On the boil: maintaining your performance peak

Adapting your training to maximise performance at the right time is not a science but an art. Multi-sports coach and author Joe Beer provides some creative ways to monitor your form and ensure you save the very best for competition days

In order to attain peak performance on any given day in the year, there has to be a process of planning. This involves building fitness, learning race-day specifics, testing equipment and maximising performance in a window that encapsulates the key goal event. However, we need to make a distinction between fitness and form. Fitness is your general ability and coordination in the sport that you’re intending to compete in. Your form is the racing ability that tops-off the fitness below. You may be fit but if your form isn’t quite there, you won’t perform as well in a race situation. Likewise, if you concentrate too much on form, you will soon have to go back and rebuild fitness.

A wise man once told me “What gets measured gets done”. In other words, attaining sports performance on a given day is all in the numbers that precede it in training and the run-up competitions. Ideally, race performance should reflect the training data that preceded it – like a best-case scenario prediction. The ‘form book’ is what your most recent training and racing data suggests is possible and a good race is when that is achieved.

The art of successful training is knowing when to leave your form unused for another day – and how to keep your motivation up when health, motivation or perceived-fitness are waning. This is less about exact heart rate percentages, or proven interval regimes as used in studies. It’s about the nuances of how you feel and how to tweak things from race to race.

How to peak – and repeat it

This all starts with a plan, which means setting out specific dates when you want to be at your best. this in turn means there must be other periods and events that are subservient to the greater cause. In other words, some events should be more for learning than peaking. Here are four key strategies to help you peak and repeat peak your racing ability:

*Plan your peaks

Start with the hardest part of the equation first. This means setting aside time in your training and racing plans for many weeks to focus on your main goal – not just hoping you can do loads of other races and non-specific training and arrive on top form. You have to have a ‘menu’ of important sessions each week to bring your fitness, efficiency and psychological-strengths to a peak. From skill sessions to intervals, race-day specifics to endurance work – this menu must be directed at honing in your peak abilities, not just doing the same old habitual sessions.

*Think: taper and recovery

You need to acknowledge that your sport, age, racing experience and lifestyle will dictate how many true peaks you can attain. Recovery is central for attaining each peak. Train too much or too hard, too soon and you will burn out or get injured. Peaking and recovering will therefore differ between sports because recovery times are often dependent on the sport type. For example, a 25-mile time trial rider may race 1-3 times per week for many consecutive weeks. However, an Ironman athlete or marathon runner may have just two full-distance peaks and some half distance events during the entire year. Many time trial riders double up – eg a 10 mile race Saturday and a 25-mile race on Sunday – and report that they are in their best form ever on the second Sunday race. By contrast, Ironman athletes rarely compete sooner than 6-10 weeks after the previous event, because recovery needs are much greater. Also, he/she will typically rest for days before a key race. Recovery times and your personal ideal taper should therefore dictate your plan up to and after an event – not a back-ofan-envelope plan made 6-months earlier!

*Let plans ebb and flow

Be prepared to change your plans to get you to peak form – not complete as many peaks or as much training as possible. The risk with holding form is that many athletes try to use it between key events too often because feeling strong, fit and unbreakable can be a hard thing to restrain! Key training sessions may be long/short or high/low intensity but they must always focus on ensuring race day performance. You have to identify your peaks, be able to take time to taper and recover from them. But also vitally important is the notion that what worked before won’t automatically work again. Therefore you must use key sessions and build pre-event feedback to suggest where best to tweak your plans. Inevitably, this means going with the flow of your natural energy ebbs and flows; seeing how sessions go and responding accordingly rather than just rigid box ticking.

*Allow time, not luck

You must take time to get better and invest in incremental but longer term progress. Don’t set unattainable goals that will crush motivation and enjoyment. It is no coincidence that in every one of the recent case studies I have presented (including James Cleland below), athletes have competed over multiple seasons, completed hundreds of training sessions and have experienced thousands of hours learning how best to peak. Don’t sign up with a coach – or worse still, download a 20-week plan – thinking that 3-6 months of training will make you perfect and that you will know everything. It takes constant self-feedback, honesty and analysis of race results to ensure your ambition, health and longer-term development are correctly balanced. If you are self-coached you must give yourself time to work out what is the best way to race. Believe you will get better, but look for increments of progress that are explained by your training approach. Good racing outcomes don’t occur just by luck. However, good luck (eg no freak accidents) can help a properly prepared athlete to achieve!

Sh*t happens

Although a pre-planned schedule of specific sessions is a great starting point, the race-season reality is that even a well thought-out plan is likely to need altering, and unlikely to stay the same as you planned many months ago. This is more the case in impact sports like running, triathlon and duathlon, where injury and time off to recover is likely to throw a spanner in the scheduled week plan. Moreover, the race season is not the time to stick to regular winter training habits, perform unstructured group sessions or miss out on race-day honing – eg open water swimming technique, race-feeding practice etc. Plans, sessions and the focus within each session must aim to bring ‘form’ or racing ability up to peak. I prefer to do this three ways – this gives athletes some control over what they do, but also ensures that they know where best to target the effort.

Menu of sessions

I prefer a menu (list) of key sessions for the week or fortnight. As quality sessions require a good mind and body, I leave that up to the athlete to know when’s best to fit that in or who best to do that session with. When muscle soreness from racing or the previous hard session delays a key session, that’s fine; having a menu of sessions, allows you to move things around to suit. I also say what’s essential and good to do to ensure the week isn’t a failure – then leave any extra the athlete wants (needs?) to do down to negotiation. Besides, more often than not, eliminating aimless sessions improves recovery.

Traffic light sessions

Athletes rate how their days and sessions are going by using a traffic light system (see figure 1). This helps to spot any trends towards poor form (red) or a growing number of the best days (gold). Form can be seen quite literally in colour. Adding an ‘end-of-week’ score out of ten to rate the week overall provides a convenient way of monitoring. If you have lots of red days and 5/10, you need a change of approach, If it’s 9/10 and a few gold days, all is going well!

Leave the best for later

The idea of a good plan is to imbed the right race mentality, and to be the best on that peak day. Not to peak a week early, or five days late. Races are on a specific day so leave your best for that day is my motto. This means not trying replicate race performances but instead varying the effort level or length of effort to give the feeling of “mastery” but leaving yourself fresh. One technique is to create speed workouts using lower drag, lower weight, tail winds or slight downhills. This enables you to maintain the motor firing patterns needed for speed but without lots of mental effort to do so.

Nutritional strategies in the week before the race (eg 4-day carbohydrate loading, 6-day nitrate loading etc) needs to also be practiced in training. You need to ensure you have no adverse reactions to any strategies, and also to see how your training and race efforts feel when ‘loaded’. Also, the ebb and flow of your mental and physical resources means you have to sometimes use every recovery trick in the book to get someone ready for a goal that just weeks earlier seemed a cert. Being prepared for your next key session or a race may mean booking a massage, reducing long bike by 33% or just focussing on sleep not miles.

Figure 1: Traffic light system of monitoring

Living ‘off-plan’

No training/peaking plan survives intact because nobody dodges all injury issues and life doesn’t stay constant and stress-free just because your race is looming. If problems occur during any plan as a peak approaches, here are some tips:

  • Look to your plan and think what has to now go or be tweaked.
  • Take other positive steps to help offset poor training, such as improving the quality and timing of nutrition in the next 2-4 days.
  • Relax in training and let things happen. Don’t try and fight everything.

The key is to try and get yourself ready to compete the best you can, but to understand where you are and what the odds are of a satisfactory, really solid, a high or (hopefully) a peak performance. Not everyone at the start line has a PB in them; many may be there learning for a future personal victory. Those who race get better at racing. Those who evolve training get better training results. Enjoy the process and the rewards.

In-season sessions

Here are three sessions I use with athletes to inform me on an athlete’s form, or to get them doing ‘other’ things that can help them race faster in the next event:

1. FLOAT RIDE – Easy, flat biking course 1-1.75hours mostly aiming for Zone 1 (under 80% max heart rate [HRmax]). Use only the small chain ring with a relaxed cadence, but spinning up to over 100rpm when on slight downhills or with tailwinds. At other times just spin at around 90rpm. The key is to push your heart rate with fast cadence rather than pushing hard using lots of force.

2. RUN AEROBIC MILE – Warm up first for 8-13 minutes, building your heart rate to an aerobic max (80% or top of zone 1). Use a soft surface away from track. Then perform four track laps of 400m (1 mile) at 80%HRmax or use a safe road loop. Note your mile time and average heart rate and perceived exertion. Finally, cool down and jog of 5-10 minutes.

3. SWIM SKILLS – Warm up by doing 10x25m of bilateral breathing or ‘catch up stroke’ with 15 seconds of rest between each 25m. The main set should be 10x50m bilateral front crawl with small paddles (20 seconds rest in between). Then perform 16x25m catch up repeats with fins (20 seconds rest interval). Cool down by swimming 6x25m using fins and paddles (one 25m repeat every minute).

CASE STUDY: James Cleland

James is an age-group athlete who first approached me in March 2010. He came from a high pedigree of rowing so his aerobic engine was good – very good. We have worked over various distances from sprint, to his first Ironman in Switzerland (2012), where he achieved a time of 10hours 12mins.

His target for 2016 was to return to long-distance with Challenge Galway, an Ironman-distance triathlon. Over the 26 weeks of 2016 he averaged 10 hours per week training. The lowest weekly volume was the week commencing 18th Jan, where he did only 1hour 40mins due to illness (we planned 9 hours). The highest volume was week commencing 9th May, where he completed 17.5 hours (3h swim; 10.75h bike; 3.75h run), with 6 weeks to race day. He finished the Challenge event on a wet day in 10hours 11mins, 3rd fastest of all amateur athletes, winning his age group (40-44).

Looking at his training totals from January (below), the ebbs and flows in training included:

  1. Every 4th week back from race week was assigned an “ADAPTATION” week where volume was dropped by 20-30% of biggest preceding week.
  2. May 1st and 2nd were back-to-back 200km Sportive and Belfast Marathon. This big test required a light run up: just 4.75 hours in the preceding six days, a long taper (7 hours in 6 days and no running sessions for 8 days)
  3. There was only 3.5 hours of training in race week (2 swims, 1 bike, 1 run on the Tuesday) which had been preceded by 7 hours of training the previous week (13th June). Sessions still included some faster work and muscular strength but the load was lighter. Importantly a session we call IRONMAN APPROACHING SWIM was recorded as: “That was really good and it gives me such a sense of achievement when I complete this session.”
  4. Some ‘just get by’ sessions such as: “INDOOR TURBO – Av.HR 118bpm, Max 128bpm, Av.CAD 82rpm, 17.89 miles. Recorded as “A bit lethargic this morning, but okay. Bit of a twinge in my right hip, possibly from sitting in cinema seats yesterday.” However a solid 10.75-hour week still prevailed.
  5. With three weeks to go, James did a great ¾ distance event: the Triathy, where he placed 7th overall and 2nd in his age group. Recorded as “ Was very happy with this performance. Strong swim, strong bike and eased off on run and maintained what I’d like to reproduce in Galway. Everything continuing to plan!!”

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