Peaking and periodization: are we doing things wrong?

If you watched the recent World Championships it was hard not to notice the performance levels were down. The competition was exciting, but the winning marks were nothing to write home about. Take the shot put, for example. After a year of amazing performances and talk of the world record, only two of 32 athletes threw a season’s best.

Peaking is more important than ever as margins of victory are small. Inigo Mujika has studied this topic extensively and also written a book on it: Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance. He shows that in swimming, for example, the difference between first and fourth place was just 1.62% at the 2000 Olympics. The percentage margin is often higher in the throwing events, but a good peak is in most cases the difference maker.

Therefore it is no coincidence that Walsh was the champion in London. In many events, the one or two individuals that perform at their best quickly move to the top of the podium. Bronze medalist Stipe Zunic also used peaking to his advantage. He was just 2cm from his best, which helped him move from a world rank of 13th to 3rd.

Peaking and periodization

Peaking is one of the main problems that periodization was founded to solve. If we take a time machine back 65 years, the father of modern periodization – Leo Matveyev – began his research with the goal of solving the problem of why so few athletes performed at their best in the Olympics. In the 1952 Olympics, most Soviet athletes underperformed at the Olympics. After analyzing the practices of the best prepared athletes, he brought forth his approach which was quickly adopted throughout the Soviet Union and later worldwide.

The scientific method, however, also requires follow up. You must measure something before, make an intervention, and then measure again. Isn’t it time we measure again to see if standard approaches to periodization are doing their job and helping athletes perform at the right time? Are we getting the results we expect?

Many people adopted the Matveyev’s approach because of the Soviet dominance in the subsequent decades. But a closer look shows the dominance does not seem to come from periodization. Rates of peaking before and after periodization have not been analyzed in detail, but as Greg Nuckols explained when looking at looking at the history of periodization:

Soviet Olympic results didn’t meaningfully improve when periodization became formalized and widely adopted. There simply aren’t meaningful differences between their last pre-periodization medal haul and their following results once periodization became adopted.”

1956 Olympics
Gold Medals 24.20% 25.110%
Total Medals 20.90% 20.00%

Even if there were a measurable improvement, it could just as easily be attributed to increased central funding from the Soviet government – or the related doping systems set at that time – as it could be to periodization.

The current situation

Currently peaking is in some ways harder and some ways easier. On the one hand, the season has become longer with athletes expected to deliver high-level results for months on end. But on the other hand travel has become easier – in 1956, the journey to the Melbourne Olympics was done by ship – science has advanced, and we have 50 years more experience in training.

The current numbers are not promising. The shot put results mentioned above were hardly an anomaly. Across all throwing events in London just 7.1% of throwers hit a season’s best, an average of just over 2 athletes per event. Overall the average among power events (sprints, jumps, and throws) in London was just 11.5%.

If you take a broader look, this isn’t just a phenomenon at the top level. My analysis of the power events at the NCAA championships, where timetables and travel are more athlete friendly, showed that just 19.7% of athletes reached a season’s best. At the Rio Olympics the average was 20.6%.

More long-term research by my colleague and Swiss national distance coach Louis Heyer showed that athletes averaged a season’s best at a rate of just 19.8% across all stadium individual events at all major international championships from 2008 to 2012 athletes.1 On average performance also declined 2.4%. The worst performing group was the throwers, with just 10.0% of throwers reaching a season’s best and an average performance decline of 4.8%. In the hammer that translated to a performance decline of more than 4 meters on average! In the shot put, that translates to more than a meter and this year just 5 centimeters separated the bronze medal from fifth place.

All individual stadium events 2008 to 2012 Throwing events 2008-2012
% of athletes with season’s best Result at championship % of athletes with season’s best Result at championship
Men  16.6%  -2.5%  7.8% -5.0%
Women  23.1%  -2.2%  12.4% -4.6%
Total  19.8%  -2.4%  10.0% -4.8%

Peaking is hard

No matter how we improve the planning process, the number will never reach 100%. Peaking is hard; all elements have to line up exactly on the same day. Major championships already present an uphill battle in this regard: travel to the competition still has an impact; weather is not guaranteed to be good; athletes receive fewer attempts; athletes compete across several rounds; pre-competition procedures are different than athletes are used to; competition times are often later than normal; athletes are under more pressure; media obligations have increased; and in some events tactics or conditions (such as lack of wind in large stadiums for the discus) almost guarantee no improvement.

That being said, if every athlete is physically prepared, we should expect a larger number of season’s bests.

Individualize peaking

Peaking has both a mental side, and a physical side. As we discussed with Tom Walsh’s coach Dale Stevenson on our podcast, you have to work on both of them simultaneously if you want to be prepared. Stevenson’s example of their work on the physical side was quiet eye-opening as they adjusted their planning based on Walsh’s individual training response. Simply put, not everyone takes the same time to adapt and that means peaking strategies also need to vary.

Stevenson observed the need to change by watching Walsh’s peaks during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In both seasons he was mentally prepared and performed well at the major championships, placing 4th at the 2015 World Championships with a national record, and then third in Rio for his first ever global outdoor medal. But it was what happened afterwards that was the most interesting. In 2015, Walsh strung together his most consistent series of meets ever in the 3 weeks following the World Championships, including bettering his own area record. After Rio, he proceeded to set three more area records in the subsequent two weeks. They concluded that it took longer for Walsh to peak, and they adjusted the plan accordingly. This year, despite injury issues, Walsh threw his season’s best at the World Championships and took home gold.

Adjusting the time is a simple solution, but, as I wrote about last week, you have to first realize that time is a training variable. We often individualize exercises and methods, but rarely to we adjust the time needed for an athlete to adapt. Once you realize time is a variable, you also have to pay close attention in order to make the change. This isn’t easy, but we’ve seen what the benefits are if you are among the few that perform when it counts. And with the current state of peaking, what do you have to lose by trying something different?

  1. Heyer, Louis et al. (2016) ; De la probabilité de réussir sa meilleure performance de la saison lors d’un championnat international en athlétisme; 8th Annual SGS/4S-Conference, 18-19/02/2016 in Bern. Book of Abstracts. University of Bern