Peaking consists of any of a number of different training methods, which are all performed at race pace or faster for varying lengths of time. The most common sharpening techniques are hill work, short races or time trials of up to 8 to 10 km, and speed play (or fartlek) and interval running (Daws, 1977; Doherty, 1964; Galloway, 1983; Glover & Schuder, 1983; Lydiard & Gilmour, 1978; Osier, 1967, 1978; see also post 8). These sessions become the focal point of
Training and may be practiced 1 to 3 times weekly, depending on the experience and physical strength of the athlete.
According to Osier, an important advantage of peaking is that it teaches one to run relaxed even at race pace. More importantly, it produces specific physiological adaptations that produce quite dramatic improvements in racing performances, as shown by the experience of Peter Snell. Osier reports that after 8 weeks of sharpening, he runs 10 to 20 s/mile faster than previously and gains an 11-minute improvement in his marathon time.
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But sharpening training has serious disadvantages, even more than base training. In particular, sharpening is very taxing and uses up what Osier called adaptation energy; sharpening increases the risk of injury and reduces resistance to infection. When sharpening, the athlete is on the knife’s edge that divides a peak performance from a disastrous race. For this reason, sharpening can be maintained for only relatively short periods of time, with a probable maximum of between 8 and 12 weeks. I believe that this rule applies to all human activities, mental or physical. How then, to achieve a peak?
Osier (1967) formulated the diagram in Exercises 5.5, which owes nothing to science and everything to the anecdotal experiences of great runners like Viren and Snell and great runner/thinkers like Osier and Fordyce (see post 8). The diagram compares the performance improvements that would be experienced by a runner following two different training methods for 36 weeks each.
If you chose to do only base training in the 36-week period, you could expect to improve your racing performance along Points A to I. Osier calls this the improvement in base performance level.
If, however, you chose to start sharpening at the 6-week point on the graph (Point B), so that instead of training only with LSD running you would also include speed training, your racing performance would immediately improve quite dramatically, along Points B, C, and D of the graph. Six weeks after starting sharpening training, your potential racing performance would probably start to plateau (Point D). Note that the time intervals shown on the graph are somewhat arbitrary and have been derived from empirical observation of rather small numbers of runners rather than by careful scientific study. Some runners will take either longer or shorter periods to arrive at the various points on the diagram.