'Peaking': the lull when your body adjusts to your new fitness gains

Credit: Scott Barbour/Allsport
This is the sort of thing I could write in our OpEd section. When I'm light on supporting data I suppose the article ought to slide into the category of opinion.

I seem to read a lot of how-to articles that are heavy on the anecdotes and light on demonstrated fact. I don't mind that too much, as long as the advice is specific, and sound.

Today's article is neither. I'm just relating my own experience, but it's the first time that I can remember in more than 30 years of competitive endurance athletics that I believe I recognized a particular physiological "moment."

Well, that's not true. I've noticed this "moment" before, it's just that this is the first time I've honored it as such. I don't have a shred of evidence to support my story but you know it's mine and I'm sticking to it.

I've been running and riding fairly regularly over the winter, and with increasing intensity. Like all of us, I have courses that are challenging and for which I've established PRs. I will go out once or twice occasionally thrice per week and take a whack at them.

I've got running courses, cycling courses, and there's the "ride/run." The terrain is challenging, both in topography and in elevation above sea level. Gains are made quickly. Things sort of spiraled up, and in February I established some fairly fast times for my own private "race courses."

Then pieces started to fall off. I became sore. Vaguely sick. Not enough to stop me completely, just to slow me down. I ran a half-marathon a week after some very good performances, and couldn't get out of my own way. I was extremely leg sore afterward. I believe I realized what was happening. I had peaked. Plateaued.

That in itself isn't what I was feeling. It is what happens after you peak (this is where I move from fairly sure footing to rank conjecture). It seems to me the body makes little adjustments to the stressors you place on it. Micro-adjustments in fitness. The body doesn't seem to need absolute recovery for these.

Like when a bike racer races himself into fitness during the first two or three weeks of a grand tour. There is hardly room for a decent rest, yet fitness accrues.

Yet these grand tour riders are provided a day or two of rest, and what do they do on these days off? They ride for two or three hours. I don't know, but I suspect they want to make sure their body knows that it's not yet time for a macro-recovery.

But at some time the macro-recovery must come. The off-season. The three weeks you take almost entirely off after an Ironman or similar race. The same three weeks of downtime a pro triathlete will take in the middle of his season, Ironman race or no. It's that time when the body is "closed for remodeling."

Don't expect to feel chipper or light on your feet. No, it's not because you're overtrained. Your body has commenced rebuilding on a grand scale, and has diverted energy resources toward that end.

Sometime ago I was speaking to former fourth place Ironman Hawaii finisher Mark Sisson who, as owner of Primal Nutrition supplement company, and former drug czar for the ITU, knows an awful lot about endurance sports recovery and rebuilding.

"When you've trained and peaked for an Ironman," he told me, "you need to take the recovery. Even if you get sick the night before and can't do the race, you still need the same recovery period as if you'd done the race."

Notwithstanding the concurring opinions of people like Mark Sisson, no, I don't have a shred of evidence to support my view. I decided to play this out, however, and I took the next three weeks almost entirely off. I had been hard at it for some months, and it seemed reasonable that this was the phenomenon at work in me.

I went on my third run in three weeks just a few days ago. The other two runs were extremely slow, very painful, and I was barely able to keep going. I was slower on these runs than I'd been in years. I wasn't sick. There was no good reason for my feeling that badly, except for the dynamic about which I'm now writing.

Then, three days ago, I felt like running. So I ran. I went out to attempt my "bread and butter" running course, and I'd established a PR of 45:30 prior to taking my three weeks off. This was a good time. I'd brought this time steadily down, and when I set my PR I knew that I'd laid a good one out there. On this third run in three weeks I figured if I was able to lope home in under 48 minutes I'd be doing well.

Instead, I was well under all my intermediate splits the entire way, and finished in 45:10. I felt quite slow. Very wobbly and gangly and not with the spare, efficient technique I usually have. My time off had made me rusty, but my "rebuilt" body overcame every mitigating factor.

The last two days have been spent on the bike and yes, I'm rusty, but I'm riding with a lot of aerobic power. Perhaps my leg power is slightly down. By the second day of riding, though, it became apparent that I'll be back to where I was within three rides. And I hadn't ridden for a month.

There is a funny thing that seems to happen to a lot of athletes. "I wish I'd run this race a month before," I hear, "because I was really going great back then. Now I'm a bit stale and I didn't have my race."

If I'm correct in my analysis of what happens after a plateau is achieved, I wonder whether one might sometimes peak a little too soon and then, in an effort to taper, inadvertently send the body into its restorative mode?

I doubt if there is anything groundbreaking in what I'm writing. I don't know if a lot of people consider, though, that it is not you that determines when your body will peak and will need a period of recovery. Your body is quite able to and insistent on figuring that out on its own.

The body does this in other areas. High performance female athletes those who are not amenoreic sometimes try to calibrate their cycles. Of course you can artificially do this with hormone therapy. But it is also possible to work hard, day after day, and stave off a period for a time, and then to rest and, by virtue of the time off, "tell" the body it's okay to resume the cycle.

A woman's cycle is one mode of regeneration, and perhaps a fit metaphor, and maybe a clue to what I'm writing about.

Dan Empfield is the publisher of the online triathlon journal Slowtwitch.com, and is the founder of bike- and wetsuit-maker Quintana Roo.

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