Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks: The Difficult Art of Peaking
The final weeks before an event are the toughest to get right. The common notion that all hard work must cease and inactivity must ensue is incorrect. It’s also foolhardy to continue amassing mileage and tough workouts as race day nears in hopes of improving fitness. Depending on your approach to this all-important time period, you may be left feeling lethargic or simply exhausted. A runner with the proper peak will feel rejuvenated and ready to go on race day.
Greg McMillan, my mentor, has devised a set of rules to live by as race day approaches. Greg explains, “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.” By placing Greg’s simple and effective system into context, let’s get you prepared for your next ultra.
1. Do not drop running volume drastically
Though there are some that prefer three weeks to peak, two weeks seems to be the most popular choice. During the first week of a peak, drop the length of each run by 10 to 20 minutes. The week before your event, drop volume by 20 to 30 minutes per run. I recommend that ultrarunners limit their last long run(s), done a week before the key event, to 90 easy minutes (regardless of the distance of the event). This is enough to give you that long run feeling, but short enough that muscle recovery and glycogen-storage continue. Light, non-impact cross training can be done in lieu of runs, but only if you are used to those forms of exercise.
2. Keep the routine
Run, eat, sleep, work, and socialize when you do normally. Your body and mind have achieved stasis over the past few months of training. Keep them both happy and the keel even. Now is not the time to experiment with new workouts, forms of exercise, foods, and social events. Use the extra time not spent running for sleeping and sticking to “safe” hobbies.
3. Keep the intensity and build confidence
Before the 2007 JFK 50 Mile, I had an exchange with fellow competitor Andy Mason. Nine days before the race, he completed a round of very quick mile repeats on the track; his last quality workout before the race. I knew he was fit and feeling confident. That year, Andy finished in the top ten.
Though most ultrarunners do not need to perform a tough round of mile repeats before their next race, they might consider doing some sort of confidence-building workout 10 days to two weeks out from their event. This workout, however, should be in tune with recent training. Running a 30-mile training run or time trialing up and down Hope Pass (like the author) a few days before a race is neither smart nor beneficial. A moderate length workout that you’re familiar with, that is aerobically challenging, allows for adequate recovery before race day, and demonstrates your fitness should be the order of the day. If you don’t routinely perform hard hill, stamina-building, fartlek, or fast finish workouts then this is not the time to start. Maintain your current training and follow the guidelines for reduction in mileage as mentioned above.
Now is also the time to reflect on all of the training you’ve done thus far. Remember that you’ve done the work necessary to get you to the finish line.
4. Stick to the original race plan and have fun
No one starts a race without a goal. Whether it be to keep your Grand Slam hopes alive, finish your first ultra, or win the event outright, don’t lose sight of why you’re out there. Be deliberate in your actions and calculate each move you make on the race course. Run your own race and enjoy the time you’re having on the trail or road. Greg McMillan sums this up perfectly, “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!”
Peaking for Multiple Races
What if you’re gearing up for several important races that are separated by a few weeks or less? The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, as well as others of that genre, and several race series like the NorCal and SoCal Ultra Grand Prix are perfect examples. In essence, you are recovering and peaking in unison between events. There are two ways to approach situations like this:
1. Reverse taper
This is like returning from injury. Gradually and slowly increase the length of your post-race easy runs and avoid fast and difficult workouts. You won’t reach your normal training level, but you’ll satisfy the need for a few runs before your next event.
2. The Joe Kulak Method
When I asked Joe Kulak what he did between each of his four 2003 Grand Slam record- setting 100-mile races, he quipped, “I sat on the couch and drank beer.” If beer is not your drink of choice, water works just as well. The reality is that you can’t gain fitness in the two or three weeks between long ultras. Recovery will be your best “workout” while preparing for your next event.
McMillan, Greg. “Performance Page: Don’t Taper. Peak!” Running Times Magazine. Running Times Magazine, 23 Aug. 2012.