Monday, February 1, 2016

How Long Can I Hold My Peak?

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

A couple of seasons ago, I had the unique opportunity to work with a small group of ITU athletes. The experience was fun and frustrating at the same time. Fun for obvious reasons and frustrating because my frame of reference at the time was primarily age-group Ironman athletes -- folks who could tailor their racing in accordance with when they were at the season peak of their fitness and freshness. The short course athletes, on the other hand, needed to be in good race shape for a good portion of the year. This meant that it was a constant battle between building fitness and hanging onto this fitness during extended periods of racing. For a coach with an idealist’s mindset of saving it all for one big peak, you can see where the frustration came from. However, I did learn a lot from this different approach to racing.

Especially, in light of the move to Kona points qualifying, this “peak him here, peak him there, peak him everywhere” mindset is starting to become more prevalent in Ironman as well. However, this extends beyond the scope of the pros to the competitive age-groupers. It’s becoming more and more common for Kona-bound athletes to try to extend their peaks to Florida, Cozumel or Arizona in the hope of racing and qualifying for next year in one fell swoop. When done right, this strategy makes it very tough for the two-peaker (let’s call them the BacTRIan) to keep up!

However, this strategy is not without risk and, as often as it works out, it can also blow up in the athlete’s face. The fact is that a true “peak” is a very fragile thing. A volatile combination of just the right amount of physical fitness, freshness and emotional energy that come together to create the highest levels of performance.

While the true peak of this combination exists for only a matter of a day or two, on either side, there is a short period of time in which the potential for performance is at a relatively high level. On the front side of this peak, fitness is very high while freshness is building, while, on the back side, the athlete benefits from being extra fresh, often allowing for some surprisingly good post-peak performances. This combo is shown visually below.

While the specifics are a little different for different types of athlete, the pattern is the same. When an athlete tapers for an event, there is a relatively narrow window in which fitness and freshness are both within range for an optimal performance to occur. As shown in the chart above, on average, this window lasts three to four weeks.

This time frame, then, has direct implications on a couple of different situations:

  1. The athlete is placing two peaks close together
    As in the situation mentioned above, this is when our athlete is racing Kona and then attempting to qualify for next year’s race at either Florida (three weeks after Kona), Arizona (five weeks post) or Cozumel (seven weeks post). In either of these situations, the athlete will want to race the first race (Kona) on the high side of fitness and the low side of freshness and the second on the low side of optimal fitness and the high side of freshness. If an athlete goes into the first race with a “regular” taper, he or she will almost certainly be out of his or her window by the time the second rolls around.

  2. The athlete misses the first peak
    This situation is timely, with the recent last minute cancellation of IM Lake Tahoe but can also happen if the athlete picks up a bug during travel and misses his or her A-Race, for example. With the “all eggs in one basket” nature of Ironman, these situations are unfortunately somewhat common. When this occurs, especially if the athlete is in good shape, it makes sense to get a result out of that fitness. As the chart indicates, assuming a normal athlete and a normal taper, an athlete can certainly ride that peak for an additional two to three weeks. While it may not be always (financially) feasible to find and organize travel to another MDot race, when these situations occur I’m a strong proponent of finishing the season on a high note by finding some venue to show off the fitness that you’ve worked so hard for.

The singular focus that Ironman lends itself to can be a positive and a negative thing. When you are at the peak of your personal fitness summit, it is worth taking the time to look around a bit for other avenues that might enable you to get even more joy out of the fitness that you’ve built.

Peak smart

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