Peaking for Maximum Performance
Understanding and executing an effective training peak is an essential component for an athlete to be at their best possible performance level for competition.
The Basics of Peaking
The fundamental concept of peaking is to properly taper off the volume of your training workouts while maintaining the intensity. By maintaining the training intensity level your body continues to adapt to high speed demand2, improving performance; while simultaneously the decrease in volume allows the body more recovery. The timing and duration of the taper are key factors. The duration of taper will vary based upon the length of the competition you are preparing for. It may be anywhere from 4 to 28 days prior to competition. Someone who is training for an Iron Man Triathlon may taper for three weeks in order to peak at the right time, while a soccer team may only taper for a few days before the championships.2 Numerous studies have shown measurable increases in performance for runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers and triathletes that employ this method.5 The strategy of peaking is meant to be employed for the most important of competitions, and is not appropriate for regular season sports where you are required to perform every week or multiple times per week.
Some people may be apprehensive to try this strategy, thinking that a tapered workload will ruin their hard earned conditioning. A look at some the science behind this supports why it’s worth taking a second look at tapering to peak for your best performance.
The Science Behind It
Research backs up the theory that no conditioning is lost through tapering workouts, when done for the correct length of time. The start of the taper is important. One that goes on too long can start to show detraining or a loss in conditioning4, which is the opposite of the intention. This fact alone can cause hesitation, but when properly implemented, the results can be impressive. One study noted that runners and swimmers who reduced their training by about 60% for 15 to 21 days showed no losses in VO2 max (maximum oxygen intake) or “aerobic endurance” performance. The conditioning of these athletes remained the same even after an extensive rest period. This study also found that as a result of the reduced training (swimmers) demonstrated a 17.7% to 24.6% increase in arm strength and power.1 These are the beneficial results of peaking: increased strength and power without loss of conditioning.
The specific design of your peak will vary depending on your event, sport, and skill level. It’s important to maintain a high intensity level, around 90-100% of the athletes’ maximum effort.2 Maintain your usual workout frequency during your peaking period.4 While there has been a significant amount of research done on the effectiveness of peaking, sport-specific recommendations can vary from study to study, and vary based on sex5 as well as the age of the individual.4 For this reason we have brought together some general sport-specific recommendations. See the tables in the appendix at the end this article from IDEA Fitness Journal that lays out a taper schedule for specific sports.
For a cross country ski team or a swim team taking 10-14 days to taper, depending on the quality of training done during the season, would yield the best results.3 The first of the two weeks the volume should drop but not too drastically, slowly decreasing anywhere from 80% to 60%, the second week should contain even fewer repetitions with the volume dropping to a range of 60% to 40% of the normal workload.4 For basketball or hockey one week may be all that is needed with the volume decaying over the week, ending again around 60% to 40% of the normal volume of training.4
The last 3 days of a taper are the time to drastically reduce the volume, and to some extent the intensity of training. There are no physiological improvements that can be achieved thru training in the last 3 days before a big competition. So the volume is greatly reduced, and the intensity is toned down further. These three days are the time to focus in on the form aspect of the sport, working on technique and mental preparedness, while allowing for recovery in preparation for the final peak. This ensures that when you get to the competition you will perform at the elevated fitness level that you achieved during your taper.
As an athlete, the focus is on improving your personal record and being the best you can be. Implementing a peak is a great way to improve performance. There is no loss in conditioning, and when executed correctly, athletic performance is substantially increased. The duration of the taper will vary from sport to sport. What remains universal is the importance of only decreasing the volume of training, cutting the intensity only 3 days prior to the event, utilizing this time to work on technical drills and mental preparation. This will help you to be at your best when competition day arrives.
Tables from IDEA Fitness Journal4:
1. McMillan, Greg. Performance Page: Don’t Taper Peak! Secrets for Peaking on Race Day. Running Times. October 24, 2008. Accessed January 20, 2013. http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/performance-page-dont-taper-peak?page=single
2. Kenney, Eric. Don’t Taper…PEAK!. Amateur Endurance. Accessed January 20, 2013. http://www.amateurendurance.com/triathlon-training/article/dont-taperpeak/
3. Objabho, Vladimir. Tapering for Peak Performance. Complete Soccer Training. July 21, 2012. Accessed January 21, 2013. http://completesoccertraining.blogspot.com/2012/07/tapering-for-peak-performance.html
4. Koepp, MS, Kriston, & Jeffery Janot, PhD. Tapering: Science and Practice. IDEA Fitness Journal Vol. 2: No. 8. September 2005. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/tapering-science-and-practice-0
5. Bosquet, L, Montpetit, J et All. Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. American College of Sports Medicine. 2007. Accessed January 31, 2012. http://www.fftri.com/files/pdf/Effects%20of%20Tapering%20on%20Performance_0.pdf