How To

How to plan your training to hit peak form for a sportive or race

Peaking for an event is part art, part science - here's how to crack the equation

‘Peaking’ for an event is part art, part science,  and can be a complicated affair when planning to hit the particular day or week in the best possible form.

If you’ve been training hard for a target event, whether it’s a sportive or race, you’ll want to make sure that the hard work and hours in the saddle are put to good use on the day and you have managed to bring together all the components needed to produce that big performance you want.

Bringing all this together at the right time takes both strategy and planning, and you have to get the following components right:

  • Specific training sessions based on demands of the event
  • A balanced taper to strike the balance between fitness and freshness
  • A mental approach which will ensure you are focused and relaxed.

If you can bring these three pieces of the puzzle together then you are onto a winning ride. But how do you do that? Let’s take a closer look at the different parts of the puzzle.

If you’ve trained hard for a sportive or road race, then you’ll want to make sure you arrive at the end in peak form

Training blocks approaching goal event

In order to produce you’re best performance on the day, you need to look at the event you are targeting and devise a suitable training plan that works on the demands of the event and your weaknesses.

This is where working with a coach can bring real focus to your training, particularly as every event is different, not only across disciplines, including road racing, criteriums, sportives, cyclo-cross and time trials, but also course profiles, however there are some core principals we can all put into place.

The first step is to ensure you have a solid base fitness, which will allow you to complete the event, if not produce the top performance you want. Ideally, you will want to have a consistent and injury-free build-up in the two to three months prior to the final phase of preparation for an event.

Start your final phase four or five weeks out from your goal event – this will be enough time to work on your final form if you are already at a good fitness level. In this final phase, and before you start your taper, there are five steps to follow.

1) Make sure your training is specific to your goal and the intensities needed to perform at that event. Do two or three specific sessions a week that will work at the required intensity, in order to act as a ‘rehearsal’ for the day itself.

2) Analyse the demands of the event to understand exactly what will be required of you on the day. For example, if you are aiming for a road race that has four climbs lasting three minutes each, and come in quick succession, then consider the power required to be competitive on these hills, the cadence you’re likely to have to hit, and, crucially, your ability to recover rapidly between efforts – and bring these three components together in training.

3) In between these specific training days you need to allow adequate recovery so you can perform at your best for the next intensive training session. There’s little use starting a hard training session already on your knees.

4) Before you start the taper phase, the intensity (effort) of your training should gradually increase up to the level you want to hit, but your overall volume (hours) should decrease slightly. However, depending on your chosen discipline or the length of the event, both of these components can vary. For example, if you are aiming for a multi-day Alpine sportive then you will need to keep up a higher volume before the taper in comparison to someone who is aiming for a one-hour cyclo-cross race. Again, it’s about planning your training around the specifics of an event.

5) The quality of each training session is more critical than ever in this form-finding phase – no junk training. Makes each session count and ensure every ride has a purpose.

The main goal through this phase is to get all the required training stimulus in place far enough out from your goal event to allow for both adaptation and recovery during your taper.

Use the final 4-5 weeks ahead of your target event to up the intensity (Pic: Luca Bettini/Tinkoff-Saxo)

The art of the taper

The taper should be seen as ‘icing on the cake’, when all the work is done and the fitness is gained but the perfect taper will allow you to see that fitness maximised with adequate rest.

Most tapers will begin around seven to ten days before your goal event. During this time your focus should be to freshen up the body and allow it to recover from previous high training loads, but also to make sure you do not lose any gains made in past weeks.

This is the balancing act we need to play with in order to make it work. One big misconception with tapering is that your fitness can change in the week leading up to your event. Your fitness won’t change but your freshness will, and it’s why you need to use this time to make sure you are ready to make the most of the form you’ve built up. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that one more hard session will help build your form – if you do too much you can undermine all the hard work you’ve done.

Here are some six points to put into place to ensure a successful taper:

A successful taper will see you strike the balance between fitness and freshness, and ensure you’re not on your hands and knees come race day

1) Be confident. All the hard work is done and be content that you have done what you can and no single training session in the last week will help improve your fitness.

2) Reduce total volume by around forty to sixty per cent compared to previous weeks.

3) While you want to avoid long, hard sessions, add some short, intensive bursts into your rides to keep your muscles primed. A few 30-second to one minute anaerobic efforts or short ten second sprints will allow you to keep the muscles ready and active and avoid that dead feeling you can have when you lower training intensity and volume. Do a maximum of two rides that include these intensities in the week leading up to an event. For example, if you’re target event is on Sunday then do a short ride of 60-90 minutes with six short anaerobic efforts on the Tuesday and Thursday.

4) If you are aiming for a long endurance event, like a long sportive or mountain bike marathon, then try to include one volume ride four or five days out from the event. Aim to do between three and four hours but keep it at a low intensity.

5) Have a minimum of one complete day off, with a maximum of three days completely off in a ten day taper period.

6) Avoid having a complete day off on the day before your goal event, especially if it is an intensive event like a road race, time trial or cyclo-cross race. A short aerobic ride of 45 to 90 minutes, with some short bursts of 10-30 seconds will help open up the lungs and avoid the legs feeling like lead on race day. This ride shouldn’t be hard enough to produce any fatigue but just enough to have the body ready for the next day.

Having the right mental attitude is vital when preparing for a major event (Pic: Olaf Pignataro)

Mental attitude

Your psychological approach has a massive bearing on your performance on the day. This applies both to your approach to individual intensive training sessions in the final training blocks. right through to the mental attitude you have on the start line.

During the final phase of training you will be doing plenty of specific training sessions at intensities and on terrain similar to what you will encounter on the day – this is the perfect time to do some visualisation in order to prepare yourself. If you are positive in your approach to training and happy with your progress during the final phases then you are more likely to be positive and focused on the day when in a more pressurised environment.

The taper process has a lot to do with confidence and positivity in your ability. Getting the balance right between freshness to fitness often comes down to making the right decisions in the final week. If you feel under pressure to continue with tough training sessions or push the limits too much with one more intensive ride, then you’re unlikely to be in a good mindset when it comes to your event. It’s ok to be nervous, but if you’ve taken all the steps then you should be confident that you’re in a good place and focus on having a positive attitude. Allow yourself to enjoy the well-earned rest and recovery.

The art of peaking can be something that takes years to perfect – every individual reacts differently to training and tapering, and different disciplines require different approaches, but if you stick to these basic principles then you’ll give yourself a head start.


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