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30.07.2022 Opinion

Timing your peak – how athletes manage to be on form at the right time

By University of Birmingham
Timing your peak – how athletes manage to be on form at the right time
30.07.2022 LISTEN

Athletes spend years of their lives devoted to training and performing, from getting selected and qualifying to hitting the big competitions and matches. As sporting stars spend their last few days preparing for the Commonwealth Games, how do they make sure they are in peak condition at the right time? What’s more, how do they manage a packed schedule of events?

The reality is athletes often peak too late rather than too early. It’s only after the competition, and when they’ve typically had a short break from their sport, that athletes often find themselves in their best shape, but by then, it’s too late. 10 years ago, Sir Bradley Wiggins climbed onto a bike just days after winning the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, only to then put in a gold medal-winning performance in the London 2012 Olympics. But for many others, their form comes too late to make a winning impact.

Hindsight is no consolation to a missed medal, but it’s a fine skill to judge the training and preparation – not too much but also not too little – so that on the biggest day you’re in the best form of your life.

For any skilled performer, their training is everything; it’s the groundwork for turning their talent into success; it’s how they’ve built their fitness and progressed upwards through their career. But it’s the rest and recovery from all that hard training that takes them to the peak of their form.

Of course, peak form doesn’t come by feet-up resting alone; there’s a little bit of polishing required for it to shine through. This is typically by maintaining the intensity of the training effort or, in fact, by dialling it up to get in step with the pace of competition. Most importantly, it requires a significant reduction in volume for a good length of time – short and sharp is the order of the day, the week, and maybe the month. A few athletes can afford to push a little harder and a little later, but some might need several weeks at half or even a quarter of their normal volume before they find their best form.

The key, and quite singular, message is that the well-prepared athlete will have trialled all their preparation plan a good many times before in training and in lower profile competitions. They will have their own simple and well-rehearsed routine that they can depend upon when the pressure is high. Getting that training right is the priority, but also recovering from it as best possible; to minimise the strain from traveling, from being away from home, and from sleeping in a different bed; for the familiarity of a few creature comforts and normality of routine.

Like any performer –be it a singer or someone giving a business presentation to a group of investors – they trust the preparation has been done, and when they open their mouth, or take the first step of the race, that they will be able to do their very best. It’s not just self-belief but it’s a skill in itself – just like their technical prowess – and one typically learnt through getting it wrong more times than getting it right. It requires huge self-awareness and self-confidence that they can, and they will get it right on the day.

As a scientist working in elite sport, the opportunities to study world-class athletes performing at the very top of their game are uniquely pressured occasions and understandably infrequent. We get glimpses from what they can achieve on the track, on the pitch, in the pool on race day. But where we find most learning is the ordinariness of their day-to-day training – their bread-and-butter conditioning – the weeks, months, and years of work they do out of the camera’s lens; how they push themselves; how they recover and adapt; how they find the edge of their fatigue and back off from it.

In this light, the science of athletic ‘peaking’ is more extensive than the relatively sparse published research might suggest. It’s the science of muscle fatigue; it’s the science of adaptation, of strength, power, and endurance development; and just as importantly, it’s the science of how those hard-earned gains are maintained. It’s a common observation that it takes a lot more training to get fit than it does to stay fit and that poses the rarely asked question of ‘what’s the least amount of training we need to do to keep things bubbling on the boil’. Every athlete will have a well-rehearsed plan to know just how much or how little.

You might be surprised to learn that all those factors are just as important to the everyday mortal as they are for sporting champions. How much activity is required to maintain precious muscle mass in an aging population? How many steps are required to maintain cardiovascular health in sedentary office workers? It’s not always about needing to push the limits; it’s about ensuring we do at least the least.

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