Over the last few years, I think I’ve finally figured this peaking thing out. It took a while because, like many coaches, I fell into the standard “tapering” model we’ve all been taught. Problem was, tapering didn’t work consistently. The results were just as hit-or-miss as not tapering at all.
So, I threw “tapering” out of my vocabulary. I replaced it with “peaking.” Semantics? Maybe. But by studying peak performance research — both physiological as well as psychological — as opposed to just the tapering research, I’ve been able to dial in how to truly peak on race day. It works for all athletes no matter where you find yourself in the pack come race day.
Here are my secrets for your peaking phase — the last 14 days before your race:
1. Secret: Don’t change your weekly running routine
Our bodies and minds like routine. If you run four days per week, then run four days per week during your peaking phase. If you run six, then run six. You’ll feel flat if you suddenly run less frequently than normal. Exception: Runners who are nursing a sore muscle or niggling injury may take an extra day off each week during the peaking phase. But, don’t take it the day before the last long run or the race if you don’t normally rest the day before your long runs. This risks feeling flat on race morning.
2. Secret: Reduce weekly training volume, but not too much
Over the last 10-14 days before your race, you should progressively reduce the volume of your running. Two weeks out from the race, I like to reduce the daily volume by 10-20 minutes or so. The week of the race, reduce approximately 20-30 minutes. This, along with the normal reduction in your long run length as the race nears, will drop your overall running volume in line with what we know from research (and, more importantly, from practical experience) to the level that allows the body to get prepared for a peak performance. Don’t make the common mistake of dropping your volume too much. This takes your body out of its routine and can leave you stale on race day. My opinion is that more runners fail because of tapering too much rather than not enough.
3. Secret: Keep the engine revved
While we may want to reduce the volume of running, we do not want to reduce the intensity of our workouts. In fact, we may want the intensity to increase. You want to keep your engine revved, the pumps primed. Never race your workouts, but during the peaking phase, don’t back off in them either. I’ve found that some fast running in the peaking phase helps bring the body and the mind to tiptop condition on race day.
4. Secret: Plan your strategy and stick with it
Most distance runners have the same race strategy — start conservative, build into race pace, run as efficiently as possible and get as deep in the race as possible before you have to pull out your superman or superwoman powers to get you to the finish line. Yours may vary, depending on your strength and preferences. No matter what your strategy, however, stick with it. For most runners, their pre-race strategy is the best strategy. Be open to change if the conditions change, but for the most part, you know what you need to do so, just get out of your own way and let the race unfold as planned.
5. Secret: Reflect on training to build confidence
I like athletes to reflect on training in two ways. First, think back on a particularly tough workout, something where you didn’t feel great but you gutted it out. You were tough. This shows that you can do it. You are tough. You can handle the ups and downs of running and get to the finish line. After this retrospection, think back to your best workouts or races. Really re-live them in your mind. Bolster your confidence knowing that you are fit, fast and ready. Bring on the race! Get excited to go out there and perform like you know you can! Your training successes should build your confidence.
6. Secret: Have fun and smile
Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t going for an Olympic gold medal here. We are simply enjoying the challenge of doing our best. There is no real pressure, so quit putting so much on yourself. We run for fun, and you should remember that. Have fun! I encourage runners to smile a lot in the final days before a race. Smiling puts you in a better mood, and that can play a big role on race day.
It’s only through having a positive, happy mindset focused on doing your best, combined with a well-trained body that is rested but revved, fueled and hydrated that helps you race at your best.