By Matt Fitzgerald—In the sport of running, the term “peaking” refers to the art of maximizing one’s performance capacity for an important race through a process of incremental fitness building. Traditionally, peaking has been thought of as a completely physiological phenomenon. You run faster on race day than you could have run weeks earlier because your training has increased your VO2max, running economy, and so forth. But there is evidence that, in many cases, runners perform better in a big race than they can weeks earlier despite not being measurably fitter.
How is this possible? The mind is a powerful thing.
In college cross country, runners aim to peak for the championship races that come at the end of the season. Most runners start the season already fit from summer base training and race frequently throughout the season, so building fitness toward a peak level is tricky. In fact, a 2010 study involving members of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point men’s cross country team found that fitness did not increase at all over the course of a full season, a phenomenon that is probably not uncommon.
Corey Baumann and Thomas Wetter measured the anaerobic power, VO2max, running economy, ventilatory threshold, and lactate threshold of team runners at the start of a cross country season and again at the end. Anaerobic power actually decreased significantly while all of the other variables were unchanged. Yet most of the runners produced faster race times at the end of the season than they did at the beginning and reported feeling fitter as well. It is possible that the tests that were employed failed to capture an important physiological improvement that did occur, but the authors of the study also suggested another possibility.
“I believe the better performances at the end of the season were likely due, in part, to some psychological improvement,” Corey Baumann stated in an e-mail message. “Maybe at the start of the season they could only handle 30 seconds of pain and by the end of the season they could handle 60 seconds of pain. This could be compared to getting a shot from the doctor’s office. If you only do it once every year, the pain of the needle seems pretty intense, but let’s say you went to the doctor’s office once every week or month. The pain is still the same, but you are able to handle it better. Maybe not the best analogy, but I hope you can see the connection I am trying to make; the season of workouts and races improved their pain tolerance. Just because you don’t see any change in a physiological variable(s), doesn’t necessary mean you won’t see a change in performance.”
Baumann’s speculation is supported by evidence from other research. In a classic 1981 study, for example, Scottish researchers demonstrated the importance of pain tolerance in swimming. Karel Gijsbers and Vivian Scott induced ischemic pain—a kind of oxygen-deprivation pain—in 30 elite swimmers by having them make a fist once every second while wearing a highly pressurized blood pressure cuff around their upper arms. Pain tolerance was quantified as the number of fist contractions—each more painful than the last—a subject was willing to endure before quitting. The test was repeated a few times over the course of a season. Pain tolerance increased as the swimmers’ training became more intensive and their biggest meets drew closer. This finding suggests that increased pain tolerance was probably responsible for at least a portion of any improvement in race times that the swimmers experienced across the season.
It is important to note that the contribution of increasing pain tolerance to peaking is greatest for experienced runners who are already fit when they start a new cycle of training. For less experienced runners and anyone starting a training cycle at a relatively low fitness level, physiological changes such as increased VO2max will be critical to performance improvement.
If it’s true that peaking is more psychological than physiological for experienced and fit runners, how should this reality be accounted for in your training? First, you should avoid pushing too hard in your training, particulcarly as the race nears closer. After all, you’re already fit. You don’t need to push the envelope with your training and risk burnout to transform your body since your body is already prepared. The mind and brain adapt to challenges much faster than the body. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out with brutal workouts day after day to strengthen your mind for racing. Instead, pick your spots. Very hard workouts are necessary, but you don’t need to do a lot of them. A handful of painful workouts sprinkled across the training cycle—and somewhat bunched toward the end—will do the job.
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