To peak means to reach a highest point. In endurance sports this means training intensity and volume accumulate over time to reach top-level fitness at a specific time for a given individual. Reaching peak fitness can be tricky as there is a balance for every athlete to reach their highest fitness at the right time, and not be too early or too late. There is debate in the exercise science world as to how often an athlete can peak. A conservative amount of time is once every 15 weeks, so 3-4months. This means most athletes can peak no more than 2 times in one year, and they need to be far apart.
For the athlete who knows exactly what race he/she wants to do, and there’s only 1….
For bucket list athletes or athletes who are passionate about 1 event, choosing a peak race is easy! Common races I have come across athletes want to focus on include Dirty Kansa, Leadville 100, and The Belgian Waffle Ride. The training is focused on being in peak form for this single event, and all other rides and races around it are to support the training for this one event.
For the athlete new to a cycling discipline
When an athlete is new to a cycling discipline, especially road racing, I like to spend at least 1 season trying out all types of races in that discipline to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Often in road racing, athletes want to define themselves as a rider, i.e. sprinter, climber, time trialist, crit racer. This is also true of off-road racing for types of terrain, i.e. mud for cx, rocks for mountain bike racing, short events, long events. It is not until athletes have experience racing in all types of events and terrain that we can truly see where they shine and where they can improve. For an athlete new to a discipline I like to keep them in moderate fitness for one whole season and see where the focus needed to be in the future. Once we have a better picture of where the training focus needs to be, we can choose ‘peak events’.
For the athlete who can’t choose and would just love to be in top form for everything all season
We can’t have peaks without valleys. The concept of peaking is to tailor training and racing around a single event, or two at the most. In order to peak properly, other events and races will need to be a lower priority. If an athlete chooses not to set their training up for peak fitness, this doesn’t mean that the athlete can never be in great shape. It just means that there will not be as much of a difference between their lowest fitness and their highest fitness. For athletes who want to do well over the course of a series of races (like a points series), peaking may not be necessary or strategic. They don’t need to be in top form for one race, they just need to be proficient for all the races. Planning a season to maintain fitness over the course of the racing period is also what is realistic for athletes with full-time jobs and other obligations. It can be difficult to find the training time to get on the bike and also to rest, which is required for the hard weeks necessary to peak. With a limited amount of time to train, it can be more realistic to maintain fitness throughout the season.
For the athlete who has a defined set of strengths but isn’t sure what race to make their priority
Based on an athlete’s strengths, a ‘peak race’ can be chosen based on what the athletes has the best chance of scoring a good result from. Strengths for an athlete can include: short climbs (1min-10min), long climbs (over 10min), bike handling, sprinting, specific types of terrain, on-off efforts, 1min power, 5min power, aerobic engine, long or short events, and more. The athlete’s coach can help him/her define their strengths and choose a race based on their strengths. For example, a road racing athlete who has a good 100m sprint and also excels at punchy 20sec climbs can choose a circuit race with these features. A mountain bike athlete who excels at long mountain climbs can choose a race with a course which starts or ends with a long climb.
Other factors to consider when choosing a peak event:
Family and friend obligations – if an athlete has a 1 week beach vacation 4 weeks before their peak event they will likely not be able to be in peak form at the right time without that last hard training block. Perhaps choose an earlier race before the vacation.
Work obligations – like family and friend obligations, the athlete will need to factor in when there is a work conference or a major deadline which will prevent training or add extra stress to minimize recovery.
Team obligations – when on a road racing team, it is important for athletes to support each other for each of their ‘peak events’. The athlete still needs to maintain some freshness in order to support their teammates properly during a race, even if that race is leading up to the athlete’s ‘peak event’. Talking with the team captain to strategize what is realistic and best for the team is necessary.
Time of the season – It is usually less realistic to peak for an early season race. If the athlete lives in a cold climate and is not riding as much during the winter, getting the training time in for an early Spring race can be challenging to be in peak form for. Peaking early also means that the athlete will need to rest and build up again in order to maintain health and fitness for the rest of the season. If the athlete peaks in the beginning of the season and has a hefty racing schedule immediately following this peak, the athlete will be at risk for burnout both mentally and physically.
For the athlete who races 2+ disciplines and virtually races all year
It is most realistic to choose 1 peak for each season if an athlete races 2 disciplines at two different times of year: road and cx, mountain bike and cx. There can be 1 Spring/Summer racing event to peak for and 1 Fall/Winter racing event to peak for.
About the author: Kristen Arnold MS, RDN, CDDD is a level 3 USA Cycling coach as well as a Registered Dietitian (RD) specializing in sports nutrition and is a board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). With Kristen’s nutrition expertise and diverse experience in the sport of cycling as a racer and a mentor, she provides a comprehensive approach to her coaching. She works with athletes from the beginner to elite ranks in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking disciplines. Kristen is also a category 1 domestic elite road racer and seasoned mountain bike and cyclocross racer. Learn more about Kristen.