On Peaking for an Ultramarathon

Of 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
This 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: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (17)

  • Cheers for that :) I'm hoping i've got my taper right, race day tomorrow. First of my two 'A' races for the year. North Downs Way 50 in the UK here I come...

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  • When I am starting to peak, I can drink a beer after a long run and not immediately fall asleep on the couch.

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  • Hi Andy,

    According to your experience, how many weeks before the "big one" did you do your longest run ?

    For me, somehow things that worked one year don´t the other: In 2011 I had a perfect race two weeks after a 12 hour outing - and the next one I felt all like #### and wished the long training (which I did of course without the taper) was the race.....

    Thanks for your (and all other) thoughts !

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    • ... or/and when do you do your final back-to-back? (assuming you do those)

      Thanks!

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  • Is that because you fall asleep in the shower instead? ;-)

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    • What shower? Bath, dude. Epsom salts, oatmeal, lavender, and lots of caked mud floating on top. But yeah, falling asleep in the bathtub no longer happens when I'm ready to roll...

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      • sitting in the cesspool of your own filth?

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  • Ultrawolf, excellent question! I try to do my longest long run 3 weeks before the race although in 2005 and 2011 it was more like 18 days before. I am thinking of doing something similar to that this year.

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    • I"m gonna sit on the couch till race day

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      • I'd suggest a hammock - reduced the chances of a sitting injury.

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        • nice idea. I"ll do that......I'll string it between some trees now at Robinson Flat. I'm here and scoping....

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  • I do back-to-backs for eight weeks starting at the end of April and ending in early June.

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  • When to do the longest long run? Great question! I'd like to hear more answers and experiences. Really long runs beat you down and detract from the quality of subsequent runs (require recovery). Last year I ran White River 50 four weeks before Cascade Crest. I didn't full on race it, but still, required a full week of easy runs. Also had a couple of joint issues. My longest run after that leading up to the 100 was 15 miles (once). CCC went pretty well. In the past I've felt I've peaked after my main event, partly due to my longer runs being too close. Too close and I short myself on recovery because I feel the need to get some more quality in before the taper.

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    • Jason, I agree about running too long beating you down. Before 2012 CCC, I had not ran over 30 miles in almost a full year. I did a hard 30 a month before the race, then focused on rest and quality tempo efforts of 6-15 miles. When I bounced up Mt. Si 4 days before the race, I knew the peak was in full effect. Good luck out there this year.

      To AJW's list of 5 above, there are lots of other cues that a peak is about to happen. Pay special attention to functions controlled by hormone- sleep cycle, romance, mood, being "amped" and "stoked"...basically everything. When a peak is on, you will feel as if you were a kid again and hormone levels are tip top. So much attention is paid to mileage, vert, etc in getting to a peak...but if you can't do that AND toe the line with all the competitive juices you can muster...it's not gonna happen. You can fake 50K or 50M, but the Hundo will expose a weak endocrine system.

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      • Is this Jeremy who won CCC? If so then it's worth noting that I was a 1:45 distant third place! Where I am right now (HI) it's too hot for me to endure much over four hours. And the trails are so tough. Likely my longest will be in the 30-40 mile range before CCC this year. I'll aim to be rested!

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        • Don't you guys have long roads that go up volcanoes? I would run that- preparing for the forest roads climbs out of Hyak (54-60) and after the Trail From Hell (74-81). Those are the keys to the race IMHO.

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  • Exactly. Great measurement, and I have to say it's more accurate than the "feeling" talked about in the original article.

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