It's something we hear on a regular basis as endurance athletes... you don't want to peak too early! It's December 2016 and you've entered a major event in July 2017. It's over 7 months away and you don't want to hit your peak too early for fear of 'losing it' before the big day in July, so what's the answer?
Here's the first thing to consider. Most people don't really understand the subject of 'peaking' and they really don't know what they should be doing throughout the year to reach July in top shape. Generally, people's knowledge doesn't go much further than "it's December, so I shouldn't be going hard or well at this moment in time". Coupled with that, peaking isn't even a guaranteed science. You could follow exactly what you did last year and have a very different outcome. Peaking is part science and part art form, you have to constantly listen to your body and adjust your training. It's one of the most complicated and misunderstood aspects of endurance racing, it's a good job we're here to explain it in simple terms.
Short term goals and peaking are 2 different things:
It's important to have some short term goals to keep you motivated. July is a long way off and you really need to be focused on the next 4-8 weeks. As an example, you may decide that over the next 8 weeks, your aim is to improve your 10k time and develop your speed. Enter an event which takes place at the end of that 8 week period, to give you a target and act as a finish point for that block. Give yourself clear, short term blocks and objectives. What are you trying to achieve over the next 8 weeks and how are you going to evaluate whether you achieved it?
You shouldn't be doing hard stuff now... you'll peak too early:
This is something commonly heard, but the reality is that it's absolute nonsense. If I decide that my 'speed' is poor and it's something which needs work over the winter period, then planning an 8 week block to tackle that weakness is very much justified. Winter is the time to tackle your weaknesses and if that required high intensity intervals then so be it. If my marathon or ultra race is in July, then I still have a long way to go. I may decide to spend 8-12 weeks correcting my lack of speed, then a further 16 weeks to develop my endurance. That means it'll be 28 weeks in total before the plan comes together.
The theory that 'you shouldn't do hard stuff in winter' is based on the fact that many elite athletes have followed this pattern, in particular cyclists. Swimmers compete through the winter period, runners will race the cross country season, but cyclists tend to spend a lot of time visiting cafes. In particular, professional cyclists who spend spring through to autumn racing, require a holiday and a bit of down time! A key point to understand is that ELITE athletes who compete at a high level are able to take significant 'down time' in winter and the build back to their peak form in time for the summer season. But if you're not at an elite level and you are trying to 'progress', then this approach doesn't work. Winter is a key time to tackle your weaknesses and taking 'down time' will result in you staying at the same level each year. It's all too easy to look at your idols and copy their approach, but it may not necessarily work for you!
There's more than one peak:
There isn't a single peak each year, there's no magical single day when the stars align, you can have multiple peaks. The issue is not 'reaching your peak' it's 'maintaining your peak'. When you have good form and you're racing well, most of us just keep training hard and racing hard until we inexplicably lose our form. One morning, we wake up and we're running rubbish again. The issue is that we can't 'hold form' for more than a few weeks, but that's not a problem, there is a solution.
If you were to pick an event in April 2017 and train really hard towards that race, you'd hope to hit a peak. You can't hold that peak for more than a few weeks, so all you have to do is then take 1-2 easy weeks, a break from the routine, then start another 6 weeks training towards the next peak. There isn't an issue peaking early in the season, so long as you don't keep pushing for the next 2-3 months. By using this strategy, there are multiple peaks throughout the year, gradually getting higher.
A single peak, building incrementally is incredibly hard!
Most people who want to peak in July 2017 will see their progress as a gradual linear increase, over a 6 month period. In simple terms, they get a 'little bit faster / fitter' every week for the next 24 weeks, reaching a single high point in July. That's an incredibly tough thing to do and there's a whole host of disruptions which can throw you off course. If you know that multiple peaks can be achieved, why not start training right now and reach a high level by the end of March. With that fitness stored in the bank, take 2 weeks of very easy training to ensure that you don't burn out, then push again for 6 weeks to the next level. Take another 1-2 weeks easy, then the final push. The linear approach, gradually building for a single peak can be knocked off course very easily by an injury or illness and you have nothing stored in the bank as you've not done enough training through the winter and early season.
It's worse for triathletes
If you're training for triathlon, it's worse than single sport. The traditional method of gradually building towards a single peak is incredibly difficult when 3 sports are involved. If you're training easy at this point in the year and planning to 'really pick things up' in spring, how will you handle suddenly increasing the intensity and volume of your swimming, your cycling and your running. The reality is that if you want to increase the intensity and volume of your running, you probably need to slightly reduce your cycling to compensate. You can't increase the volume and intensity for all 3 sports at the same time, it's impossible. The simple strategy to solve this problem is to understand that the final 16 weeks of your plan requires you to complete more running. To allow this to happen, you need to do less running now and achieve your swim and cycle targets. By 'getting ahead' on your swim and bike through the winter period, that training will be banked and you'll have less to worry about when you need to switch your focus to marathon training. It's okay to be doing harder training at this time of year if it means that you'll get ahead for spring, so long as it's planned and you understand why you're doing it.
Base and 'no training' are 2 different things:
I've heard a lot of people comment that they are 'base training' at this time of year. It's important to understand that 'base training' doesn't mean 'no training'. Base generally refers to low intensity, long distance riding or running. If you work full time, cycling is quite tricky as you probably only have Sundays to ride and the roads might be icy. my advice, spend the winter working on your power output and improve your 20 minute time trial ability. This requires high intensity, structured training. Once the weather starts to improve, take your new found speed out onto the road and increase your volume / distance to increase your endurance. There's no point trying to ride 300 miles per week on dark and icy roads, then switching to indoor intervals as the days get longer. If you're riding 2-3 hours a week in an unstructured manner, you're not really base training at all. In fact, you're just not training!
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