Planning for Perfection: Nail Your Early-Season Peak

Thus, a more sensible approach is to build fitness through the late winter and spring for a peak race in, say, May or June (or earlier if you started your base training earlier), then start a new training cycle culminating with a peak race in the late summer or early fall.

If you take it easy for a week or 10 days after that early-season peak you can build back up to peak-level training very quickly without much risk of overtraining or going stale. You'll be able to get away with executing a very short base phase in that later-season training cycle because you will carry over a high level of fitness from the preceding peak. (But it will only work if you take at least a week to recharge the batteries after the first peak.)

The two-peak strategy may be adapted to various race schedules. You could, for example, travel to a warm place for an early-season peak race in April or May and follow it with a longer ramp-up for your late-season peak race, perhaps in October or November.

Whether your late-season peak race is more important than your early-season peak race or vice versa, or whether your early-season training cycle is longer or shorter than your late-season training cycle, the point is to increase your chances of peaking when you want to by dividing the triathlon season into two training cycles and thereby avoiding the common pitfall of trying to sustain peak-level training for too long.

The Three Ingredients of the Perfect Peak

Simply dividing the triathlon season into two separate training cycles will not guarantee that you peak when you want to. The perfect peak has three main ingredients. Be sure to include all three in your training recipe.

1. A Long, Gradual, Restrained Ramp-up
Let me be clear: The fact that competitive endurance athletes often train too long for a peak race—or, more accurately, sustain peak-level training too long before a peak race—should not be taken to indicate that the ideal ramp-up for a peak race is short.

To the contrary, a training cycle should last as long as you can continue to increase your training workload without getting injured or sick. For most triathletes, that's 18 to 24 weeks, assuming the training cycle begins after an off-season break (hence at a relatively modest base-fitness level). In the case of a late-season training cycle begun at a high level of base fitness following an early-season peak (and a short break), 12 to 16 weeks of increasingly hard training is the limit.

Trying to ramp up to a peak level of training too quickly is no better than trying to sustain peak-level training too long. The way to ensure you are actually able to handle and benefit from the short period of peak training you do at the end of the training cycle is to build your fitness toward that level as slowly as you can without standing still.

A good model for the proper buildup to a perfect fitness peak is the hunting strategy that tigers use. If a tiger spends, say, one hour hunting an antelope, the first 59 minutes of the process consist of creeping through tall grass unnoticed to get as close to the prey as possible. The final sprint chase and catch lasts only a minute. While that dramatic final chase may seem like the most important part of the hunt, those 59 preceding minutes of restrained sneaking forward are really no less important, because they lay the groundwork for a successful catch.

The base and build phases of triathlon training are like that first stage of a tiger's hunt. Patience and restraint are the watchwords as you gradually build your fitness to a level where you are able to pounce and really take advantage of peak-level training. Starting your peak-level training too soon is like a tiger starting his sprint too soon and bonking before he can catch his dinner, or rushing the sneaking-up process and warning the antelope of his presence before he's within striking distance. Your peak phase of training should be a late, quick strike that takes advantage of all the work you've done up to that point.

2. Race-specific Peak Workouts
Your peak phase of training typically should last six to eight weeks, including your taper. During this phase, perform key workouts (in all three triathlon disciplines) that are highly race-specific, meaning they challenge your ability to sustain your goal race pace in swimming, cycling and running.

For each of us there is one week of race-specific triathlon training that represents the heaviest workload (workload = training volume x average training intensity) we can handle at our current stage of athletic development without destroying ourselves. When you plan a training cycle, you should have a solid sense of what that peak week should entail given your training history, present fitness level and goals. Schedule your peak week as the last week of training before you start your taper; in other words, make it the second-to-last or third-to-last week of training before race day.

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