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The Art & Science Of Peaking

Torbjørn Sindballe reveals the secrets of a proper peak, which can help you have the race of your life.

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

“I had that incredible feeling of being able to push myself as hard as I wanted to without blowing up—like I had no lactic acid.”— Terenzo Bozzone on his Wildflower course record in 2006

An endurance spectacle takes place in California early each May when thousands of triathletes camp out at the Wildflower triathlon festival, nicknamed “the Woodstock of triathlon.” Since the inaugural race in 1983, athletes have gathered for a weekend of barbecues, marshmallows, good-old rock ’n’ roll and some hard-core racing. Throughout the years this unique event has attracted not only age-group athletes in the thousands but a virtual who’s-who of the sport. On the men’s side everyone from Scott Tinley to Peter Reid, Tim DeBoom, Chris McCormack, Normann Stadler, Simon Lessing, Andy Potts, Michael Raelert—the list goes on—has raced this classic. Up until 2005 no male athlete had managed to break four hours on this tough but scenic course that winds through the countryside of Monterey County. Athletes swim in the glassy and often brisk Lake San Antonio before tackling a ruthless, rolling 56-mile ride featuring strength-sapping steep slopes. Right when athletes exit the lake, the mile-long 12 percent grade “Beach Hill” awaits them, and at the 40-mile marker they encounter the 3-mile-long “Nasty Grade.” The run is tougher than that of any other high-level race. Several big rollers set the scene before a 1-mile climb that often reduces even the best professionals to a walk. The march to the sky is followed immediately by a quarter-mile descent that brings you into a free fall while tearing up the fibers in your quads, more rollers, a 1-mile down and up, out and back, plus another leg-crushing 1-mile sprint descent to the finish line. The fact that the course’s average elite time is some 15 minutes slower than your typical half-iron race tells it own story.

In 2005 it took a four-time short-course world champion in the shape of Brit Simon Lessing chasing down a Danish Viking (me) in the latter stages of the run to bring the record to 3:59 and change. At the awards, the often-misunderstood Brit joked with then-young Kiwi upstart Terenzo Bozzone, who finished third. He called Bozzone out for not strictly following the drafting rules. The young Kiwi mistook Lessing’s jesting comment as a slight, and he brought it home to fuel a Wildflower attack like nothing ever seen before the following spring. He obliterated the course record, lowering it to a phenomenal 3:53—six minutes quicker than any of the legendary athletes before him and nearly a full eight minutes faster than accomplished Wildflower veteran and 2000 winner Chris Legh, who finished second that year. With a 23:34 swim, a 2:16:20 bike (just two minutes shy of Steve Larsen’s bike course record) and a legendary 1:11:56 run, some one and a half minutes faster than Lessing, he enjoyed a peak and performance of a lifetime. Considering the rich history of the race, Bozzone’s record was on par with a course record in Kona.

Interested to learn more about how Bozzone tapered for his classic performance, I called him up recently.

After he finished third in 2005, he was determined to come back stronger, and he built his base training in the early months of 2006 to an astonishing 50 hours per week. He then attempted 60 hours the following week, but he realized he had pushed it too far and had to recover for two weeks before he could do any real work again. Upon this huge foundation and the well-earned rest, he did nine weeks of specific preparation at a lower volume, focusing on one key session a week where he simulated the race with a long time trial on the bike followed by a steady transition run. He then allowed himself a one-week taper before the race. Monday and Tuesday were travel days, where he crossed the Pacific from New Zealand, and from Wednesday through the Friday before the race he did three short sessions a day: a 2K swim, 1.5-hour bike and a 30-minute run that mixed in a bit of race pace here and there, depending on how he felt and what his body told him to do.

Bozzone says it best when he talks about the results of this taper and how race day went for him.

“For those six to seven months of preparation, Wildflower was my only focus. It was at a very early stage in my career where I had no distractions or business obligations, so my life was calm and quiet relative to the present, where I have to do more races and have many obligations. … On race morning I ate breakfast and then did a 10-minute spin and a 10-minute jog to loosen the legs before heading to the race site. I did a swim warm-up and got ready mentally for a hard day, letting the results take care of themselves. I grew up swimming 10 races per meet so I am used to getting in the zone. … I actually had no knowledge of the record prior to the race. I had confidence in my ability, knowing what I could do, but it was not before the last turn at around 10 miles on the run where someone shouted, ‘You can crush the record,’ that I thought about it. [During the race] I thought about lifting my training out, spreading out my energy evenly over the course, pushing all the way and digging deep toward the end. I had that incredible feeling of being able to push myself as hard as I wanted to without blowing up—like I had no lactic acid.”

Building Peak Fitness

As we can tell from Bozzone’s story, his outstanding performance was the product of an immensely focused preparation, where mental and physical limits were pushed to new heights. Building his training to 50 hours a week in the base phase created an enormous underpinning on which to improve, despite the slight overreaching, which I believe was key to his record-smashing performance, as I can share similar stories from my own career. Whenever I had a best-ever race, I could always track this jump in performance back to breakthroughs in training. As a young athlete I was often uncertain of the outcome of my training process, but as I gained experience and saw the pattern, I found confidence knowing that my training was the key determinant of my race performance. Once I hit that feeling of being invincible some four to five weeks out from the race, during my hardest weeks in training, I knew exactly what I would be capable of in the race and my mood, confidence and energy skyrocketed.

Another aspect of Bozzone’s story that I can relate to is the undisturbed, quiet focus in his preparation. If I recall moments where I truly developed in training and literally felt like I improved every single week, the vast majority of them occurred when my life was quiet, without too much stress outside of training. When I got every single cycle of training and recovery right and had the time to mentally prepare for each and every session, I built my fitness to unprecedented levels. I often call this state of mind “living like a Kenyan,” as professional runners living in Kenya typically do nothing but train three times a day, eat frequent meals and get up to 16 hours of sleep. It is a life truly dedicated to athletic excellence.

That you need to push your limits to extend beyond your current level of performance is simple on paper, but when this requires you to block out everything else in your life and spend four to seven months living like a Kenyan, it becomes immensely difficult, especially for those who have real jobs.

Even as a professional triathlete, I often experienced periods of preparation where I was unable to achieve this state of mind due to distractions that made me compromise on the recovery side, often leaving me on a plateau or injured instead of in a state of peak fitness. In the life of an age grouper where work and family are the priorities, the task becomes even more complex, and far too many suffer from an imbalance between training and recovery. Nevertheless, there are cues that we can take from Bozzone’s Wildflower preparation, along with scientific research, that can be applied to achieving the best taper possible.

Photo: Hunter King

Tapering for Peak Performance

Science has shown that tapering before an event can improve performance. Indeed, studies on swimmers and 5K runners, who can do full-distance race simulations before the taper phase, have shown improvements from tapering between 0.5 percent and 6 percent—that is between 1.5 and 14 minutes in a four-hour race!

While most athletes know the benefits of a taper, many are at a loss in terms of how to actually do it right.

In general, the response to a taper is very individual and what works for one person may not work for another, nor can you be certain that what worked for you at one point in your life will work for you again. But if you gain a better understanding of the taper process and the adaptations that occur in your body during this process, you will hopefully have the tools to tailor your taper to your body and make the most of the fitness you have worked so hard to achieve.

Fitness can be seen as the result of all the positive adaptations that come from training, such as increases in enzyme activity and heart function, and an ability to stock more fuel. Fatigue, on the other hand, results in impaired muscle function, low energy and other hindrances to peak performance. During your buildup in your training, fitness and fatigue accumulate in response to the load of your training. When you train with a high load, fatigue will often disguise your actual fitness state, as its effects spike faster than the fitness adaptations, which in turn last longer—and huge fitness with minimal fatigue equals peak performance.

According to Iñigo Mujika, author of Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance and coach to elite triathlete Eneko Llanos, the aim of a taper should be to hit the window where fatigue is low but fitness is still high, and with the right amount of work, you can maintain your peak level of fitness for a long time. But if you simply rest during your taper, your window for peak performance will be very short. Instead of completely resting, plan training sessions that gradually reduce the training load, allowing you to maintain fitness without spiking fatigue too much. Because high-volume training seems to cause more fatigue than intense training and has less of an effect on your ability to maintain your fitness, the best way to taper is to reduce your volume while maintaining—or in some cases even increasing—intensity in your sessions.

Types of Tapers

There are many methods of gradually reducing your training volume, according to Mujika. A linear taper is where the training load is reduced linearly throughout the duration of the taper. For example, if your peak week is 20 hours and your taper lasts three weeks, a linear taper would be 16 hours, 12 hours and 8 hours (a reduction of four hours each week). Tapers can also be exponential, where your training load is dropped steeply at the start of the taper before reaching a plateau in the final week. For example, you might train 14, 10 and 8 hours (a reduction of 6, 4 and then 2 hours) to achieve an exponential taper. Tapers can also be done in a single step, reducing training from 20 hours to, say, 10 hours in the first week of a three-week taper. While evidence suggests that all of these models provide a taper effect, the linear and exponential tapers are the most effective, according to Mujika.

Athletes who do long-distance races may benefit from a tapering model that consists of a peak training cycle, a period of active rest and then a short training module in the final stages of the taper. I have used this approach with success on several occasions both on myself and with some of the athletes I coach.

I believe the longer races require a momentum or a rhythm in the body—a state where you feel like you can just go on and on until the sun sets. If I only did shorter sessions for the few weeks leading into a race, I often felt super fresh but lost my momentum after hour three or four in the race. To combat this, I implemented a big rest phase to reduce fatigue several weeks before a big race and then did a series of more normal training sessions in the weeks leading up to the race. This allowed me to get my body into the zone again without accumulating massive amounts of fatigue. In 2007, when I placed third at the Ironman World Championship, I prepared for the race with two weeks of close to 40 hours of training as an overload, then I did an “easy” week of 20 hours, a moderate week of 23 hours, and then while in Kona I did 30 hours the week prior to race week, before taking the final five days easy. While I did not feel the best early on in the race, once I got past the 50-mile marker on the bike I was flying and was able to have a very strong second half of the race.

If you decide to try out this type of taper, it’s important that you make sure you are fresh before starting the mini block leading in to the race. If you are still tired from having overreached during your peak training weeks you should progress with a standard linear or exponential taper to ensure freshness on race day.

Taper Intensity

While reducing your volume to about 50 percent of your average weekly hours during the taper will give you the most bang for your buck, you must be sure to maintain or even increase your intensity slightly during this taper period. But this doesn’t mean you should go testing your fitness by busting out best-ever time trials or mile repeats. Indeed, the great Simon Whitfield—an Olympic gold and silver medalist in triathlon—often says that you should never go “searching for confidence” during your taper. In the weeks before he won silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his coach at the time, Joel Filliol, wouldn’t allow him to look at his watch whenever he did intense workouts.

In general you should never test yourself at any time during the last three to four weeks leading up to your race. Instead, trust your fitness and do manageable intensive sessions to maintain it. The one mantra I use for intense sessions during the taper is “feel good,” which can be achieved by keeping intensive segments slightly shorter than usual and the rest between sets longer. If your usual intensive set while running is 5 x 1 mile on a two-minute rest interval, reduce it to three-quarter miles and later only half miles, and bump up the rest to three or four minutes of easy jogging. This will keep the zap in your legs while allowing you to freshen up.

Photo: Hunter King

Taper Duration

Performance improvements have been seen with tapers lasting from four days to five weeks; however, what is right for you depends on what you have done before the taper. In other words, the more you train, the longer your taper needs to be. Athletes who have been overreaching by adding 20 percent to 30 percent more volume in the final stages of their buildup and who train well beyond 20 hours a week need to shoot for a longer taper—generally three to four weeks. This will allow them to shed fatigue and reestablish mental energy, which is often compromised during hard training. Athletes who train less than 20 hours per week generally only need seven to 14 days for their taper, or they may lose fitness. Athletes with a peak volume of 10 hours per week will only need a few days to freshen up unless their regimen is highly intensive, in which case they may need upward of a week to sharpen their mental and physical energy. In this regard it is interesting to note that Mujika suggests that lower-volume athletes can reduce their frequency—the number of sessions done in each discipline during the week—during taper at no cost, while those who train a lot and generally do two to three sessions a day need to maintain their frequency to elicit the optimal performance gains from the taper. The most likely reason for this relates to the technical side of performance—when you reach a state where you train every day in a discipline, your motor-firing patterns and “feel” for that discipline become refined to a degree where there is a significant drop in performance with even a single day of rest. This effect is known especially among swimmers who often say they lose their “feel for the water” during even short breaks, and I found the same to be true for cycling and running when I was a professional. Bozzone’s taper model that consisted of a short swim, ride and run in the days leading into his 2006 Wildflower course record—and even his jog, spin and swim warm-up the morning of the race—align perfectly with this school of thought.

Nutrition During the Taper

Obviously your energy output will go down as you reduce the energy spent on training. This decline needs to be accounted for in your daily meals, by eating a little less than normal. Some athletes continue eating what they always do and end up gaining a few unwanted pounds—that is, pounds other than those gained from your carb stores stocking up. While a pound or two, especially during the final week of the taper, may be normal, gaining more than this will make it harder for you to reach your goals on race day. Do not attempt to lose weight during those final three to four weeks before your race. Your body is recovering and needs proper nutrients and balance to bring all the hard work you have done to the surface. Putting it in starvation mode sends the wrong signal and will likely reduce the effect of your taper.

In the final week prior to your race you should put an emphasis on eating lots of quality carbohydrates. Up to 70 percent of your energy should come from food sources such as whole wheat, pasta, oats, quinoa, brown rice, juice and fruit. According to a study by W.M. Sherman, Costill et al., this will give you a boosting effect similar to that attained from the traditional carb-loading depletion model from the 1970s, where the body is depleted through a long session followed by three days on a zero carb diet and then restocked with three days of a high-carb diet. You should also make sure that you are getting enough fluids, but beware of overhydrating and flushing out your system. Listen to your body and give it what it is telling you it needs.

Psychology in the Taper

Several studies have investigated mood shifts, changes in perceived effort, stress hormone profiles and other psychological markers during a taper and found all of them to improve, according to Mujika. When immersed in heavy training, one of the earliest indicators of being on the edge of overtraining is that your mood drops below normal. A Danish national coach in orienteering once told me that he kept track of all of his athletes’ moods to tip him off when one of them was on the verge of going over the edge.

When fatigue drops and your fitness unleashes all its power, your mood can elevate significantly. In fact, if you keep track of your mood, you are keeping track of your body’s subtle method of telling you when to rest and when you are spot on with your training and ready to race. If you have overreached in the final stages of your buildup, you may experience a mental and a physical low in the first week or so of your taper, or sometimes even in the early days of race week. This may merely be a sign that your body desperately needs the rest or that it is preparing for the upcoming challenge by conserving energy on all planes. Because tapering is still more of an art than a science, mood shifts are the best indicators of whether or not you are on track.

In 1999 I watched fellow Dane Suzanne Nielsen win the ITU long distance world championships in Saeter, Sweden, despite not running a single step in the final two weeks of the taper due to an inflamed bursa in the hip. From her performance I learned that once fitness is built, it is hard to kill. Nevertheless, if you speak to our sport’s world and Olympic champions, most of them will tell you that in the weeks prior to their great performances, they erred on the side of training a bit too much rather than too little. As long as you are not over-trained heading into your taper, remember that your body is used to work and it wants to train.

I hope that you can use this article as a guide to pinpointing the perfect taper for you. While you might not hit the nail on the head your first try, if you keep copious notes on how you felt during your consecutive tapers, you can help ensure that the final weeks before every race will elevate you to new racing heights.