by Pete Pfitzinger, M.S.
Every runner wants to know how to peak for a big race, yet the concept of peaking for distance runners is commonly misunderstood. Peaking implies a sharp improvement in performance followed by a slide “down the other side.” Improvements in distance running are developed more slowly, however, and optimal performance generally represents more of a gradual rise than a peak.
Exercise physiologist Tim Noakes, MD, aptly describes peaking training as “high risk/high reward.” Traditional peaking training consists of high-intensity intervals, which, in addition to the anaerobic conditioning benefits, are more likely to lead to symptoms of over-training and have a higher risk of injury than lower intensity workouts. This type of training is applicable to races of 800m and 1500m, in which there is a substantial anaerobic component.
Is high-intensity peaking training necessary for distance runners? The longer the race distance, the less significant the rewards. Approximately 95 percent of the energy you use in a 5K race is produced aerobically, and this increases to more than 99 percent for a half marathon or marathon. As a distance runner, therefore, your objective is a steady increase in aerobic ability so you can maintain a faster pace. High-intensity intervals are not a key element of your race preparation, and the subsequent performance trough is an unnecessary hindrance to progress. Let’s look at six other strategies you can use to achieve personal best performances.
Start your preparation early: Rushed race preparation almost inevitably leads to mediocre results. Aerobic development from long runs, tempo runs, and accumulated mileage takes time, so if you are looking for a significant improvement in performance you need to allow enough time for your body to adapt and improve. There is very little risk of “peaking too early” when doing predominately aerobic training, but there is a risk of boredom. A build-up of 12 to 24 weeks works best for most runners.
Simulate your goal race: Your body adapts specifically to training, which means that the more closely you can simulate race conditions (i.e., pace, distance, hills, weather, and time of day), the better prepared you will be. A particularly beneficial simulation workout is to run half to two-thirds of your race distance at goal pace, which provides excellent physiological preparation and helps you learn to relax while running at race pace. In addition, preparing specifically for race conditions helps build your confidence for race day.
Know your intervals: Not all intervals are created equal. High-intensity interval training (e.g., 400m reps at 1500m race pace or faster) provides little benefit for races of 15K or longer, and is only a moderate consideration for 5K to 10K races. To help develop your speed for a 5K to 10K goal race, include up to six sessions of intervals at 1500m race pace during the last eight weeks.
VO2 max intervals, on the other hand, are an important component of race preparation, particularly for races up to the half marathon. VO2 max intervals are repetitions of two to six minutes duration at about 3K to 5K race pace. A weekly session of VO2 max intervals during the last 10 to 12 weeks before your goal race will improve your ability to run above your lactate threshold, which will help you to maintain a faster pace.
Tune-up with under-distance races: Nothing prepares you for your goal race as specifically as racing. Tune-up races help you develop a warm-up ritual that gets you primed to race and helps you relax. Doing several races at distances less than your goal race also teaches you to sustain goal race pace and helps develop your race toughness. For example, a couple of hard 5K or 8K races are perfect preparation for a goal 10K race. During the last eight weeks, avoid races longer than your goal race because over-distance races tend to lock you into a slower pace. Over-racing also has its risks, so avoid racing every week, which can leave you unmotivated.
Do drills and striders at least once a week: The benefits of running drills and striders (accelerations of about 100 meters) include improved running technique, increased stride rate and stride length, and improved basic speed. Each of these adaptations is beneficial for improving your race performance. Best of all, striders are short enough that lactate levels do not build up in your muscles, and you can safely do a hard workout the next day. Drills and striders help improve your speed without the risk of high-intensity intervals.
Taper your training before key races: Tapering your training can lead to as much as a 10 percent improvement in race performance. The challenge leading up to your goal race is to find the optimal balance between training hard to maximize your fitness and resting to eliminate the fatigue of training. The optimal amount of time to taper depends on the distance you will be racing (typically seven to 10 days for 5K to 10K races or three weeks for a marathon). Scientific evidence indicates that the key to effective tapering is to substantially cut back mileage, but to maintain the intensity of training. The best way to reduce your mileage during your taper is to reduce the distance of your workouts substantially, but only cut back the number of runs you do per week moderately.
Two-time Olympian Pete Pfitzinger is an exercise physiologist.