In 2006 one of the brightest young American long-distance running talents to come along in a generation decided to train for his first 26.2-miler. As part of his ramp-up for the New York City Marathon, Dathan "Ritz" Ritzenhein ran a half-marathon tune-up race. He blazed to a 1:01:25 clocking and a third-place finish at the highly competitive Great North Run in England.
Given the fact that he achieved this performance without any taper and with a full month left to take his fitness to peak level for his assault on the Big Apple, Ritz looked set to run perhaps the best debut marathon ever by an American runner.
That's not what happened. After a strong start—running all the way from Brooklyn to Fifth Avenue with the race leaders—Ritz faded badly in the final miles, crawling through Central Park to a disappointing 11th-place finish in 2:14:04.
This sort of thing happens all the time in distance running, and in triathlon, too. Athletes turn in a highly promising tune-up race performance only to fall flat on their faces a few weeks later in the peak race they really care about. In other words, they peak too soon—or not at all.
Why do endurance athletes, and especially the most competitive endurance athletes, so often mistime their peak? In most cases, I believe, it happens simply because they try to sustain peak-level training too long before their chosen peak race.
A true fitness peak is a delicate and ephemeral thing. Without question, the foundation of a successful peak is a lot of hard work; in fact, achieving a true fitness peak requires that you build your training to the point where you're working absolutely as hard as you can (without harming yourself) in training.
But that period of maximum work must be very brief, or else your fitness peak will take the form of a great second week of peak-level training or a terrific tune-up race performance instead of goal achievement in your most important race. Competitively minded athletes get into trouble when they too crudely equate fitness with hard work and thus sacrifice quality of hard work for quantity of hard work in their training. (I don't know whether this was Ritz's error, and I suspect not, because his coach, Brad Hudson, is a genius. It was probably just a case of marathon inexperience.)
Striking a Balance
Now, I'm sure there are a few competitively minded triathletes who read the preceding paragraph as an argument against hard work. I am not arguing against hard work. To the contrary—I am arguing that you can work even harder, and therefore reach an even higher level of fitness, if you apportion and time your hard work appropriately. The benefit of limiting your peak-level training within the context of the overall training cycle is similar to the benefit of limiting the number of hard training sessions you do within any given week.
If you try to train hard in every workout, you will never be able to train as hard in any single workout as you could if you limited yourself to just a handful of key workouts each week and took it easy in your other sessions. You'll come out way ahead in the long run if you afford yourself enough recovery between hard workouts to perform at a higher level in those workouts and to adapt more fully in response to each before taking on the next one.
The same principle applies to the full training cycle. Your training workload should be somewhat restrained until you've built your fitness to the level where you can really take advantage of a judicious dose of very hard peak-level training. This period of peak-level training should be short enough so that your performances are still improving when you sharply reduce your training workload once more to taper for your peak race. If your peak-level training lasts long enough for your performances to level off, you're in trouble.
One of the simplest ways triathletes can avoid peaking early and subsequently going stale is to plan two separate fitness peaks per triathlon season—one early and one late. The typical competitive triathlete begins serious base training for the coming triathlon season sometime in January. Those who do are ready for peak-level training by early June but might not race their most important triathlon of the year until August or September. There isn't a triathlete on earth who can build fitness steadily for seven or eight straight months.