Peaking is the ability to optimize your performance for a particular race or race series. It is both a long and short term mental and physical focus on a goal.
Long term focus involves goal setting 6 or more months in advance and devising a long term training plan. For the marathon, this usually involves a 4 to 6 month stamina and endurance building phase with little or no speed work (base building), followed by a 2 month specific endurance speed, terrain and environment training phase (sharpening), followed by a short rest and loading phase (tapering) during the week preceding the event. By devising the long term plan and goals, mental focus is put on the marathon from the outset and training is directed at that goal.
Short term focus begins during the sharpening phase. During this phase, training is directed towards topping off aerobic fitness and simulating race conditions. Marathon specific speed work is utilized, heat acclimatization may be performed and familiarity with the marathon terrain is acquired. During this period, training mileage is not increased but rather it should be reduced when speed work is added. Specificity and, for advanced runners, intensity will be increased. The desired effect is to reach maximal marathon readiness the day of the race, not one week early nor one week late.
The basis for psychological peaking is goal setting, goal achievement and reinforcement throughout the training period. By reaching each goal, intermediate as well as ultimate, along the way to the marathon, you become certain that you are prepared and ready to race when race day arrives. Marathon performances do not happen accidentally, they are designed and built.
Throughout your training period, it is important to visualize what you plan to do in the race. Use your feelings and senses during training to learn how you might feel during the marathon so that you will be prepared for the various phases of the race. Learn to listen to and monitor your body so that you will understand what it is saying.
In the sharpening phase of your program, when the training is highly specific, you should have excellent simulation of the race. This can be enhanced even further running on similar terrain, at the same time of day and even on the marathon course itself. Familiarize yourself with the course so that you can run through the race many times in your mind. Concentrate on the following items while you are doing your training runs:
Self Assessment: learn to know your own body and its responses during training runs. Practice new tactics, eating habits such as carbo loading, and drinking water while on training runs. Learn what motivates you. Use your training diary to learn what factors are associated with best and worst runs (ie. thinking, focus, what you've eaten, how much rest or sleep you've gotten, etc.). Use your own patterns to your best advantage.
Listen to your body: learn to monitor your body signals while you are running. Do body scans or body checks such as "how do my feet feel, are my calf muscles relaxed, is my breathing regular and not too fast, is my upper body tense, are my jaws and teeth clenched".
Talk to your body: pick some key words that work for you such as relax, smooth, float or whatever and practice saying and responding to them. Do a body scan and repeat your key word 5-10 times in a row while exhaling.
Relax: use relaxation techniques to get a good night's sleep, to remain calm, run smoothly and conserve energy during your long runs.
Imagery: use imagery during training to see yourself overcoming obstacles and to feel yourself running comfortably (smooth, relaxed and in control). Use images of smoothly running animals, relaxed settings or powerful machinery to get body responses. Intersperse verbal reminders to drink fluids, maintain pace and focus on form.
Learning to deal with discomfort: an adequate training program combined with proper race pacing should prevent intense pain during the marathon. However, pain does sometimes occur. Note the normal sensations of fatigue during your long training runs so that you will know what to expect during the race. Most of what is felt in the marathon is discomfort due to fatigue or simply the sane body talking to the insane master "What are you doing to me, I'm tired". The master can answer "I'm the master here and I want to finish, it's not much farther, We can do it!".
Simulation: practice on the actual course, learn the best way to divide it into sections. Practice body scan, self talk and try to learn the other psychological tools. Use your imagination to see yourself running as a graceful animal, imagine a giant hand pushing you uphill. Run when tired and practice dealing with discomfort. Think of any problems that might arise and figure out how to simulate them and cope with them. Practice racing and running your own pace during that race. Practice passing others or having them pass you. The best way to convince yourself that you can do something is to do it. Keep working on the long training runs until you know you can run for the length of time the marathon will take.
Run The Planet thanks Patti & Warren Finke and Team Oregon for the permission to reprint the complete online version of the first edition of the book Marathoning Start to Finish (Hypertext Version 1.02) by Patti & Warren Finke. © 1986, 1996 wY'east Consulting, All Rights reserved.