Peaking for beginners.

Isn ‘t this what it is all about? You trained hard for that particular competition and now you want to be the best you can be. Or are you just training to train, or training to compete no matter what the result will be? I guess not.
I write this while watching the World Championships Athletics in London, and calculate the results of the Dutch team so far. A few days ago I gave a TV interview about what peaking is and how to do it.

Here it is in a nutshell: Peaking is delivering your best performance (ever or of the year) when it counts, most of the time during a major championship such as Olympic Games or World Championship, but also at the Superbowl, the NCAA, a Grand Slam, Grand Prix or Diamond League. It’s our major task as coaches.
Quite a few athletes do very well in local championships or the national championships, but when it comes to the Big One, they don’t perform as well.
Peaking isn’t rocket science nor a mysterious process. Like many things it’s quiet simple if you know what to do and how to do it. But looking at the results you find out that many coaches don’t have clue.

It consists of three main components:
1. Fitness
2. Readiness
3. Stress resilience

1. The important factor in fitness is conditioning: the athlete needs to have a high level of fitness, strong, fast and/or good endurance, depending on the sport, but furthermore an adequate technical level and tactical skills. This is the easy part, because this is what we train for on a daily basis and what we can measure and control by testing.

2. Readiness is more difficult as it is harder to know whether the athlete is ready or not. With ready we mean that the body’s physiological systems are fully charged and well-coordinated. By training and conditioning we temporarily decrease readiness. The athlete gets tired but recovers on a daily basis , but there is also an accumulated, residual or deeper fatigue. Readiness means freshness, not being fatigued. Nowadays we use sophisticated equipment such as Omegawave to measure the readiness level of the athlete. But for my own athletes I designed a simple algorithm for tapering, to make sure there is little chance they enter the stadium fatigued.

3. Stress resilience or the ability to handle stress and deal with the pressure that comes with competing at the highest level. The ability to handle your doubts or fears whether you are good enough to win or good enough to produce a good result. And the added expectations and pressure of parents, peers, coach, club, federation, media and sponsors.

So in order to peak the athletes have to be fit, recovered and stress resilient. Most of the time I find that two of three of these factors are OK, but the third one is inadequate.
Only in hindsight can we judge if the athlete peaked. It’s hard to predict if an athlete is going to peak if you don’t know them well. Many athletes THINK they will peak or assume they are ready based on the wrong assumptions: “I never trained so hard before”, “I feel in good shape”, “my competitions so far were good”, “I see this as a challenge”. All great, but it’s not enough nor by any means a guarantee for peaking.

In measurable sports like athletics, swimming, weightlifting, it is easy to evaluate if the athlete peaked or not. For myself, I use the 2% rule: if the athlete is within 2% of his/her best performance that year, they peaked. If the athlete performed worse 2% from their best performance that year, they did not peak. In some track events, you don’t need to apply this rule e.g. in the middle or long distance races where a tactical race with a fast last lap only and a slow time can still deliver a gold medal. The 2% margin is quite large, but also includes possible unfavorable weather conditions, like head wind, low temperature, rain or slow tracks.
But if you want to apply a sharper 1% margin that is fine too. If I apply the 2% rule to the Dutch team at the 2013 World championship, only 9 out of 17 athletes peaked, after applying the 1% rule only 5 out of 17 events the athlete(-s) peaked. In any case a strong display of inability of the coaches to make their athlete peak at the right time. Let’s face it, this championship is the final goal of the training process.

The most neglected factor is the stress resilience factor. Here improvement takes a much longer time than most coaches assume and for sure is not the result of hard physical training. Some part of the ability to cope with stress is genetically determined and hard to compensate, but possible in my opinion.

One can see this because some athletes train hard and are well-rested and ready but they repeatedly crack under the pressure of the Big One, sometimes year after year. Others don’t train as well as they should, but always seem to go beyond themselves and surprise you with a great performance at the championship and even a gold medal or a personal best.
Peaking is not difficult but it is complex to understand and complex to control the three major factors involved at the same time.

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