Over the years, we have often seen athletes break national records and set personal bests as they try to qualify for the Olympics. But once they reach the big event itself, they are unable to match or even come close to their bests.

It is a disappointing situation to be in for the athlete as well as their fans. The hopes are buoyed by the performances in the lead-up to the grand stage and it doesn’t pan out in the end.

On the other hand, there are some athletes who come to the big competitions and simply blow the opposition away. There is a phrase we often hear in that scenario. They are the ones who have managed to peak at the right time. It is a special skillset for an athlete to have, to bring their absolute best to the event that matters, on the day and the hour and the minute it matters the most.

But what is peaking and how does one plan for it?

In an interview with Scroll.in, James Hillier, former National Coach and Athlete Development Manager for England Athletics, who is now Head Coach of Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Center breaks down the peaking process.


Can you explain the complexity of trying to peak at the right time – how easy or difficult is it?

In athletics, for instance, you tend to usually train for 11 months a year and maybe have one month for rest and recuperation. And you might train for 11 months for 2-3 days of competition. It is all about the right performance at the right time. That is what athletics is in a nutshell. It’s all very well to run a fast time in a low-level competition in the surroundings that you are comfortable with. But if you can’t replicate that performance in a big tournament then it really means that you have got your training and peaking process wrong.

For me, when I look at peaking, you must always start the year in reverse. When you are planning your training year, it is something we call periodisation – we just always look at when we want the athlete to be at his/her absolute best. That is the key thing and then we sort of work backwards.

And we would look at things like what do we need to do to qualify for the competition (is there a competition or a series of competitions or is there a qualifying time that the athlete needs to run during a year) and then you can start to plan out how to go about achieving those goals.

There are two types of competitions – a competitive opportunity, which is an opportunity for the athlete to put into practice the things they have learnt and developed in training and the second thing is a qualification opportunity – which is an opportunity for the athlete to go to a track that is notoriously fast for sprinters (a hard track is good for sprinters or a high-level competition where the objective is to go out and get a qualification time).

Peaking starts on the first day of training… on the first day of general preparation training, that is when the peaking process starts… and not a week before competition. There is a peaking process for major competitions too but ultimately the whole peaking process must start on the first day of general preparation training.

Every athlete goes through crests and troughs, so how do you figure out how much an athlete needs to be pushed so that they peak at a particular time?

I’ll answer that question in two ways. One, I want to lay out how you structure a periodised year. So it is important that we structure the year with various phases or blocks of training. At the start of the training year, the training would be more general in nature — you do less specific, higher volume, lower intensity exercises.

As we move through the training year, the volume will drop, the intensity will raise and the specificity of training will go up. And it is very important to understand this concept. The second thing we need to understand is something called ‘super compensation’. It is an incredibly important concept in training theory. You have a base level of fitness. After you do a very high intensity training session (in athletics, that would be something close to an event), your fitness actually goes down for 48 hours because what happens is that you have hurt your body; you have fatigued the body. Now, when the body recovers through a process of recovery and rest, the idea is that it recovers to a higher level of base level fitness than it was at previously.

So when we are working with athletes, and I have worked with a very high level international athlete in the past, we worked out that we needed to peak his training five days before his competition. So we would do a very high intensity session five days before the competition, that would induce the training stimulus and then he would literally rest for five days.

So that would allow his body to recover and then come back at a higher level of stimulus and if we got it exactly right, he would then race in this perfect state of super compensation where his fitness is at its peak. If you leave the compensation process too long, then the fitness will start to drop again. It is like an inverted ‘U’ shape.

So the idea of high-altitude training by endurance athletes works on a similar principle?

Exactly. When they train at high altitude, it leads to an increase in red cell numbers and haemoglobin concentration. It means that you can ingest more oxygen and your red blood cells are more efficient. So what happens is that athletes will train at high altitude, then they will come down to sea level and they will still have a higher RBC count than earlier. So they can compete at a higher level. The body is more efficient. But you can only sustain that for a certain period of time so the athlete will come down, do a few races and then go back to altitude for more training.

Hillier (R) has coached multiple World Championships, Olympics and Commonwealth Games medalists. Image credit: Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Center

Most imagine that running a race is a very natural thing but this almost requires one to be a scientist…

As a coach, you must understand basic science. The basic fundamentals of training theory. Basic physiology. How the body recovers… what happens when you train hard. What happens with a lot of athletes is that they qualify for the Olympics by running a personal best, then they go to the Olympic Games, which are usually held in some far-off country.

So the teams would travel 3-4 weeks before the competition. The athletes will go to a training camp and train. But what tends to happens is that athletes tend to get a little bit excited and in these camps, they are quite often away from their coaches and the national coaches are in charge. Sometimes, the athletes start trying to impress the national coaches and they maybe do far too much training in the period before the major competition. The body then becomes tired. With sprinters, the body becomes neurally tired. That means it loses the speed, power, force-generating capacity of the muscles. Then, when the athletes compete, they compete in a fatigued state.

I have always been a big advocate of less is more in the period before a major competition. The best and the easiest way to control a peak is by the manipulation of training volume and intensity. So you can drop the volume and spike the intensity. It takes a lot of self-confidence and belief to be able to do that. A lot of people make the mistake of doing too much before the big competitions. It is a very common mistake.

Peaking, as you have said, seems to be a very personal process… very different for different individuals…

There are fundamental considerations that are applicable to everybody but the particular nuances of peaking an athlete, you must consider the individual and it is not just the physiology but the psychology too. Some athletes need to be reassured before a competition and they get that by training.

So if you have an athlete like that you may have to do more with them than you would normally do. So you give them what they need psychologically but not let them do something that will hurt their body. And that is where competitions becomes truly useful.

You can trial things in early season competitions and you can trial things over many years too. This is where reflection and feedback is a continual process with athletes. Athletes and coaches tend to reflect more on poor performances when actually you should reflect in exactly the same way regardless of the result. I, for one, insist that athletes maintain a training diary where they talk not just about their training but also how they are feeling or set new goals. It is an incredible thing to look back on because at the end of the day, the whole training year is about trying to peak at the main competition.

So what do you want the athlete in peak form to do?

Essentially, it boils down to doing the basics well. Pressure has been known to affect athletes and everybody else too. It comes down to who handles the pressure the best. People that handle the pressure the best are the ones that can handle good processes.

The focus when you go into training on a Thursday afternoon and when you compete in the Olympics is actually the same. You think of exactly the same things. Competition is a replication of training. The only difference is the environment and the situation that you are in. And that is what allows athletes to run faster… you must always be able to run faster in competition than in training because you have the adrenaline; because you have prepared; because you have had extra rest.

In training, you are invariably fatigued from the previous training session. In my experience, the best athletes have the ability to raise one percent in big competitions but in the main competitions, they will raise two percent and they are the athletes that will ultimately go on to win medals and break records. They are the super high achievers and there are very few of those.

Usain Bolt was obviously one of those…

He was the perfect storm of everything. He’s got amazing genetic ability, his physique is absolutely perfect for sprinting and he’s got a great mindset. And what he does was come out and replicate what he had done thousands of times in training. That’s it. And the environment of the World Champs and the Olympic Games allowed him to push even higher. He’s retired now but who knows who’ll take up the mantle now.

So far, we have spoken about the physical aspect of peaking. How important is the mental aspect… is there a mental aspect?

Everything is important. As they are coming into a major competition, I allow them to have some cheat food. If they like chocolate, they can have some the night before the race because it is too late to make a difference at that stage. You are allowed to have a little bit of cheat because the psychological impact of that is good. They feel good and while it is something that you won’t do in huge doses but the smaller stuff is absolutely fine.

There is something called energy and it comes in many forms. It is not physical but can be emotional or spiritual even. When we are going into big competitions, the athletes must conserve as much energy as they can. So they must do stuff like… shut people who have low or negative energies out of their lives for a period of time. They must be very, very selfish as they go into big competitions. They must turn the phone off if they want peace or solitude.

At the Olympic Games, the Olympic Village is an amazing place and there are loads of things going on. A lot of athletes are very excited, they walk around and they get tired. My athletes… I don’t let them do anything before the competition. They are just resting… literally resting because it is the calm before the storm.

If you look at nature, like a lion or a tiger… they spend huge amounts of time but when they move, they move so quickly. I am mainly talking about sprinters and power event athletes here because it works differently for endurance athletes. But the sprinter should be itching to get going when they are at the line. They should be feeling fresh. They should be feeling rested. They should feel that they are at their best. They should almost feel irritated from not being able to run.

No one can tell you what Bolt did in his first, second or third race but they can tell you he won the Olympics 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m. Nobody knows what happened in the other races because nobody cares. That is the reality and that is why peaking is important.

About James Hillier: BSc Sport & Exercise Sciences; UK Sport Elite Coach Apprenticeship Programme Graduate; UK Sport Mentoring Programme Graduate. He was the former National Coach & Athlete Development Manager for England Athletics and has coached multiple World Championships, Olympics and Commonwealth Games Medalists.