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Peak Performance

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Get ready for a disappointing truth: It is impossible to set a personal record in every single race. If you have more than a few 5ks under your belt, you are already familiar with this reality. You know that your improvement as a runner is never going to be linear, and some races are bound to be subpar. The secret to excellent performance is to use these facts to your advantage through “peaking.”

Peaking is when an athlete organizes her training and racing schedule to ensure she is in the best possible condition for a particular goal event. For example, a top U.S. distance runner may compete in a number of races in 2012, but her top priority will be one single event in the Summer Olympics. The other competitions act as tuneups to ensure she’ll be in top form when she toes the line in London.

If you have your heart set on a personal best in a certain event, think like an elite and use peaking to meet your goal. The first step is to plan your racing calendar early in the year. Your schedule should include all of the events you are planning on entering during the next 12 months.

Once the races have been selected, prioritize the events most important to you. Tailor your workouts and your race goals for the non-priority events accordingly. Think of these events as ramp-up races. The objectives for your ramp-up races may be to run at a certain tempo pace or to practice racing on tired legs. Make sure your schedule includes races of varying distances. Mixing short, fast races with long, endurance-based events will help you to improve your time while increasing your overall fitness.

If a half marathon or marathon is your ultimate goal, it is best to run a series of shorter races leading up to the big day. Once you’ve marked your calendar with a goal 13.1- or 26.2-miler, I advise counting three months back from the race date. During this time, you’ll be increasing your mileage, however, you don’t want to lose your speed. Schedule a few races, such as a 5k, 10k or half marathon (for marathon runners) to stay sharp. You may not have your best performances during these races, but they will help you reach your ultimate goal.


When preparing for a big event, it is also important not to “over race.” Some runners have a bad habit of leaving their goal race on the roads. What I mean by this is that some runners are apt to focus too much on testing themselves and will run too hard too often as a means of building confidence for the big race. This kind of training can often back re or prove detrimental to overall success. I suggest that runners race every other week at most while training for a major event in order to avoid fatigue or injury. Every runner processes workouts and mileage differently, so pay attention to what works for you. You can’t run anybody else’s race except your own and that holds true for training—and peaking— as well.


Peak for your next goal event by following these simple racing guidelines. Remember: every runner is different, so tweak this schedule to match your body’s rhythm.


Ramp-Up Races:
8 Weeks Prior: Half Marathon
6 Weeks Prior: 5k
3 Weeks Prior: 10k


Ramp-Up Races:
6 Weeks Prior: 5k
3 Weeks Prior: 10k


Ramp-Up Races:
6 Weeks Prior: 5k
3 Weeks Prior: 5k


Joan Benoit Samuelson won the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon. She is a motivational speaker and author of Running Tide and Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women.