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The Science and Art of Peak Performance

Taper – to reduce gradually. It’s the wrong word. Or it’s the right word for part of the process, but it leaves out what should be the prevailing theme – Increase. To increase the athlete’s performance envelope on the specific day of their choosing. That’s the game. As a coach, if you are not playing that game, you’re teaching aerobics. And that’s fine. Aerobics isn’t racing, but it’s good for the body. Peak performance is about execution, supported by the methodical application of core component building activities.

There are no “race day miracles”. There are however occasional peak performances so perfectly orchestrated that they appear miraculous to the casual observer. My first experience of such a display was watching Janet Evans finish the 400 freestyle at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As a young, impressionable age group swimmer, I was keenly aware of times, records, and probable margins of victory, though it wasn’t chopping nearly 1.5 seconds off her current record that affected me. It was the look on her face immediately after she finished. It was the look of someone who obliterated their expectations. That look etched in my mind, I proceeded in search of my own peak performances.

The Obvious

"Reduce volume and focus your intensity" Any discussion addressing tapering will presumably advocate these ideas. And to good measure, as, properly implemented, significant rest blended with focused intensity forms the foundation for exceptional athletic achievements. What of the structure though? Do the numbers tell the whole story?

If it was available to us in hindsight, would a Performance Management Chart have predicted Miss Evan’s record? What exploration of Dose-Response could have theorized into existence Bob Beamon breaking the long jump world record by nearly 2 feet (his astonishment so great he was briefly unable to stand without assistance)?

My experience coaching myself and others supports the speculation that radiates from these narratives. Though far less earth shattering than Janet or Bob, my quest to win a state championship cycling race was no less elucidating and personally spectacular.

Long ago, after an injury plagued triathlon season, I decided to conclude with my first cycling time trial. At the time I was a strong age group cyclist, able to push roughly 320 watts for about an hour. On race day, I under-performed, but was instantly obsessed with the experience. That afternoon, I committed to the process that I thought would be required to win the following year.

Numerically, I increased my weekly biking threefold, while foregoing running and swimming entirely. I evaluated every piece of equipment, refined my position, and previewed the course exhaustingly. After 48 weeks of relentless training, I tapered for the big day with ruthless mathematical precision. I won. It was the best performance I had ever composed for anyone.

Roughly seven years removed from that victory, I have expanded my perspective on the elements contributing to that result. One tidbit rolled around in my head for years after that race. 350 watts. Cycling time trials being essentially a math problem, 350 watts was the estimated power I needed to prevail.

The Intangibles – Intention, Creation, and Belief

Increasing power by roughly 10% over a 1 year period is a tall order for a fairly well trained cyclist. Nevertheless, I averaged 351 watts for the race, or essentially identical to my goal. Maybe I was just lucky? Maybe it was something else? While I trained and rested well, I’ve come to believe that the final form of our greatest performances are determined by our intentions and imagination.

Beyond the physical training, I ruminated about the race constantly. Both structured and casually, I experienced the entire event many times in my mind – from the difficult sections and the metrics on my bike computer, to the stench of the porta pottys– every detail was rehearsed and considered. The physical preparation was the toughest I had ever performed, but the mantra I repeated throughout was likely crucial. Crudely stated, it was, “This race will hurt more than any race has ever hurt, and I will keep going.” Out loud and inside, that was my endless chant. That was the message I sent to myself. I think it worked.

I don’t wish to twist racing well into a mystical experience, yet I am unwilling to ignore the influence of the mind as a creator of outcomes. To achieve your best, there needs to be a confluence of factors. Training hard and resting appropriately forge the projectile, yet the arrow of fitness is aimed by your imagination, and steadied in flight by your intention. Work the numbers, know your body, obsess over your metrics. Train with intensity, but don’t eschew the power of intent.