Peak Programming: The Final 28 Days
Eight athletes in one weekend are competing for multiple world team spots. Performance is based around countless variables, adaptations vary from athlete to athlete, each individual may respond differently to intensity or volume, making it difficult to recognize peak condition. Day 1 goes down, one athlete goes off and hits a world standard while making a world team, two athletes compete at or just around their season-best while the fourth athlete performs just below the season-best. Day 2, two athletes are competing for two spots. Each individual ties their best snatch in competition while bombing out at their highest opener ever, potentially preventing them from achieving their world team dream. One lives on and does qualify for Worlds, the other does not. Day 3, the final two athletes have been training like freight trains, smashing throws and hitting competition PR’s as they head into their big day of competition. It starts to downpour with rain, they don’t handle the circumstances tremendously well and don’t perform to their standard. The weekend ends, 25% of the competitors qualified for their respective Senior World team, 75% competed either consistently or poorly. This is the world of high-performance sport.
This was the direct result from last weekend when Garage Strength had athletes competing at USA Track and Field nationals and USA Weightlifting world team trials at the same exact time. Every possible variable can be put into managing a peak, every possible variable can be handled perfectly and still not executed well. This is simply a part of the sport. On the other hand, some individuals could be mismanaged and poorly coached yet still compete and perform at an incredibly high level. Again, that is simply a part of the sport. Peak programming is incredibly difficult, there are aspects that can be taken into account and variables that can be determined, controlled and measured but still providing an inconsistent result. The entire goal of a coach determines the length of a peak window for a given individual, how intense their training should be, how frequent they will have high-intensity training, how much volume they should have in training, how much that volume alters from day to day, etc...all the way down to how many competitive lifts or throws the individual takes or how many variation throws or lifts the athlete may take.
For the sake of this blog, all of the variations and competitive movements will be based around the sport of Olympic weightlifting and shot put and discus.
What determines the length of a peak?
For throwers and weightlifters, it is very difficult to have a blanket question be answered with a very precise response. Instead, the response will align with that of a politician...all over the place. For starters, it is incredibly important to understand adaptation curves. By analyzing athletes and characterizing their response to various stimuli, it will enable the coach to better understand how each respective athlete will respond, be it positive or negative.
Take, for instance, 67k lifter Jordan Wissinger vs. 115k Discus thrower Sam Mattis. Both of these men are World team members, both had to perform on a very specific date. However, the methods used to peak each individual were based entirely around their adaptation curve. Sam tends to respond within 24-28 days of a long period of programming. That includes his decrease in volume. He handles changes in programming through a 3-week time frame. This makes it relatively easy to plan out, BUT it also means that he takes a little longer to reload for a potential peak Jordan, on the other hand, can get into solid shape within 2 weeks if he is on a consistent training block. His adaptation curve resembles a parabola over a two-week time frame. One week he may be down in stress management and performance and the following week he will be incredibly strong with stress management and performance. For both of the strength athletes that we are addressing, the length of the peak is determined entirely by their body and their ability to adapt to stress.
Athlete’s like Sam handle volume quite well and therefore take a longer time to adjust to a significant decrease in volume. BUT, that longer period of adaptation elicits a large jolt in their performance. Using Sam as an example, he threw 62 meters at two meets a week prior to US Nationals. The following week, his easy warm-ups were around 62 meters and his first throw was a competition lockdown at 66.69 meters. If we can remember this lesson, we understand that some individuals respond to alterations in programming within one week, some within two weeks, some may take three weeks. The longer responders need to be educated on their peak period and the coaches MUST maintain sanity and patience during that long three week period. This means that confidence needs to be established within the training system and prior tests need to be executed to ensure a positive understanding of the biological mechanisms to stress.
How often can athletes go heavy during a peak period?
This question holds a simple answer and a more complex answer. The simple answer is generally around 1-2 times a week. The intensity can be hit within a minimal amount of sets, helping the individual decrease residual fatigue. By only having 1-2 heavy days of training a week, the athlete will still maintain the feeling of higher intensity weight while still being able to recover.
The long answer? It depends. What is the purpose of a heavy load? In our weightlifters, the higher load might be to make sure the lifter still has a strong feeling with higher intensity off the floor. For throwers, the higher intensity movement may be used to force potentiation in other movements. It is important that higher intensity exercises do not have a negative impact on fatigue or a negative impact on the speed of the throw. Remember that throwing is a much faster movement than Olympic lifting and that very intense movements can negate the rate of force production over a 2-3 recovery period.
The final answer? It also depends on the individual. Some weightlifters respond very, very well to high intense training prior to big meets. Some do not. If an athlete does well on 10-16 days of heavy training, then that type of program needs to be utilized to optimize performance. Take Hayley Reichardt for example. At the 2019 World Championships on the Junior Level, we hit 72 and 95 the day before she lifted. Twenty four hours before. She opened at 71 and 94k. I would have preferred 72/95k openers but that was not on the cards, nonetheless, she went on to place third in the World in one of the most stacked weight classes!
How many allowed misses or poor throws during a peak?
This is very dependent upon proximity to the competition. If we are three weeks out, it is ok to have a miss on the platform once every 15-20 lifts. In the circle, it’s ok to have a bad throw once every 8-10 throws. However, as the meet creeps closer, athletes better have a maximum of one fail every 25-30 lifts and 15-20 throws. Both sports are very technical and it’s important to know that technique and strength must be on point in both athletic realms. If the sporting movement is not executed with consistent precision, the competition will be a crapshoot with random results. Random results lead to high blood pressure and a balding head.
Yes, Dane is actually balding!
Should Athletes use variations during peaks?
I believe they absolutely should. Again, this is dependent upon the athlete but in most cases, there need to be 2 days of specific variation usage. In weightlifting, the variations can be used to train a technical feeling or enhance mental confidence. If an athlete can hit 105% of their max off two boxes, then, by all means, use two boxes as a way to enable them to feel strong leading into meet week.
I have a slightly different approach with the throws. I prefer our throwers to focus on non-reverse throws and full throws. The non-reverse throws are a style of variation. It is commonplace in the throwing world to really focus entirely on standing throws, half turns and South Africans, however, I believe these can have a negative transfer to competition form. This was evident during the men's discus at USA Nationals and men's shot as well. Many individuals were taking half throws for multiple reps and throwing the half reps as far as their competitive full throws. I believe that shows a negative transfer of half turn to full throw and thus should not be used during a peak period.
When is the LAST day athletes should go heavy?
This is very specific to the individual. In weightlifting, the rule of thumb is 10 days out have a very heavy back squat session, 7 days out a very heavy front squat day, 5 days out a heavy clean and jerk session and 4 days out heavy snatch session. I believe this can vary quite a bit. As mentioned with Hayley, some weightlifters can go heavy the day prior to competition while other lifters do better have 3-4 full days of recovery after their last heavy day. The last heavy day should be executed precisely to enhance the neural imprint for technical consistency. The most success from a blanket perspective that I have found with the various weightlifters is to have their last heavy front squat 4 days out from the competition and the same day would be their last heavy snatch. Five days out would be to clean and jerk to a max as fast as possible, the heaviest back squat would be in the seven to ten-day range.
For throwing, we use heavy implements all the way until the day prior to training. Typically, the last “mock meet” that we would hold is 5 days away from the competition day. The remaining sessions will be focusing on the two cues we will hammer during the competition day, trying to wake up emotions and intensity every single session to emulate the meet they are preparing for. Athletes like Sam Mattis like to throw 1-2 hard throws the morning of the actual competition while some athletes may prefer to hold intensity back for five days heading into a big meet. I do believe in a sport like throwing, it is ideal to have the speed of the competition movement executed at a very high level within 3 days of their performance date.
Peaking is an art more so than a scientifically profound experience. It is our goal as coaches to take away as many possible variables of stress to enable our athletes to have their absolute best peak. By focusing entirely on the physical side, we oftentimes forget that these athletes need to peak their mental approach as well. As they unite the mental approach with the physical peaking, the quantity of variables decreases tenfold! As variables decrease, success compounds and increases!
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