On Peaking for an Ultramarathon

How to peak at the right time for a 100 mile race.

By on May 17, 2013 | Comments

AJWs TaproomOf the many mysteries surrounding 100-mile race preparation, none is more intriguing than peaking. It seems to me that getting the peak right is the single most important component in 100-mile success. Certainly, there are many other significant factors such as training, nutrition, race-day strategy, and adjusting expectations that come into play when running 100-milers, but finding that sweet spot and peaking for a race at just the right time seems to be the most important.

And, peaking is also quite difficult. I have experimented with peaking over the last decade or so and I really feel like I’ve only hit it right twice; first in the 2005 Western States and then again in the 2011 Western States. All the other times I have been close but not quite on the dot. And, the thing about perfect peaking is you need to be right on the dot.
In my run-up to the race this year, I have been reflecting back on those two times when I “got it right” and five factors seem to indicate success or failure in peaking for that goal race:
  1. Approximately eight weeks before the goal race, provided the foundation has been laid, each run feels easier than the last one. I have found this to be particularly true in those mid-week tempo runs when the miles just seem to flow by effortlessly. This is the time to step back and be sure not to overdue it.
  2. The long runs no longer feel too long. For me, it has always been a slog to get out in January, February, and March and log six and eight-hour runs. However, after doing so, come the middle of May, these long runs don’t seem so long and, in fact, the general feeling of fatigue that typically accompanied such runs is miraculously gone.
  3. Recovery between runs is faster and the “bounce” is greater. This one is funny because it’s really counterintuitive. Nonetheless, for some reason, once the switch has been switched and the training intensifies, recovery becomes easier and the ability to train harder is enhanced. If I can walk this line for three or four weeks without becoming worn down, I know I am close to hitting the peak right.
  4. I just know when to start the taper. Many training regimens lay out a specific cycle which is made up of base-building, peaking, and tapering and I am sure that makes sense to many people. For me, I like the idea of the first two and tend to prescribe specific time periods to each. But with the taper, I like to just go with the flow based on how close to the top of the peak I have come. In 2005, I did a nine-day taper and, in 2011, I did a 15-day taper. This year, well, who knows?
  5. An aura of calm peace descends on me with about three days to go before the race. This one, is of course, the most difficult to plan for and is, in my opinion, impossible to predict. However, when this aura of calm has come to me in ’05 and ’11, the feeling has been euphoric. I am sure others can relate to how extraordinary this can be. In fact, I recall reading a description of Kyle Skaggs’ calm aura in the days preceding his record run at the 2008 Hardrock and I felt a certain kindred spirit with him in that moment. (Even though I could never dream of running that fast.)
So, as we roll on into the 100-mile season, here’s hoping that all of you find your way to that perfect peak. Here’s hoping that events transpire to deliver you to race day rested, focused, and calm. And, most of all, here’s hoping that whatever happens, you find a way to embrace the animal in you and savor all that it means to be a 100-mile runner.
Bottoms up!
AJW’s Beer of the Week
Spanish Peaks - Black Dog AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Spanish Peaks Brewing Company in King City, California. Their Black Dog Ale is a simple, English-style amber that is at once smooth and complex. Kind of like the feeling that comes over you when you hit the peak just right!
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
  • How important do you think “peaking” is for a 100 miler?
  • When have you felt like you nailed peaking for a race?
  • Any tips for peaking at the right time?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.