that are satisfied to hang on or help teammates by riding at a level that they can sustain year round. Most riders however need to be at their most competitive to earn a podium spot. The majority, if they try to just “race all season long”, will have unpredictable periods of good and bad form, and frequent frustration as they suffer their way to numerous unexpectedly poor results. Even the most talented need to be near their best condition to be competitive in the hardest and most prestigious UCI races. After all, if the most talented rider in the world is not in optimal shape, another rider who is marginally less talented but better prepared will win. For top, elite riders, the whole seasonal plan is structured around one or two peaks, and the details of the training plan and even what races will be ridden are determined by working backward from the peak.
It is not possible to maintain all aspects of preparation indefinitely at an optimal level, so planning to peak at a certain time necessarily means planning to not be in peak shape at other times. Some elements of bringing a rider to a peak at a particular time, such as high-frequency, high intensity training or tapering for a big event, compromise aerobic development or other important goals. For this reason I generally discourage planned peaks for riders who are early enough in their racing careers to still be making rapid gains in fitness and reserve them for riders who have pretty much plateaued and need the little boost of a peak to make them more competitive. I’d rather have the beginner continue to develop as rapidly as possible. After all, a first year rider who “peaks” generally won’t be even as strong as the same rider in a non-peak period in the second year of training.
Timing the peak
A good peak is what happens when all aspects of race preparation come together simultaneously. Coaches try to time things so that a peak will occur coincident with the races that a rider or the rider’s team have designated. When a rider is at a peak, he or she has maximized aerobic capacity and efficiency, adequate ability to sustain intense effort, perfect body weight for the target event, superb confidence and exceptional motivation, all at the same time. The rider also has to be injury-free, recovered from hard training and have the necessary social and financial support lined up. In order to turn a peak into competitive success, the rider must have appropriate skill, talent and tactical ability. A rider can have a life’s-best ride, and still get thrashed if the talent is absent, or if the strength is wasted on doomed breakaway attempts or an energy wasting failure to ride efficiently. At higher levels of racing, a rider with perfect preparation, skills and talent will lose without the support of a strong and committed team. The challenge comes in the fact that the different elements of the peak develop at different rates, and training for some of them undermines the development of others. For instance, if a rider has the physical fitness but not the skills to ride with a fast pack, group riding is going to be essential to skills building before the target event, but will also be demoralizing as the rider will be dropped several times before skills develop. Resting up for full recovery from hard training implies some degree of detraining, so if one rests too soon, one is detrained for the target event, but if one rests too late, one is tired at the target event.
With high volume aerobic training, aerobic fitness and efficiency can be developed fairly continuously over several years. Aerobic fitness can also be maintained month after month with little variation provided that nothing is done to compromise it. Top speed and the ability to tolerate high intensity anaerobic performance at the level required for road racing, by contrast, are developed through very high intensity training, can be optimized in a few weeks to a couple of months once aerobic fitness is in place, and cannot be maintained continuously for more than a few months. Preparation for peak anaerobic performance is not compatible with maintaining aerobic efficiency and performance long term. The need for simultaneous optimization of these two elements leads to a requirement of careful scheduling of training and the possibility of peaking too early or too late.
With poor planning, it is possible to optimize certain aspects of fitness while others are so abysmal that one may not even know that the first aspect was optimized. For instance, dieting hard to reduce body weight during the season can leave one so exhausted that exceptional performance is impossible even though “fitness” is high. Another common scenario has a rider with excessive motivation go so hard in his or her first races of the year that he or she unavoidably enters a recovery period just when the in-season fitness is coming on. I have seen riders literally use up their whole peak and end their seasons in a single event.
A typical amateur rider who eases into the season, by contrast to the rider described above, can expect to have his or her best races starting three to six weeks after the start of racing, and lasting for roughly eight to ten weeks, assuming weekly races and allowing for adequate recovery between races. Once the peak commences, the “peak clock” is counting down inevitably towards the end of the peak. When physical ability decreases and stays down compared to previous weeks or motivation drops and does not return over several weeks, the peak is over. Continuing to race after a peak has ended leads rapidly to psychological and physical burnout that can take months to correct. Delaying the start of racing for a few weeks allows a rider to maintain the peak those few weeks longer to encompass a higher priority event. The peak can also be delayed by maintaining high-volume aerobic training or strength training even after the commencement of racing or supra-threshold training. If this method is used, one must remember that the rider will need a few weeks of recovery between the ending of the tiring training and the beginning of the period of best form. The better trained the rider is before commencing racing, the less time the rider spends “in the red” in races and the longer the peak can be maintained. To a limited extent a peak can also be extended by skipping a week or two of racing and replacing it with extensive endurance training. This cannot be continued indefinitely though because the extension of the peak means avoiding the high intensity training that helps maintain the speed and tolerance for intensity that are the other part of a peak.
Multiple peaks in one year?
Once a peak is passed, one needs a new cycle of rest, base building and peaking to reach a new peak. The minimum time for that cycle is about ten weeks, and longer if the rider commences the break from an extremely fatigued state. This is a reflection of physiology and how the human body responds to rest and training. If one does the minimum time for the build to a second peak, the second peak will be short and not as high as the first peak. Riders who rest and train up again for just ten weeks after a spring campaign generally only get about three weeks of high performance racing in the late-summer peak. Most riders can only realistically schedule two peak periods in a year. If each peak period is only a few weeks or a single event, it may be possible to get three peaks in a year.
Since it is not possible to peak for every event on the calendar, it behooves one to choose the timing of peaks carefully. It might seem obvious to peak for the highest profile event in which one will participate, but this is often not the best answer. Peaking takes a lot of time and emotional energy. Peaking is partly a trial and error process. If one peaks for an event in which one has no realistic chance of competitive success even in optimal shape, not only will one not win, but a chance to study the individual response to the peaking process is lost since it is very hard to tell if one is having a good day while being schooled.
Typically shortly after a target event, motivation ebbs to very low levels. Numerous times I’ve talked to riders who planned to race nationals or a major stage race and then carry the fitness into some more local races, only to find that whatever level of physical fitness they might have after the big event, they can’t find motivation for the smaller events. In other words, the mental state needs to be peaked along with aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and like them, it cannot be maintained at the optimal level indefinitely. If one is strong enough and skilled enough to ride competitively at Nationals or a big stage race, it makes sense to peak for such an event and see what one can do, but if, even in peak condition, a rider has no chance in a big event, it often makes sense to decrease the emphasis on that event, ride it in a support role or “for experience”, and save the motivation for a smaller event where one has a better change of achieving a competitive goal and judging the success of the peaking process.
Experienced Only Need Apply
The response to training, emotional effects of race successes and setbacks, rate of recovery and other factors that go into making a peak vary unpredictably from rider to rider but are reasonably consistent for the same rider from year to year. Some riders need several races to reach peak form, while others can do the necessary exercise in training. Some need to taper for six weeks after the end of harder training, while others are ready to fly after only three weeks of reduced volume and intensity. This makes it simply a matter of luck if one peaks on a schedule for a single event on the first attempt, even with the assistance of the most brilliant coach. Only over several seasons can the rider and coach work out the details to a level that makes the peak both schedulable and predictable. This is part of why riders who burst onto the international scene still take a few years to consistently show in the biggest of the big races, and also why it pays to be attentive to the timing of your good or bad form compared to your changes in training routines. When you know yourself and your responses to training inside and out, you can schedule a peak. Then if you have it in you, you have enough years of racing and training behind you, and you are not too greedy, you can be competitive where and when you choose.