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How To Peak For Your Next Race

Posted by: on September, 20 2013

Written by Mario Friaoli for Competitor.com

Being truly race-ready on race day is trickier than you might think.

In the final weeks leading up to his goal marathon, Ricky Runlong did everything right, or so he thought. He cut his mileage in half, started taking more days off to rest, and ran workouts so much faster than his target race pace, he was positive a huge PR was waiting in the wings.

Fast forward to race day. Ricky hits the halfway mark feeling flat despite being right on pace. A few miles later he starts fading fast, and by 20 miles the wheels have fallen off the wagon and he’s doing the survival shuffle. Ricky finishes well off his target time and instantly starts racking his brain for answers to the question of what went wrong with his race. Perhaps it was a poor fueling strategy, or not getting enough sleep the night before the race.  Maybe it was too many long runs, or not enough workouts.

Or maybe it was a combination of all of these things, along with a whole host of other factors, which contributed to Ricky’s race-day woes. Specific mistakes aside, Ricky was the victim of poor planning and an imperfect peaking strategy, resulting in a sub-par performance when a PR should have been in his back pocket.

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, put these simple strategies into practice and plan your next peak precisely.

Work Backward

The first step in the process of progressing toward the perfect peak for your next big race is planning—specifically, planning in reverse. By doing so, you can map out exactly how long you’ll need to prepare and divide the training cycle up accordingly. It’s imperative not to rush any one phase and give each a specific objective. To ensure that you peak properly, keep a close eye on your long runs, races and workouts over the final two weeks of training heading into your goal race. You can screw up a lot more than you can improve during this time period, so focus on staying fresh rather than trying to “get fast.” The reality is that no one long run or workout during this time period is going to make your race – but it could very well break it if you’re not careful. Be sure to precede the peak phase with a solid stretch of training that mixes strength and speed work, but only after you’ve given yourself a big enough aerobic base of easy to moderately-paced running to work off.

Avoid The Speed Trap

For the marathoners I coach, “speed” workouts during the final four weeks heading into a peak race orbit closely around goal race pace. A common mistake many runners like Ricky Runlong make in the final few weeks of training heading into a key race is to run all their workouts at a pace far faster than they’re capable of racing at, believing that by doing so they will make goal pace feel easy on race day. These same runners are often the ones who end up going off the starting line a lot quicker than they should and end up fading fast over the final miles. Don’t let this happen to you.

By keeping a majority of your faster running at goal race pace or just slightly faster (i.e. 10K to half marathon pace) in the final four weeks leading up to your race, you’ll better prepare your body for what it needs to do on race day. The human body is a programmable machine. If recent race results and workouts point toward a projected race pace of 8:00 per mile for the marathon, you need to develop your training to the point where you’ve practiced running that pace so much that it becomes automatic. Why spend most of your time at the track running lung-searing quarter mile repeats at 6:30 pace if your goal is to run 8:00 pace for a really long time? Specificity rules, especially the closer you get to race day.

The same principle can be applied to peaking for shorter races, as limiting your speed in key workouts to race pace or just a touch faster will allow you to recover faster, feel fresher and perform your best when it counts the most.

Don’t Over-Taper

Every runner loves to talk about the taper but there are very few who know how to do it properly. It seems that the longer the race is, the less running people feel like they need to do leading up to it. This is, in a word, wrong!

More often than not, tapering your training too much heading into a peak race will do more harm than good. Why? Over the course of a given training cycle, especially for a marathon, you’re putting in a lot of work. Your body has gotten used to high-volume training and lots of running on tired legs. All of a sudden, three weeks out from your peak race, the long run mysteriously disappears from the training schedule. Then you start taking days off to “rest” but can’t figure out for the life of you why you can’t fall asleep at night.

Quite simply, your body isn’t used to these drastic changes and instead of feeling fresh you find yourself in a funk with the most important race of your life right around the corner. How do you prevent this from happening the next time around?

The answer is by not tapering your training too much. In the final few weeks leading up to the peak race, you want to reduce your overall weekly volume, but by no more than 25-30 percent. You likely never did that at any stage of the training cycle, so it’s senseless to start doing so right before your big race. Instead of running your last long run three weeks out from your peak race, do it just 14-15 days prior, which still leaves your legs plenty of time to freshen up for the big day. And lastly, don’t take unnecessary days off. Of course, if injury, travel or some other factor necessitates it, fine. If you were regularly running almost every day during your big buildup, however, it will do more harm than good to start taking days off before your race for the sake of rest. Don’t taper too much – your body won’t rest, it will rebel.