One of my favorite parts of Vince Anderson‘s interview on the Canadian Coaching Centre site is his view of peaking. He and Head Coach Pat Henry sit the Texas A&M track team down and say, “We don’t believe in peaking. We reject that idea.”
Now, you’re likely thinking either “but I seen athletes peak and I know it can happen” or “these are sprint coaches and there is no reason to think that their reality is the reality of distance coaches and distance runners.” Jim Gerweck, one of the editors at Running Times, was kind enough to comment on the last post regarding his experience with Arthur Lydiard‘s book Run to the Top and how it helped his HS team peak.
Vince Anderson knows what he’s talking about; Jim Gerweck knows what he’s talking about; on the issue of peaking they have vastly different opinions.
My opinion? “It depends.” Or, to use an analogy, there are three peaks on the west side of Boulder Colorado: Flagstaff Mountain, Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Flagstaff is short and round, while the other two jump up out of the ground dramatically rising to sharp peaks. All three exist and all three exist close to one anther (plus, all three are great to hike or run to the top of). I think athletes can peak, yet I also that that when we design our season in terms of a peak we may sell the athletes short, preventing them to race to their fullest potential.
…and I’ll be honest, part of me wants to stop writing and just let people comment and then respond to the comments because this is going to be messy, fully of nuance and situation examples. But I’m trying to become a better writer and so I need to explain my view of peaking.
First, we need to be honest that we’ll have a much easier time showing a peak that failed rather than showing one that worked. Maybe Dathan was ready to run 12:51 this past summer – his peak – and his 12:56 was lest than his best. The flip side is well all know a program/coach where athletes run fast early in the season and then linearly and systematically run slower as the season progresses. Obviously these athletes didn’t peak, yet who is to say that the athlete who ran so-so early and PR’ed at the state meet truly peaked.
That said, there is no doubt that when an athlete runs a PR that’s a good thing; if that PR happens at the most important, most prestigious meet of the year, than the athlete and coach have accomplished their primary aim. And if the athlete has their best race of the year, but misses a PR due to inclement weather or race tactics that lead to a slow start/fast finish, that’s the same accomplishment in my book. With this in mind, let me share part of Jim Gerweck’s comment in the last post. In reference to Lydiard’s Run to the Top he says,
What made this book so great is that it is unequaled in bringing athletes to their peak on a specific day. 6 out of 7 kids on that team ran huge PRs at our league meet, and the team scored a ridiculous 23 points vs. the rest of the conference. My only mistake was in underestimating the talent of the kids, and planning their peak there; they couldn’t hold it for 2+ weeks to the state Open (they did run away with the state sectional and class meets).
That’s what we want for athletes and teams. We want to them run well when it matters and Jim’s team did that. But it’s bittersweet because they “couldn’t hold it for 2+ weeks to the state Open” and unless I’m misreading the tone there is a trace of regret in that comment. I’ll leave the element of Lyrdiard training, with it’s “sharpening” phase, as the root cause of the peaking gone mostly right for the comments section, but let’s make sure that we properly value that Jim’s team had a great season and they ran well at the end of the season.
The flip side is Vince Anderson asking all of the athletes if they’ve heard the term peaking and when they all answer yes, he says “We totally reject that idea. We wan you ready now.” I’m writing this on January 2nd and for a collegiate athlete there is a good chance that most of them aren’t “ready now” but rather somewhat de-trained after a couple of weeks at home eating holiday cookies. But Vince Anderson would prefer they be ready now and when they get back to campus in the coming days they better be able to race soon after that. Which begs the question, “Is peaking appropriate for some track and field athletes, such as distance runners, but inappropriate for other athletes, specifically power athletes?” Again, you can debate that question in the comments, but for me the key is simply that Vince Anderson, one of the best coaches in the world, goes out of his way to tell athletes to stop thinking about peaking, even though every kid he’s talking to has lead an athletic life with peaking as one of the key constructs.
The distinction I’m leading to obvious. If you coach young athletes then the idea of peaking is a sound pedagogical construct, leading the athlete to view athletics as a process, with early and mid season meets are part of the journey towards competing at the highest level at the end of the year. But for a high level collegiate athletes and post-collegiate athletes, this view is less appropriate and I would argue it’s part of the reason American distance running suffers on the international level. We aren’t as ready to run fast as early and consequently we’re not ready to run fast enough to compete internationally when the summer months arrive. And to put my money where my mouth is I’ll share the following. Yesterday, January 1st, Renee did 10x500m with 60 seconds rest, a quintessential Wetmore workout that is supposed to predict your 5k sea-level fitness (note: we did it on a road, so it’s a bit different than doing it on the track). Renee thinks of this as a track workout that you do when you’re ready to run a 5k on the track and she’s never done it this early in a calendar year, yet that’s partly (mostly?) why I choose to do it on January 1st, 2010; Vince Anderson says to the athletes he works with, “We want you ready now,” and I agree. She’s an adult woman, she’s thriving with higher training volumes and she’s simply enjoying training and life, so let’s be specific now. Is she in sub 15 minute shape? No way. Is she in 15:40 shape this early? I hope so, but I don’t really know, but I do know that the road to running under 15:20, her 2009 best, is to “do things you’ve never done before” and while she’s training at a higher volume than ever before I also think the specificity of training needs to come earlier this year. Dan Pfaff says in one of his interviews on the Canadian Coaching Centre site that when practice starts in the fall he wants to pick up where the athletes left off the previous season, rather than going back to their former self, because “you don’t want to endure last year’s qualities.” While he’s obviously talking about sprinters and power athletes, I think the same principle holds true for distance runners. A 5k run at 74’s and a kick gets you to 15:20, yet this year should be about 73’s the whole way. If Renee is to do that then we need to make sure she is doing different (i.e. faster) running earlier in the season.
So that’s my view of peaking. I’ve not discussed lactate, the anaerobic metabolism as part of peaking, mostly because it would have taken a lot of writing, but also so we can discuss it below. Also, there is a HUGE psychological component to peaking and I have a good story about Sara I can share, but again, I’ll do that below.
I strongly encourage you to disagree for the simple reason that I’m selfish and I want this blog to make me a better coach. If you agree with some points, great, but please point out the flaws and holes in what I’ve said above, which will force me to rethink things…and then we can tease out the finer aspects of peaking below.
Thanks for your time and I hope that 2010 has been good to you thus far.