All About the Peak?

By Brian MacKenzie with Anthony Roberts

PDF Article

Most athletes train to be their best for a certain event—but does “peaking” work? Brian MacKenzie and Anthony Roberts don’t think so.

One of my most vivid high-school memories was swimming at Belmont Plaza each year for CIF, although only one of my top performances came at this meet. Most of the people I swam with (20-plus kids went to CIF each year from my school alone) rarely set a personal record (PR) or even a season-best (SB). And those who did turn in their best performances of the year often weren’t strong swimmers in general. This year, two kids from Wilson High School set personal bests and school records—but didn’t win a single race.

Most of us, kids to coaches, look at this race as the premier competition of the season, yet our times didn’t reflect that. Although plenty of folks I swam with and plenty of kids from other teams would hit PRs at the final meets of the season, records were so few and far between that some questions on peaking need to be asked.

Free Download


18 Comments on “All About the Peak?”


wrote …

I think the effectiveness of peaking largely depends on the sport you do. For example, it seems like olympic weightlifting is a sport where peaking is so difficult that the best strategy is to stay strong year round, and possibly exceed one's weight class in the off season in order to get stronger. Dimitry Klokov hit a 242kg Clean & Jerk in training years ago but is usually very psyched to hit around 230kg in competition. This actually seems to me the case for many top tier weightlifters.

On the other hand, despite what the author's personal experience suggests, I think swimming is a good example of when peaking works very well. I wasn't the best swimmer, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I did swim all through high school and one year at a Division-3 college. From what I remember the vast majority of everyone's best times in college where set at one of the 2 meets we peaked for. Personally I had never broken 1:00 in the 100-yard fly but after 2 taper weeks was able to finish in 57 seconds. Yes, in all other meets we swam in drag suits instead of fast-skins and didn't shave but there is an obvious difference in how your body feels in performs after 2 weeks of active rest VS when you're deep into 10 weeks of high-volume training with no rest.

I know the idea of never peaking and always being ready sounds sexy. The philosophy kind of sounds like what Loui Simmons espouses in some of his videos on Crossfit Journal. He brags that his lifters can be ready to win a meet in a month whereas other lifters need 4 months to peak. Well, it may be true that those lifters could walk into a meet with only a month of warning but and win but that's only because they're so damn strong. In reality it looks like they train quite differently - progressively peaking the weight at the top of their speed squats and exchanging more general max effort exercises to more event-specific ones as they get closer to a competition. You can find an interview on youtube of Dave Hoff, one of Loui's best lifters, talking about how important peaking is.

Personally I think the choice is obvious over whether you'd need to peak or be ready all the time: whatever it takes to win. Ed Coan used a 15 week training cycle to peak for his competitions and he was the best powerlifter of all time. But even when he was 15 weeks out he wasn't exactly a slouch - Deadlifting 710X5 completely raw with a conventional stance even though he pulled sumo. If you're a good athlete then you don't need to be ashamed of peaking since you'll be good even when you're at your weakest.


wrote …

This is a key message to keep in mind. Great article.

From my perspective, focusing on strength development, I think planning is critical. This is especially true if you're competing. But I also feel that most people are guilty of over-thinking their training.

If you plan on competing in powerlifting, for example, you know the events. So, you know what you need to get better at. You need to lift as heavy as you can, as often as you can. You rest when you need it (...many rest too much!). For the meet, you need to rest a bit more before you compete, but this is a simple strategy that you learn from your time under the bar.

In years past, I would plan out my training for every micro-, meso-, and macrocycle. I would arrange all the exercises in a perfect sequence. I would calculate a perfect 2.5 week taper...None of this shit matters.

When you over think and over plan, you take the focus off the simple things, hard work (really hard work) and technique. Also, this makes training a bitch. It should be fun and somewhat organic.

Again, great job.



wrote …

To Penn's point...

This is not to say detailed planning and tapering hasn't worked for some. I share only my opinion. I'm sure the authors feel the same way.

Here's the key issue to me. I think overplanning makes many athletes hold back. They become scarred of going too far. They do not push their training. As a result, most of the time, maybe they are just doing enough to make some modest improvements. When they go into a taper, this really is just an undertraining period. It's happened to me before more than a few meets. I didn't know it at the time!

Guys like Ed are masters of their sport, and of their bodies. They know just what they can do, and when they can do it.

The rest of us sometimes need alternative models. We need to reach out and find our own edges...The limits of what we can do. For many, those edges are farther out than we suppose.


wrote …

What about consistently peaking?

Blair Morrison wrote an article on his blog a while ago detailing his 6 week cycle. He has figured out that if he takes a week off after 6 weeks on, he will feel and perform best in weeks 4-5 of every cycle. This is not a 4 year or even a 1 year peak like the ones Brian and Anthony detailed in the article. This is a much smaller, 6 week cycle that Blair has figured out for his own body. Ive used this same format to figure out what I need for my body. I want to be the fittest i possibly can on July 29th-31st of this year so my team CrossFit Vida will have the best chance of winning the games. I figured out that if i had a down week from June 27th to July 3rd, I will feel my best when its time to be in LA. This has been a consistent pattern in my training that has led to repetitive peaks. The difference is that the "valleys" arnt as bad. When your system of valleys and peaks is on a rotation of 2 months or less, you will develop a consistent program of peaking that can be easily manipulated to overcome new stressors. With this system (6 week), you can effectively peak 18 weeks out of the year, but always be at that consistent state that BMack and Anthony have described.


wrote …

I don't have a whole lot to say, because 'peaking' has so many variables. But in regards to Ultra-Distance type sports, and Ironman (Hawaii specifically) weather plays a HUGE role. Just because pro's, or even AG's times are somewhat slower than their PR's, does not mean their peak wasn't successful. There have most definitely been some relatively 'easier' days in Hawaii weather-wise. Not that there is ever and 'easy' Ironman. Or Ultra-Run, etc. because 100-mile runs, 140.6 mile triathlons, are all going to be hard, relative to their various venues. A PR usually happens when everything lines up perfect. Weather, training, location of event(altitude or sea level?) health, etc. I think CrossFit and Powerlifting are different beasts entirely, compared to the longer endurance stuff I'm referring to. Which also leads me to why I think CF Endurance works so well with a number of athletes. Many of the athletes coming to CF Endurance are worn/burnt out from the LSD approach. Many have heavy-duty base built. So CF Endurance basically serves as a 'peak' and taper, which allows them to perform well. After some time, those gains will level off and have many considering going back to some more basic LSD.


wrote …

The numbers on % of peaking athletes who set PBs or SBs is interesting, but without the of non-peaking athletes setting PBs or SBs, can you really say that peaking is worse than not peaking? Setting a PB, by definition, only happens once - what method (peaking or not) gives the best shot at a PB?


wrote …

Peaking is a philosophy as much as a finely tuned procedure - think of it as giving the athlete their best CHANCE to PB, as opposed to simply expecting that they will pb. I think drawing parallels between high school swim meets (really?) and Ironman (as stated above, can be extremely variable in terms of weather) is not a valid argument against the peaking philosophy.

Swimming at the Olympic level is a good example - did you see the number of records that fell in Beijing? Swimmers are held under extreme volumes of work and then brought out with lower volumes and race-pace drills close to competition (I call this "digging holes") - and it is a proven strategy... at least much more so than training to be "ready" all the time - do you have any examples of that actually working?

I guess that's what it finally comes down to - what examples do YOU have of world-class performers (i.e. the best athletes and the best coaches working together) using a "ready at all times" approach?


wrote …

I don't think I get it. The article suggests that peaking doesn't lead to PRs often, and uses Olympic results as strong supporting evidence. It implies that US athlete training is peak focused, while Soviet athletes focus on consistency. Yet, in the 2 Olympics that the Soviets dominated the medal count (1988 and 1992 -- excluding the heavily boycotted 1980 Olympics), the Soviets set 1 non-relay World Record in the swimming and track finals, while the US set 7. The data certainly indicates that the peaking approach does not guarantee anything. In a very brief survey, the consistency approach does not seem to offer any guarantees either.


wrote …

I'll throw another curve ball in as well...Again, tied to lifting/strength (My wheelhouse, sorry).

In weightlifting, both countries have a periodization heavy approach. One has just been a whole lot more successful in this arena. For a more detailed discussion about why we haven't done so well, I'd refer you to Glenn Pendlay's forum.

The twist is this in another approach. The Bulgarian one. This has made some waves lately as clubs like California Strength and Average Broz, whose training bears that influence, have had loads of success and publicity in the community. It's also an approach I like very much, and am exploring with our strength training here at Crossfit Memphis.

The idea is to do exactly what you will have to do in competition, striving to one day do it at the highest possible level. You do it hard till you get there! You do not want to waste time with intensities or movements that are not equal to what you will do in competition. This would be a waste of time.

By comparison, an elementary approach. Boy, and to borrow a phrase from Crossfit, a vicious example of the pursuit of virtuosity.

Now, it's not a clean comparison to the preparation of a runner or a high level crossfitter, but the basic idea is essentially the same. In my mind, instead of waving the work, plotting out a detailed peak, etc., you would simply:

1. Train as hard as possible
2. Never compromise mechanics under those conditions
3. Push through the dark period where you didn't feel like training (oh, it's inevitable)
4. Briefly taper before contest
5. Resume the butchering

Not necessarily an easy path, but damn effective.


wrote …

Should probably watch this video. At about 3:10.

I know periodization or "Peaking" works for me. Every time I do it I PR. It is a reduction in volume not a reduction in training. Intensity goes up, Volume down...

I really don't feel this argument can be laid across all sports. Should you try to peak for crossfit comps? Not sure a week long taper seems to work well for most athletes. Can you use the same logic and apply it to triathlons or marathons, without addressing the type of training or how long the athlete has been training(10 years vs 3 years) I really don't think you can.

Totally agree with the weather issue as well as so many other things affecting sports that do not take place in controlled conditions.

Great article for discussion.




wrote …

Classic periodization as a form of training and peaking for a competition does not work.

You CAN, however, peak for a competition. Yes, you should be ready to compete at any time, but that does not mean that with the right preparation you cannot do just a little better. Enter the delayed transformation phase of circa-max training. A similar concept can be used for most sporting competitions.


wrote …

All of our cyclists have all "A" races mapped out for the year and the training leading up to each race gets tapered but we don't plan to "peak" in the traditional sense. Training days must not be dialed back in intensity so as to give each rider a realistic idea of where they are in their training, and an idea of what to expect on race day. If numbers where not improving we would have abandoned this method long ago. In my opinion many endurance athletes gravitate towards the classic periodization model because they are not engaging in an effective strength and conditioning program (CrossFit) and simply cannot handle the volume and/or intensity unless it is ramped up to race day. Either that or they are stuck in "Old-School" mode. Keep in mind there are enough variables in the human condition to make any scientific study on performance look flawed. We have stuck with what works. Good article



wrote …

There are lots of poor examples in the article. For Olympic sprinters, they can't attempt to peak for one race. Big meets like the Olympics require many rounds, and therefore are a different animal than one-race meets. Athletes have to try to carefully balance running fast with conserving themselves to run fast again, soon, many times. And as far as them all being "professionals", a lot of them are very young and still make lots of elementary mistakes (such as not leaning at the tape.) The very best of them may in fact peak successfully if possible - see Michael Johnson as an example. Very few athletes are as smart and prepared as he was. Don't kid yourself that they are all paragons of perfect training programs.

As someone else said, holding Kona up as an example race is silly as weather plays such a huge role in endurance sports. I would be willing to bet that if Kona had unseasonably cool weather, lots of records would fall.

Then you use a study on different training methods of cross-country runners to support the notion that peaking doesn't work, which makes no sense whatsoever.

Peaking may or may not have validity for most people (I'm not arguing either way) but the examples given in the article do not provide a valid criticism of peaking.


wrote …

I like Jonas' approach. And I agree...Runners need to learn how to produce force quickly, repeatedly, just like the rest of us.



wrote …

I think there are so many variables in play here that it is hard to quantify and fully express this idea of peaking vs it's opposite which would be not peaking or steady state. If you take the olympics it is hard to say that "peaking" or "not peaking" is the sole problem when you add in factors such as the entire world is watching, you are competing against the absolute best in the world, your country may or may not be counting on you (non-USA countries place a higher premium on their olympic athletes success), or that one meter, inch, second may or may not be the difference between success and failure. The mental aspect of the equation may take away from your peak physical preparedness. You can never really simulate in your training the pressure that will be upon in that setting.

I don't think you can argue against the premise that all athletes hope to be playing their best at the end of a season or end of a four year olympic cycle. Do you think athletes want to play worse? Factors such as injury, luck, officiating, weather, illness, off-field issues can change things drastically especially in team sports despite all the off-season preparation (GPP) and in-season "tapers" and "peaks" (SPP).

I believe it is Mel Siff and Verkhoshansky who refer to the idea as super compensation. You load up on volume with the intent of decreasing the volume to gain a "super compensation" effect above your previous level of training. As a High School track coach, I train my athletes for the 3 big meets at the end of the year (Regionals, League, States) not the beginning. The meets that precede those three are used as training exercises that add the element of competition (which against other schools or people will always ramp up the intensity) but are ultimately part of a level of volume that we as a staff are working for. Obviously it is not exact science but it has worked for us.

That is why I think it is just a matter of volume control. The key principle for us is we use Crossfit as our GPP and then running drills/skills/technique/track workouts as our SPP. This gives us the opportunity to 1) get off the track 2) incorporate strength training throughout the season 3) add in variation. The only difference as the season progresses is that the sports specific workouts of track increase and the GPP or Crossfit workouts decrease. Kinda of similar to the spealer sports vs crossfit video. I understand this isn't on the level of an olympian but what it does is it allows our athletes to transition from sport to sport.

Just my 2 cents. sorry if it seems like I'm rambling!


wrote …

Be an athlete and periodize, or a fitness enthusiast and go take a beatdown for 45 minutes a few times a week. If you're the latter, stop criticizing the former.


wrote …

I would like to know if the guys at average bros gym have a taper week before a meet, or some kind of periodization, because those guys are a living proof of this system of staying strong throughout the year, just look at their youtube videos, awesome stuff.


Dane Thomas wrote …

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the hypothesis here, but this was a very scattered use of anecdotal and in many cases unreliable evidence to support it.

Weightlifting and certain kinds Track and Field events that are more about objective measurement than subjective performance (human vs. physics instead of human vs. human) may lend themselves to this type of investigation, but in general the greater the number of uncontrollable variables the more difficult it is to draw firm conclusions.

Leave a comment

Comments (You may use HTML tags for style)