Is “Peaking” Even Real? Or Necessary? – 80/20 Endurance

Is “Peaking” Even Real? Or Necessary?

The concept of peaking in endurance training goes back many decades. It’s essentially the art of timing your next big race to coincide with an ephemeral highpoint in performance capacity that is achieved through careful manipulation of training load and sequencing of training stimuli. A critical belief (or assumption) underlying the practice is that endurance athletes are only able to achieve the very highest level of performance possible for them every several months, and actually attaining this level requires that we plan and execute our training just right. Failure to get it just right will result in peaking too early (reaching a fitness highpoint before race day and subsequently becoming “overtrained”) or arriving at the start line with room still left to get fitter.

But is peaking really a thing? In other words, is it actually true that peak performance potential is only possible in a handful of 24-hour windows each year, and that traditional methods of peaking are the only way to each these highpoints? I’m not really sure, honestly. 

One thing that is certain is that performance potential does tend to reliably increase as training loads increase (assuming adequate recovery) and as key workouts become more race-specific. It is also certain that athletes can only increase their workload (or train above a certain threshold) for so long before their fitness stops increasing and their performance drops due to excessive fatigue. These two facts would seem to require that athletes who wish to perform at the very highest level they’re capable of in certain races stick to a traditional approach to periodization.

There are, however, some noteworthy examples of athletes who defy this tradition without apparent consequence. One example is marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge, whose training practices have been widely shared on the Internet. In analyzing them, American running coach Steve Magness was struck by how they flouted certain rules of peaking—particularly in their lack of a gradual increase in workload of a multiweek pre-race taper. “He appears to simply get in a groove and stay there,” Magness writes.

One thing that is not captured in the training logs Magness analyzed is Kipchoge’s conscious awareness of where he is in his training in relation to the race (in this case the Berlin Marathon) he’s training for. When athletes know that a race is far away, they tend naturally to hold back a little in training, preserving motivation for when it’s really needed. As race day draws closer, they allow themselves to go deeper and deeper into the pain cave in key workouts. In this way, a training program that may appear unchanging on the surface may in fact be progressive.

In short, peaking appears to be largely a psychological phenomenon. Further evidence of this comes from a 2010 study in which it was reported that runners at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point exhibited no significant increases in fitness measures over the course of a cross country season, and yet performed better in late-season races. Also, a 1981 study found that pain tolerance increased markedly in national-class swimmers over the course of a season, a possible sign of increasing motivation levels.

Another thing Magness observed in Kipchoge’s training is that, while the workload was heavy, it wasn’t extremely heavy, noting that “there ae very few mind-blowing workouts.” Kipchoge himself has said of his training, “I have been doing all things at 80 percent.” In this way I see Kipchoge not as an aberration but as part of a growing movement away from traditional periodization at the elite level. I was first awakened to the concept of what I now like to call the “always-ready” approach to training periodization by professional triathlete Meredith Kessler. When I interviewed her for Triathlete a number of years ago, Meredith said to me in reference to her training, ““I can drop in an Ironman at any time of the year if I want to. I’m even-keeled the whole year. I don’t have an off-season. I don’t really even taper. It never feels up or down. When [coach] Matt [Dixon] tells me, ‘You have a 10-day block,’ I look at it and say, ‘That looks like the same thing I just did.’”

I used the always-ready method myself in training for last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa, and it worked very well. The key is to find a level of training that’s high enough to allow you to perform at close to peak level whenever you please yet low enough that it’s more or less indefinitely sustainable. Of course, no serious athlete wants to perform at close to peak level in their most important races, but the always-ready approach is not about lowering the bar. To compete at a true peak level using the always-ready approach, all you have to do is A) rely on your conscious awareness of when your next big race takes place to enable you to take advantage of the psychological dimension of peaking and B) increase your training load for the last several weeks before event.

In my case, I found a groove at a training volume of about 16 hours per week, which I was able to sustain for many months without any sign of impending burnout. In the last six weeks before Santa Rosa, I gradually bumped this number up to 21 hours per week, tapered one week, and raced feeling fit and fresh. I’ve since used the same approach to enjoy a successful fall/winter “season” of running events ranging in distance from 5K to 100K. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the already-ready approach to periodization is “better” than the traditional, peak-focused approach, but I do believe it’s a legitimate alternative. If you want to give it a try, be prepared to experiment a bit before you find your personal maximal sustainable training load. And one final thought on the subject: Even with the always-ready approach, I think it’s necessary to take a break from serious training at least once a year, as I’m doing right now thanks to a mystery illness whose symptoms include a dry cough and shortness of breath. . .