During the last month of the competitive season, the word “peaking” has become a term that makes me cringe. I find it trite, cliché, misunderstood, and mostly silly. Still, in conversation after conversation, I’ll hear some version of the phrases peaking at the right time, they always peak too soon, or these workouts will allow us to peak. Even worse, early or in the middle of the season, you might hear coaches saying it’s okay, we aren’t trying to peak right now or they beat us because they always peak around this time. I actually heard the latter statement in reference to our team’s performance this past season, when the 4×200 broke the school record during the third season of the meet. I’ll save the best example (or worst, depending on how you look at it) for later in this discussion.
To be fair, the philosophy of trying to achieve your best results during a championship phase makes sense—why wouldn’t anyone want to have their best performances when it counts the most? But we also have to understand that peaking goes beyond practice schedules, workouts, and the last month of the season. If we choose to believe that peaking only occurs because of training or working out during the final month or last two weeks of the season, then doesn’t our job then become obsolete the remainder of the calendar year? How then do we justify off-season training to our athletes? How do we get our athletes to buy in, if we only pay attention during the championship portion of the season?The problem with our peaking obsession is that it belittles the amount of work, determination, and sacrifices required to be successful the rest of the season, says @mario_gomez81. Click To Tweet
Michael Norman ran 43.45 (400 meters) at the Mt. Sac Relays in April, his season opener. Are we supposed to be less impressed because he didn’t do it at the World Championship or at the Olympics? It’s only April, was all I read when he posted the fifth fastest time in history. What if he’d run that time in May, June, July, or August? What’s the difference? There is no guarantee he will run faster this year, which underscores the problem with our obsession with peaking. It feels like we place all this importance on only one (or a few) performance, and we belittle the amount of work, determination, and sacrifice required to be successful the remainder of the time.
In descending order, below are the top 5 things I hate associated with the term “peaking.”
It Assumes Only One Performance Counts
Imagine summarizing the primary job of a track and field coach. Yes, relationships, mentoring, trust, and all those definitely matter, but the main goal is performance, especially in a sport where everything is measurable. So, shouldn’t the coach’s No. 1 job be to create the environment that guides an athlete to get faster, stronger, and better?
Remember, that best (or worst) phrase about peaking I promised earlier? I actually witnessed a coach debriefing an athlete after a subpar performance and saying (paraphrased): Don’t worry, we always go fast and jump far at the end of the season. Right now, it doesn’t matter. What in the world is this coach doing the rest of the time? Isn’t it our job as coaches to make kids faster and better, regardless of the time of year? Isn’t it our job as coaches to allow kids to jump/throw farther year-round?
I understand the phases of training (and wasted a lot of valuable hours overthinking periodization during the last decade), as well as adaptation, but confidence, belief, and buy-in play such an essential role. If I’m an athlete and all year my coach tells me it’ll come together at the end of the year, at some point frustration will set in. I wish, for the sake of our profession, the aforementioned conversation wasn’t real, but it’s true, and I’m sure you’ve heard it in one form or another. It’s actually embarrassing.If you, as the coach, are waiting until the end of the season for an athlete to be at their best, then fire yourself, says @mario_gomez81. Click To Tweet
I’m not going full Ricky Bobby on you here—if you ain’t first you last—but think about it this way: If you, as the coach, are waiting until the end of the season for an athlete to be at their best (or, far worse, intentionally keeping them from their best throughout the rest of the season), then fire yourself. Any sane track coach should want their athletes to perform well early and throughout the season, not simply at the end of the season.
The Term Is Deceptive
When we, as coaches, talk about peaking, we are flat out lying to our athletes—we don’t control their performances. I can’t promise an athlete they will perform at their best at the end of the season. We can manage their training, create a great training environment, advise them to make smart choices, and educate them on the subtleties of peak performance, but ultimately, coaches play a small role. Again, this is not to lessen the impact a coach can have on an athlete, but more to highlight the false premise that we actually control an athlete’s championship performance.
An athlete’s home environment, what a parent cooks them for dinner, social influences, sleeping and resting habits, academic workload, mental makeup, and countless other unnamed influences all add up to determine how an athlete will perform at the end of the season. And those are the components we actually understand, or at the very least have some information about—think about all the information regarding body type, genetics, and stress that we still don’t know about. We are light years away from FULLY understanding how everything we do impacts performance and health.
Again, we have a ton of information, but we are still missing things we cannot begin to truly comprehend. And those elements are what make sports so fun and competitive: The unknown. If the smartest and most educated coaches, GMs, and organization presidents in the world cannot create formulas to figure out how to win a championship every year, then we must recognize that determining the best performance at the end of the year is, at best, an educated guess. We coach people, not robots.
The Peaking Process Starts on Day 1
You’ve said it, heard it, or commented about it: Trust the process. One day at a time. We can only control ourselves, not what anyone else does. There are a million ways to express this idea, and as cliché as it is, it’s still very true. Peaking is not a part-time process; it truly is a year-round or full-season endeavor.
I, unfortunately, fell into the trap of suggesting this to a social media “guru,” who then responded I should research my phases in sprint programming. The smartest and most uplifting change I made, several years back, was with my thought process and choosing to stop thinking about the season in only programming terms. That change in mindset freed me to write workouts for the athletes, not in terms of what I should do based on the time of year.
Do I have a yearly training calendar? Yes. Do I follow some basic rules about periodization, adaptation, and progressions? Of course. I’m not going to prescribe a 6×200 workout with a two-minute recovery during the final two weeks of the season. I certainly wouldn’t write a basic ladder-down workout at 95% intensity with full recovery during the first month of training, either.Peaking is not a magic wish you ask for during the last few weeks or months of the season. It is a constant, gradual process, says @mario_gomez81. Click To Tweet
However, in terms of importance and execution, I treat the first day of practice as I do the last hard workout before a state competition. We work acceleration principles on the very first day of practice with flats on, and we also work acceleration principles in spikes during the last week of the season when we work on handoffs, blocks, approaches, and posture to the first hurdle. I want an athlete to learn the basic “drive phase” mechanics, but I won’t wait to put a cone at 20 or 30 meters and blow a whistle so they become accustomed to that feel three weeks before the final. We will use resistance drills to learn pushing/pulling acceleration form to attack the beginning of the race.
Some days we use spikes, some days we don’t. Some days I use a hurdle (24-36” depending on the athlete, not the time of year), some days I only place tape or markers on the ground and attack for eight steps. What’s the point of this dragged-out rant? Simple: Peaking is not a magic wish you ask for during the last few weeks or month of the season. It is a constant, gradual process, not a foolproof plan you can suddenly make appear.
‘Peaking’ Implies Our Program Matters More Than the Athlete
We tend to hold on pretty tight to our system(s). The more someone tries to change our mind, the more hostile we become toward the disagreeing party. Several coaches in our city have a very specific sprint training system: Train hard for the 400, over distance, long to short, tempo repeats, etc. In his article “A Review of 400m Training Methods,” Mike Young wrote, “Athletes in a tempo-based program are getting in nearly twice as much volume in a highly specific activity, at an intensity that is still pretty darned close to the intensities observed in their competitive event [compared to anaerobically trained sprinters].”
This makes a lot of sense in just about any sport or life venture. Although I don’t agree with the 10,000-hour rule (see my golf game as a prime example), it certainly makes sense that if an athlete spends a lot of time developing a specific energy system, that athlete will be highly successful in that specific area. Here’s the shocker, though: Your training system doesn’t create great times. Superior athletes create/enhance your training system.
Again, I’m not downplaying a coach’s significant role in an athlete’s improvement, but how often do we get caught up in believing if it weren’t for our system, the athlete would not have performed as well? Over distance, speed reserve, speed development, tempo repeats—eventually you will hear it all. Every single athlete that has ever qualified to the Texas state meet in our program was a great athlete, the majority of them in more than one sport. They were either D1 athletes or possessed rare and raw athletic talent.
The best jumper I ever coached went over 24 feet in the long and over 48 in the triple and ran sub 22 in the 200. I also saw him jump over a teammate’s head and dunk during open gym. Our most recent state medalist, Meghan Tualamalii, earned a silver medal in the shot put. She “peaked” on her fifth throw of the state finals to place second.
Meghan also played back row for the school’s volleyball team and is a very talented rugby player, with great speed and lateral quickness. For fun, she often jumped over hurdles on her way to throwing practice. Our coaching staff did a great job in developing her skill set and strength. But how did she peak at state? My best guess is because she is a great athlete, with an amazing work ethic, and she is passionate about throwing. Not merely because of some system.
We Believe Peaking Is Solely Based on Workouts and Coaching
Newsflash: We aren’t as important as we think we are. Coaches play a vital role in the development of athletes, no doubt. Unfortunately, too many coaches go around patting themselves on the back because of the performance of their best athlete. They ran this time because of this workout or this progression or this weight room program. The audacity of such comments is amazing. The totality of a best time at the end of the season has so much to do with how an individual athlete can handle pressure and adversity, and not the 150s you prescribed at full speed during the last week of practice. The recovery you built into the last two microcycles helped, but perhaps the athlete was able to sleep 8-9 hours a night throughout the season.Our programming can help with peaking, but ultimately, we only coach athletes a set number of hours. What they do with their remaining weekly hours matters so much more, says @mario_gomez81. Click To Tweet
The programming coaches write can help with peaking, but ultimately, we only coach an athlete eight hours a week at the high school level. What the athlete does the remaining 160 hours of the week matters so much more. Are they getting enough sleep, eating right, recovering properly, and handling stress in a positive manner? There are so many reasons an athlete can peak or not peak at the end of the season, and it goes beyond the scope of what we can comprehend. But then again, if you only believe in running fast times at the end of the season, are you as important as you truly think you are?
In the last race of the season, our girl’s 4×200—which in the third meet of the season had gone 1:44.28—ran 1:42.67. So, obviously we peaked them at the right time, correct? However, our 4×100 ran .1 second slower, so we completely messed up that specific effort… right? Meghan did not throw the last two days before the state meet due the state testing schedule, coupled with limited facility access at home and away, and she still performed well. Ultimately, we are not fully responsible for how an athlete performs at the end of the season.
As coaches, we can advise and empower athletes to make the right choices on the track and off the track. We can help put together a workout load that will prepare the athlete for a championship performance. Workouts matter, yes. Rest and recovery matter, yes. Belief and confidence matter, yes. But so do a whole slew of other things outside our control. In the end, all we can do is train and guide athletes to the best of our ability and let the results take care of themselves.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF