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Peaking The Endurance Runner For Optimal Performance

Article By: Jack Ransone, Ph.D.

For an athlete to compete at the highest level achievable, it takes a fine understanding of the energy systems and the relationship between these systems and training methodology. The last three weeks of the competitive season, known as the peaking or unloading phase, it is desirable to have the body in the best physical and mental shape of the year to run that key race. The peaking state is when all physical and psychological systems are maximized, the tactical preparation is optimal and the athlete is in a state of competitive and physiological fitness. To obtain the highest fitness level or peaking state is no accident and requires careful planning.

In preparation for this state of peaking, the athlete must carefully plan the last two to three weeks before the target competition. Most runners start to decrease training volume weeks before this competition. It is important to maintain a level of high mileage, whatever it may be, for up to two weeks before the competition's date. The reduction in training volume 7 to 21 days prior to an important competition is done in an effort to enhance performance. A seven-day, high intensity-unloading phase has been shown to improve performance by 22% in one study (Shepley et al., 1992). An improvement in performance is due to the unloading or tapering phase enhancing many metabolic processes. This enhancement includes an increase in neural, structural and biochemical processes such as enhanced enzyme activity, muscle glycogen stores and mitochondria (aerobic) function.

The unloading phase is successful only with careful manipulation of the volume and intensity of training. Two to three weeks before the race, one must unload the high volume of mileage and increase the intensity on both continuous and intermittent runs. For example, in the first week of the peaking period, you reduce your volume by 20%, the second week an additional 20%, and the last week down to 50% of the previous week's mileage. The increased training intensity during interval training should also begin two to three weeks before the ultimate competition. During the first week, a 5000-meter runner, for example, would run a 2000-meter time trial, recover and then run 3 times 1000 meters for a total effort of 5000 meters. The second week you would run a 2000-meter time trial, recover and then run 2 times 1000 meters for a total effort of 4000 meters. The week before the chosen competition, run a 2000-meter time trial, recover and then run an all-out 1000 meters for a total effort of 3000 meters. This same runner, during the excessive intensity days, may start running 400-meter repeats at a 1:1 to 1:1.5 time running to rest ratio at the beginning of the season, eventually dropping the ratio to 1:0.5 during the peaking period. There should be no excessive intensity day during the week immediately before the major competition. This period of decreased volume and increased intensity will allow the athlete to replace all metabolic and cellular energy, as well as regenerate the athlete beyond the normal state. Regeneration or overcompensation of the athlete will occur during the unloading phase and be maximized on the week before the race (Houmard et al., 1994). The goal is to be totally refreshed before the race and if the unloading week is incorrectly timed, the overcompensation effect will decrease.

It is important that an athlete's training is individualized. The coach and the athlete must believe that the route they have chosen for their training and competition goals can be reached even though the athlete is training within a group. One essential component of this period of peaking involves the coach stressing all positive experiences the runner has experienced during the training phase in preparation for this competition. Also, reinforce a positive attitude in the runner about the training program, their teammates, their lifestyle, their goals and the commitment that they have made to achieve this level of fitness.

References: Houmard, J.A., Scott, K.S., Justice, C.L. and Chenier, T.C. (1994). The effects of taper on performance in distance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), 624-631.

Shepley, B., MacDougall, J.D., Cipriano, N., Sutton, J.R., Tarnoplosky, M.A. and Coates (1992). Physiologic effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 57, 706-711.

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