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Posted: January 11, 2006

Science of Sport: Have You Peaked?

By Patrice Malloy

Have you reached your lifetime performance best? Has your running peaked? Can you ever exceed your past personal best times, or, in the stirring parlance of the sport, PR? How do you know? If so, what's next?

Everyone who has ever raced, from 5Ks to marathons, has a tale to tell. Although an inaugural competition can be a very gratifying experience, there are often negative side effects – abdominal maladies, blisters, etc., etc., etc. Newcomers in the sport often blithely overlook these irritating nuisances and are primed to enter another race as quickly as they consume the finish line party beer. Running oftentimes is a quick addiction.

The good news is that everybody's first race results in a PR. And everybody's first attempt at a new distance produces a PR. And the best news yet is that PRs will most likely continue to flow on a frequent basis if you're dedicated, motivated and remain healthy.

Let's say you've been running competitively for a few years now, maybe more. And you have become experienced at a variety of distances and believe you have found your niche event, be it the 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon. And you have been improving your time until recently, when you've remained stagnant. You start to accumulate miles on those once-fresh legs. Plantar fasciitis, sciatica and iliotibial band syndrome suddenly have become part of your vocabulary and you begin to refer to acetaminophen as "the fifth food group." You wonder if you hit the proverbial PR wall.

You ask yourself, "Is this as good as it is going to get?"

Defining “Peak”

"Peak" has several definitions among runners. Many elite runners are coached to peak at specific intervals in their training. In other words, they adjust their training to optimally perform for an entire season, or a specific race. And then there are career performance peaks which either can be a hypothetical "when everything is perfect'' or, in the real world, "when everything is as good as it is going to get."

Reaching Your Full Potential

Your quintessential peak is when you realize your full potential. Assume that your training has gone flawlessly, that you've never been more conditioned, that you've remained injury free thanks to a disciplined regimen of stretching and flexibility drill routines, that your diet and sleep habits are exemplary and that you are at an optimal age for your favorite distance race. Also consider that there are no negative, stress-inducing influences marring your life and you have not over-trained or raced too often.

Even world-class athletes never reach their ultimate peak. Steve Scott, the American record holder in the mile and former Olympian who has run more sub-four minute miles than anybody on Earth, admits that he never reached his ultimate potential. "My diet was terrible and I over-raced when I was in my prime," said Scott at the 2005 Carlsbad 5000 race where he placed 20th in the master's division in a very respectable16 minutes 18 seconds. Scott, 48, a three-time winner of the Carlsbad 5000 and former world record holder, once blazed the course in 13:30. Scott admits he no longer trains hard enough to compete at the level for which he feel he's capable. "Running is like life," said Scott. "You get out of it what you put into it."

Of course, no one ascends to personal heights when they're not properly training, not properly dieting and not properly motivated. Some might come close on sheer natural ability, but most fail. "The Kenyans and Ethiopians are doing everything right," said Scott. "And look who is winning many of the key races."

A Realistic Peak

The second peak, the realistic one, is reaching your potential despite the daily factors conspiring against it, such as injuries, family obligations, motivational lapses and myriad of other variables. Since few of us ever are able to reach what our body is capable of achieving under ideal conditions, a more practical, useable benchmark, a “realistic peak,” can be identified or attained.

Variables in Achieving Your Peak

There are many variables in achieving success on the running scene. In Dr. Daniels book, “Daniel's Running Formula," Daniels identifies four key ingredients in distance running. They are, in order, inherent ability, motivation, opportunity, and direction.

• Inherent Ability – Your genetic makeup is one of the most important factors in determining what your ultimate performance level will be. You have a certain amount of talent given to you at birth, and the highest end of your potential is set for you by your lineage. You can religiously follow the most demanding training plan, have the determination of a world champion, yet only be able to muster up a 44-minute 10K time. Conversely, you may learn that your physiology is well-suited for running, offering you an opportunity to excel at a sport when you might have failed at others like baseball, football and basketball.

• Motivation – Motivation to use your natural talent is an integral element of success. If you are not interested in putting in the miles or enduring the pain of a torrid competition, then your fast-twitch muscles will not be put to optimal use. Sometimes a runner might overcome a lack of natural ability by having a great motivation to succeed.

• Opportunity – Fortunately, the sport of running does not require an overabundance of equipment and it can take place in many climates, unlike downhill skiing, for example. However, not everybody in the United States, and especially not everybody in the world, has the funds to purchase running shoes and gear, has a club or team in which to be coached and nurtured, or even has the time to train. Therefore, opportunity is a much more important ingredient to success than one may initially think.

• Direction – According to Dr. Daniels, this is the least important ingredient of success because bad direction, meaning training, can be worse than no direction at all. Positive direction involves an encouraging knowledgeable coach or a quality training plan that can be realistically followed. Daniels believes that talented athletes who have the motivation and opportunity can usually perform well enough to mask the work being done by a poor coach. On the flip side, good coaches are not always recognized for positive results when the available talent is not high caliber.

Of course, other factors play a role in whether you have reached your lifetime best. Here are some other variables to consider:

• Nutrition – You can not efficiently burn energy without the right fuel. A runner’s dedication to a healthy diet is likely to vary from year to year and even decade to decade. Some people will never adhere to a strict diet. They simply do not have the motivation, will-power or knowledge.

• Injuries – Injuries are unfortunately a fact of life with competitive runners. Running puts tremendous strain on the musculoskeletal system. Surveys have shown that about 75% of male runners and 80% of female runners have suffered at least one injury serious enough to halt their running at least temporarily. Elite runners are especially prone to injuries due to their advanced and aggressive training schedules and workouts. “I believe that the best runners are not those who make it to the Olympics or World Championships,” said Dr. Daniels. “It is the runners who successfully avoid injuries at the optimal times who are able to compete at the highest level.”

• Aging – If the nachos, beer and stress fractures didn't slow you down, aging will. Research suggests that runners reach their physical peak in their early twenties and start to plateau in their mid to late thirties. Although dramatic slowdowns do not necessarily "magically" appear at age 40 at the onset of masters division competition, the decline in speed and endurance is guaranteed shortly afterwards as muscle mass and elasticity decline and the connective tissue between muscles and bones become more rigid. This inflexibility limits stride length, increasing the effort required to run.

• Onset and Duration of Competition – Daniels believes that runners who have longer winning careers have a tremendous amount of ability. This is due to working much closer to their maximum potential, as opposed to those with shorter careers who can win by just using 85% of their abilities. According to Daniels, athletes tend to use the amount of their ability to win, not the amount of ability that they have.

• Rest – The way you react to changes in performance can sometimes make things worse; a decline or plateau can trigger a series of events that further undermine your fitness goals. Frequently, when performances decline or fail to improve, people respond by increasing the duration, intensity and/or frequency of their workouts. This plan of attack is counterproductive because rest may be what is needed, not more exercise. Often one of the most difficult things for a fit person to do is rest. A week away from the gym or off the road may seem unthinkable, but periodically it is necessary and tremendously beneficial. The body is frequently described as a machine, and this is true to some extent: It needs fuel to function and can be tuned to run more efficiently. However, unlike machine components, body parts used to the point of failure cannot be replaced. The best alternative is to prevent the initial breakdown. If you've already sustained damage, you need to take time to recover. Over-training and over-racing are the most common causes of injuries and mental burnout among runners. Like Steve Scott, you can possess the innate ability and mental toughness of a world champion, but fail to reach your ultimate potential because of poor choices regarding rest.

A Late Start

Starting to run and race later in life can have a positive impact in performance, although it is likely these late bloomers are on the downside of their lifetime performance bell curve. Fresh enthusiasm for the sport fuels motivation and previously untapped talent can begin to emerge.

But does the newcomer have an advantage over the masters runner who has been running for decades and has many more miles on their legs? "I don't think so," said age-group standout Steven Brenneck, 64, who started running when he was 55 years old. "I have the same aches and pains and ailments as do other runners my age." Brenneck believes he reached his running peak when he was 58 and achieved many of his PR's, including a 38:48 10K race.

Joni Shirley, 58, started running at age 35 and is the current world record holder in the indoor mile for her age group (five minutes 43 seconds), Shirley believes she peaked when she was approximately 46 years old, when she ran her personal best marathon in 2 hours and 56 minutes.

Identifying Your Peak

Identifying your maximum fitness level can be a difficult endeavor. Measuring absolute potential is complicated and costly. Most people don't have the time, funds or desire to be poked, prodded and pushed to their maximal output all in the name of testing their aerobic capacity or muscular strength and endurance.

How do you know if and when you peaked? The obvious answer is when the PR performances take a one-way hike. However, Dr. Daniels believes that runners can have several peaks during their racing careers. "Most likely a runner has more than one peak in life, said Daniels. "Runners typically concentrate on a favorite race distance or a few race distances and eventually peak at those distances. When they try new distances another peak can result."

Daniels believes that runners may identify their peak when favorite workouts or races are not performed as well as earlier in life. "I have always felt the best way to gauge improvement is when specific workouts (same time, same distance, same rest period, etc.) feel easier to accomplish, so maybe when favorite workouts start feeling worse (even with ideal rest, diet and training) you can consider that you have peaked." Still, Daniels suggests that many circumstances can lead to feeling poorly in training or racing, so it may take a season or two of ideal training and racing to realize a peak has been reached and surpassed.

To determine if you have ever been in the neighborhood of your lifetime peak, take an inventory and ask yourself how much have you put into it, how much talent do you really have and how motivated have you been? Has your lifestyle been beneficial or detrimental to your running? Have you been properly coached?

Post Peak Acceptance

There is not much one can do about slowing down short of finding a string of downhill race courses. However, the rate at which you slow down is somewhat controllable. If you maintain an intense, well-balanced training program which includes stretching, strength work and frequent competition then you may maintain current performance, if not increase it within age-group ranges. However, pay particular attention to recovery days and beware of overtraining.

Is it possible to enjoy running without signs of improvement? Fortunately, running has many benefits, not just those defined by a stop watch. In addition to the many health benefits, the training/racing regimen has many social and psychological benefits such as camaraderie, stress reduction and a feeling of well being. Here are some suggestions to keep your running and racing fresh:

• Mix up your running by attempting new distances, such as the marathon or masters track. The latter are thriving.

• Enter some untraditional events such as trail races, mud runs or adventure relays.

• Cross train and consider competing in a triathlon or duathlon.

• Turn your next race into a vacation. Destination races in the US and abroad can offer even the most seasoned marathoner a fresh perspective and renewed vigor.

• Readjust your goals. Runners are one of the few groups of people who actually look forward to reaching 40, 50, and 60 years old, hence a new age group competition division. Compare your race times to others in your category, not to what you once did.

• Race with a beginner. Fresh enthusiasm can be contagious.

• Find a small race where you can shine. Yes, this is called “cherry-picking a race,” but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures! Look for an under-publicized out-of-the-way race where you can win an award and renewed zest. There are races in Death Valley, Antarctica, Easter Island and, on a more practical note, in many US rural areas.

Have you peaked? Maybe so, but only at the events and distances at which you are comfortable. There is a world of athletic adventures available where new peaks can be achieved and new PR’s can be set.

“Sport is not about being wrapped up in cotton wool. Sport is about adapting to the unexpected and being able to modify plans at the last minute. Sport, like all life, is about taking risks.” – Sir Roger Bannister

Patrice Malloy is a competitive masters runner and freelance writer living in Cardiff by the Sea, California. She estimates she never came close to reaching her ultimate lifetime performance peak but reached her realistic running peak at age 38. Patrice can be reached at patrice@patricemalloy.com.


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© Copyright 2005 Peak Running Performance. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission


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