This article is part of a three-part series. This is part three of three.

As opposed to the first part of this series, which could benefit anyone who trains seriously, this part is more targeted to an elite audience. Peaking isn’t of much interest to someone who doesn’t compete. Although deloading can be beneficial for any athlete, peaking goes way beyond deloading, and its temporary nature makes it irrelevant for non-competing athletes.

Peaking is often misunderstood, and that’s why I decided to create a distinct article on the subject. Within the past few months, I’ve seen quite a few people who wanted to know how to prepare for a competition. Although I can’t give any perfect recipe for peaking, I’m sure that the knowledge gained here will help you plan ahead for better performances. I’ve spent quite a bit of time coming up with a nice and easy way to explain things without getting into complex terminology.

What is “peaking?”

“Peaking” is a temporary state when physical and psychological efficiencies are maximized and where the levels of technical and tactical preparation are optimal. During this state of training, the individual’s physiological and anatomical adaptation capacities are at a maximum as well, and the neuromuscular coordination is perfect.

Peaking is a superior, special biological state that is characterized by perfect health and an optimal physiological state expressed through a quick adaptability of training stimuli and a very good rate of recovery following training and competition. The athlete’s body reflects a high state of functional synergism (acting together) in which organs and systems are channeled in the direction of achieving optimum efficiency and the highest possible performance.” —Bompa (1994)
That’s a real university textbook definition. What’s important to remember is that peaking is temporary. It’s a special training state just like fatigue, and it’s built on the plateau of the curve of athletic shape.

Figure A: The annual plan

I used figure A in the initial periodization article. It represents an annual plan for volume and intensity. At the end of the year, a major peak has been scheduled for the biggest competition of the season. It is indicated as a yellowish line on top of the green line of athletic shape. This is commonly used as a way to indicate a peaking period because it clearly shows the temporary nature of peaking, and it is primarily built on top of normal performance improvement at a moment where performance has already reached high levels (the “athletic shape” as can be seen in figure B below).

Peaking factors

As I mentioned before, there are no perfect ways to peak. It is the result of many complex factors and is, in a way, the ultimate training task. There isn’t a way to isolate one single factor that could result in an adequate peak. That’s why I'll mention a few factors that can facilitate or be detrimental to peaking.

·        High working potential and quick rate of recovery: Peaking is built on top of the performance curve, and as such, base performance should already be at a high level to plan a peak.

·        Near perfect neuromuscular coordination: As we have seen previously, peaking is a state of functional synergism. Peaking will not magically improve one’s coordination if this coordination isn’t present before the peaking period.

·        Overcompensation/unloading/recovery: In the mind of many people, this is what pretty much guarantees peaking. Although unloading can result in performance improvement, it can’t, by itself, result in peaking. It is, however, one of the single most important factors to achieve peaking. You can’t peak without unloading.

·        Motivation, arousal and psychological relaxation: This one is a no-brainer—no motivation equals no performance.

·        Nervous cell working capacity: This concept is pretty important for understanding the next factors. In a peaking state, the nervous cell adopts a high working capacity. However, this state can’t be maintained for prolonged periods of time without becoming strained and fatigued, in which case its capacity will decrease quite abruptly because the cell will assume a state of inhibition in order to protect itself from further stimuli.

·        Competition schedule: A heavy competition schedule can be detrimental to peaking.

·        Number of peaks during the season: Only a few peaks can be planned during a season, and usually, only one major peak can be planned. Planning too many peaks in one season could exceed the nervous cells working capacity.

Planning a peak

You can’t expect to peak without planning it, and you can’t plan it at the last minute either.

Annual planning

Figure B: The plateau of athletic shape and the peaking index

Figure B introduces the concept of peaking index. The highest peak will be scheduled within “zone 1” for the most important competition of the year (WC=world championships; NC=national championships). Most elite class athletes require 32–36 microcycles in order to reach peak performance. This is a general assumption, but it can be used to correctly plan for the main competition of the year. Peaking may not be reached very quickly but rather following a hard and prolonged effort.

As you can see in figure B, zone 1 is planned toward the end of the plateau of athletic shape. As already explained, athletic shape is a very high plateau during which the athlete has a very high working and psychological capacity. When in zone 1, the athlete's performance is within 2 percent of its best. Assuming that the coach planned and led an adequate training program, the duration of zone 1 can last for 1–2 months.

Two more peaks have been scheduled during the competitive season. Only a few competitions have been selected during the season, and only three of those competitions have been considered important enough to warrant a peak period.

Planning the peaking macrocycle

As was mentioned in part two, unloading is only a part of the equation in order to create a peak. However, here is an example of a macrocycle designed in order to create a peak at the end. The green line represents the performance curve, and the yellowish line represents the peaking period. The peaking period is expected to last anywhere from 3–7 days.

Figure C: A macrocycle with deloading at the end in order to create a peak

Peaking is more than a performance improvement caused by unloading. It is the result of a perfect balance of everything that makes an athlete excel. It can’t be scheduled at the last minute. It has to be planned well in advance through annual planning.

Peaking has to occur when the athlete has already attained a higher level of annual performance within the core of the competitive season. Important competitions have to be selected where the athlete will be expected to peak. Only a few peaks should be selected within the year, and only 1–2 major peaks should be scheduled.

References and suggested reading
Tudor O. Bompa, Theory and Methodology of Training: The Key to Athletic Performance. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Co, 381 pages.