Training FAQ: How to peak for the big race

Managing editor Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer your training and nutrition questions.

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Dear Chris,
It’s Tour time! The pressure is on for the greatest racers to peak for the greatest race. But how the heck do they get it right? I’m curious about the best pro riders, but also for myself: What is the best way to peak for the biggest race of the year?

— Sally Kendrick

Dear Sally,
Thanks for the question. You’re absolutely correct: Peaking can be very tricky, and getting it right for your target event — or an event with the magnitude of the Tour — only adds to the pressure. We can build plans for it, we can follow six-week guides we find online, and yet too often we find our best legs come the day of the training race the week before the big event, or we wake up the morning of our target race feeling flat.

Perhaps peaking is so elusive because it is both a science and an art. The two don’t always seem to get along with one another. Some of that has to do with the fact that science lays out a very specific four-week plan for peaking, while the art says that it is very individual. Even among those who understand the science, it appears that what they do is different.

There’s a lot that can be discussed about the subject of peaking, including how long it takes, why some people suggest doing a fatigue block to start the peak, and the science of what happens physiologically to produce the peak. But here we’ll stick to suggestions on how to peak — how long to taper, how to taper, what to do right before the event, and what are the biggest mistakes you can make.

If you followed what the science said to do, broadly, peaking would consist of the following: 1) a four-week taper that would begin with a big fatigue block, i.e. an intentional overreach; 2) that is followed by two to three weeks of substantially reducing training stress, by maintaining intensity and frequency, but by reducing overall volume by 40 to 60 percent, according to research.

I reached out to coach and elite athlete Colby Pearce, someone with decades of experience preparing, tapering, and peaking for big events.

Pearce has six key recommendations for the overload-taper-peak process. Some of the tips apply to all of the phases, while others are specific to a particular portion.

  1. “My first tip, and I’ll give credit to Dr. Allen Lim for this, whom I worked with off and on over the years. The number one thing you can do, and this was supported by the science at the time, to improve performance is: Get. More. Sleep. The science is pretty resounding that sleep is essential for improving performance in endurance athletes. Add an hour of sleep, ideally, every night of the taper period. So many biological components of recovery happen during sleep.”
  2. “Clear the calendar. If you are normally training 12 hours a week, and then you bump that up to 18 during your overload, then you have your taper, this is not the time to go to the dentist. This is not the time to start a new home improvement project. This is not the time to finish your taxes. Do that stuff in the other 50 weeks of the year.”
  3. “During that taper period is the time to make lists, be organized, and be professional. That means managing your equipment, preparing yourself and your gear for the big day, and take it at a sustainable pace. Don’t save this stuff for the night before the race and start stressing out about it all. And if your peak event is a time trial or something that involves a warm-up, this is the perfect time to rehearse your pre-race routine. The more stuff you have perfectly dialed on race day, the less you have to think, the less you’ll be stressed, and the more in the flow you can be.”
  4. “Emphasize recovery. I like to think of this as ‘yang’ versus ‘yin.’ You have to consider what you’ve been doing to your body all this time. That’s yang energy, that’s destructive energy. It’s also creative energy because you’re making and doing things, but it also depletes the body. You have to balance that out with activities that restore your energy, replenish your energy. That’s as simple as eating and sleeping in some senses. But it can also mean massage, stretching, foam rolling, and so on.”
  5. “I also recommend meditation. This is definitely outside the sphere for some people, but I’ve found through listening and consuming a lot of intellectual information to better serve my athletes, and in particular listening to podcasts by people like Tim Ferris, is that meditation is a common denominator amongst people who are really good at what they do, across disciplines and professions. That alone is a compelling argument for trying meditation.”
  6. “Finally, clear air, clean food, and clean water. You need to aggressively protect your own personal environment. The taper period is the time to reconsider knocking back a few beers after your training ride.”

I also reached out to Coach Trevor Connor, who gave his advice on the nutritional requirements during a taper or rest period. Here’s what he had to say:

“It’s definitely an important question, and the only solution is a little careful monitoring and discipline. Yes, you do need to cut back on how much you’re eating during those periods, but since exercise is such a hunger stimulator, it’s not always as tough as people think. The biggest suggestion I give my athletes during taper periods is to be ‘ultra-healthy.’ Meaning, when we’re training really hard, that’s when we focus on getting enough carbs and so forth to fuel our training. That often means the less healthy kinds: sports drinks and sports foods, candies, empty calories such as pasta, etc.

“I did a stage race this weekend and I’ll admit that I ate more than one bag of Swedish Fish. But during recovery weeks, I encourage my athletes to avoid all that stuff and stick with healthy proteins, fruits, and vegetables. It’ll help recovery, you’ll still get sufficient carbohydrates from the plant food, and since those foods have a low caloric density and high nutrient density, you’ll naturally eat fewer calories. Really no down sides.”

For much more on the art and science of peaking, listen to episode 47 of the Fast Talk podcast, which dives deep into the physiology of preparing for your target race.

For more training advice, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast, your source for the best training advice and most compelling insight on what it takes to become a better cyclist. Listen in as VeloNews managing editor Chris Case and our resident physiologist and coach, Trevor Connor, discuss a range of topics, including sport science, training, physiology, technology, nutrition, and more.

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