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Peaking Strategies for Team Sport Athletes

Travis Hansen

The topic of peaking or “supercompensation” is a fascinating one to say the least.

The ability to continually improve your athletes over time requires repetitive peaking in amounts dependent upon the skill level and schedule of the athlete, and other factors.  More advanced athletes aren’t going to be able to peak as frequently as a beginner since they are much closer to their genetic ceiling, and their level of performances are going to demand much more energy and time that the body is unwilling to supply on a regular basis unfortunately.

As a result, coaches need to have a roadmap that they can lean on and follow as an athlete progresses over time, and be willing to weather the storm of performance stalls and even temporary decline at times, but still keep training hard and smart.  Furthermore, there definitely seems to be some predictable patterns of adaptation or improvement that occur when it comes to acceleration and speed development in athletes.

This valuable information can allow a coach to stay ahead of the game, and also relay to the athlete they are training with the prescribed approach and what to look for from the body’s reaction to training, so that the athlete not only knows what is going on, but this process can also help keep the athlete motivated and engaged.  Right now I want to share with you a progressive sequence of approaches you can utilize to help peak your athletes for speed while potentially saving some time, energy, and frustration in the process.

Many will argue that most athletes cannot peak since they partake in intense practices and competition on a near regular basis and don’t have the energy capacity to exhibit their highest levels of performance.  There is literally no way to argue with this fact, especially with modern sport specialization being practiced these days, and I would counter this statement by deeming any and all of these individuals as “In-Season” athletes by definition.

With that being said, the entire training approach changes on all levels in this situation, and the information in this article is intended to help athletes peak their speed in the off-season where there is more time to dedicate to training, and should be treated as such.

Here we go!

SEQUENCE #1-LOW VOLUME PHASE-INTRO

 There is some sound evidence that shows that small quantities of training volume and frequency work is wonderful for signaling specific changes at the neuromuscular level.  Features such as increased cross sectional area (muscle size), fast twitch fiber conversion, and calcium exchange at the sarcoplasmic reticulum are a few examples. (1)

Low volume approaches work great for beginners or returning athletes since they are un-adapted to training and there are several adjustments the body can still make to get faster.  Plus, why do more than you need to derive maximal benefit from your speed and supportive training methods?  Injury risk is also extremely high for various reasons at this juncture, so by limiting training volume you can obviously decrease the number of opportunities the body has to become injured.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Technical issues are also very apparent at the beginning of a program in most athletes, and one reliable strategy for alleviating several errors in technique is by incorporating some quality sled and ramp training during speed training segments as these methods have shown to remedy several technical issues (i.e. over-striding, trunk lean, etc.).  Moreover, these drills can reduce ground impacts, strengthen weak muscles, and form immediate postural changes that reinforce proper acceleration patterns for the athlete.

PEAKING STRATEGIES FOR TEAM SPORT ATHLETES

 “Why do more than you need to derive maximal benefit from your speed and supportive training methods?” 

Training should ideally be general at this point, so a major focus should be on the weight room and building a general strength base and specific muscle mass to build more horsepower when higher amounts of sprinting will be necessary.  This is important from a sprint tolerance standpoint, and it also helps with the speed reserve to allow repeat peak performances that every athlete needs.

This phase can last for weeks and even months until the athlete’s strength is adequate and a consistent plateau has been reached.  The exception here would be when an athlete has time constraints (i.e. return to sport or school, etc.).  In which case a higher training frequency should be implemented.

SEQUENCE #2-MODERATE VOLUME PHASE

 Once the “honeymoon” period is over for the athlete, eventually they will run into a demoralizing prolonged plateau in performance.  At which point, something in the program will need to be altered to allow for further development.  The easiest training variable to manipulate during this period of the training cycle will be simply adding in more sprinting volume to help resume progress.  Fat loss expert Alwyn Cosgrove, once said that humans adapt to the number of reps the fastest and the actual exercise last.  I’ve learned this to be a very true statement, since athletes can benefit from the same exercise for years, but become both mentally and physically stagnant with fixed training volumes (sets and reps).

I should note that it’s also very common for athletes to experience some stagnancy at some point during this phase that they should try and grind through.  Eventually they will often break through the temporary barrier that currently exists.  This approach doesn’t always work, but in my experience with training athletes, this is one of the most opportune times to do it.

Once the athlete raises their speed levels some and encounters another plateau, it would then be advisable to introduce a new training phase that becomes more specific or speed dominant to continue to keep the ball rolling in the right direction, and most notably, reinforce program adherence.

SEQUENCE #3-CONCENTRATED LOADING/OVERREACHING PHASE 

 I’ve heard both terms referenced so whichever one you prefer works fine.  At this point, the athlete has become very familiar with sprinting and speed work, there lower body is strong and can definitely tolerate a higher workload, and the risk of injury is relatively quite low.

Previously it would have been smart to cut off sprinting and stop the speed portion of a training session once there was any drop-off in training times.  For example, running a 40 yard dash, and you drop off .01.  You should then drop the set.  This can help prevent shifting the training focus from speed to conditioning which is very common.

Athletes also need to discover exactly how max effort high intensity sprinting feels from a sensory standpoint, especially when they are new to speed training.  That way they can learn to arrive at the prescribed training intensity instinctually and get the most out of the program without as much interference.  However, at this stage of training there is going to be some fatigue experienced by the athlete towards the end of the workout, and this is perfectly fine as it will help stimulate the production and delivery of specific enzymes associated with the alactic energy system, which is primarily responsible for fueling speed and power oriented activities.  High level sprinters have shown to be more efficient in manufacturing energy at higher levels of training.

Fatigue and enzymes

 “Some fatigue at the end of a sprint workout will help stimulate the production and delivery of specific enzymes associated with the alactic energy system… high level sprinters are more efficient at manufacturing energy at higher levels of training”

Because your sprinting workouts should be at opposite ends of the week at this point in the program, for example, acceleration work on Monday or Tuesday, and top speed training on Thursday or Friday, it should be no problem to fully recover from your speed workouts.  This is true especially if you focus on pure acceleration earlier in the training week, and recovery protocols are in order.

SEQUENCE #4-TAPER PHASE

At some point in the previous phase as you increase volume, you or your athlete will experience more progress and then another inevitable plateau, serving as a sign that more change needs to be implemented in the program to resume progress.  Increasing volume further at this juncture would be counterproductive for the following reasons:

*Hormone levels plummet with longer workouts 

  • Central nervous system fatigue
  • Depleted energy reserves in peripheral muscles
  • Decreased Motivation
  • Reduced training quality with other initiatives (i.e. strength, hypertrophy, power)

The next logical step is to start to lower training volume over the course of weeks progressing into a complete de-load period to optimize recovery from the prolonged workload that was just experienced by the athlete.  Research has shown that speed tapering or detraining is very effective for a period of time.  One reason is that while you are actually training, the effects from that training spill over into subsequent training phases and take weeks to show up in your performance.  Joel Jamieson refers to these changes as accumulated effects from training, which fits the script perfectly.

A very simple and effective way to utilize a taper is too simply subtract a rep or two for a few weeks until you arrive back to your original baseline of sprinting.  Also, make sure to keep up with your resistance training as muscle atrophy can become common during a detraining phase, since there is far less of a leg stimulus and strength training is already in or should be in a maintenance phase.

PHASE #5-PEAKING PHASE     

Once the taper is complete and you may have experienced a new PR, it then becomes a perfect time to work towards achieving an all time high and truly peak an athlete! Some general rules here are to enable full recovery of all systems of the body, while still slightly increasing muscle tone via potentiation methods, accumulate more training effects, and maintain general endurance levels.  Bottom line is that all the hard work has been finished up and until now, there really isn’t much else you can do, and you just need to put your athletes in the best position to showcase all of that blood, sweat, and tears. 

I advocate taking a week and a half (10 days) off.  Any training or activity that you do decide to perform should consist of daily light core and mobility/bodyweight work, along with 2 stimulatory full body strength training workouts performed 3 to 4 days from the start and end of the peak/test day. Once the test day arrives there really shouldn’t be too much more that needs to be done except go out and perform to the best of your abilities.   Here is another great article compliments of speed coach Ryan Banta which discusses several different interpretations on how to optimize your terminal peaking phase:

In closing, please be aware that this is just one approach that I’ve found very useful with our athletes looking to maximize their acceleration and top speed potential.  The sequences presented were realized by a combination of personal scientific research and hundreds of hours being in the trenches with my athletes, failing, tracking and studying data, acquiring personal feedback from athletes, and revising the system and continually making it better.  The plan is by no means a be all end all to periodization, just one that has consistently worked for my athletes and I, and one that I will always improve upon.

References      

#1-Ross A, Leveritt M. Long‐term metabolic and skeletal muscle adaptations to short‐sprint training: implications for sprint training and tapering. Sports Medicine 31: 1063‐1082, 2001.

About Travis Hansen

Travis Hansen has been involved in the field of Human Performance Enhancement for nearly a decade. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fitness and Wellness, and holds 3 different training certifications from the ISSA, NASM, and NCSF. He was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Reno Bighorns of the NBADL for their 2010 season, and he is currently the Director of The Reno Speed School inside the South Reno Athletic Club. He has worked with hundreds of athletes from almost all sports, ranging from the youth to professional ranks. He is the author of the hot selling “Speed Encyclopedia“, and is also the leading authority on speed development through the International Sports Sciences Association.

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