Is there any real physiological reason we have to train to peak, and the peak can only last for a brief period? Why can't I just be as fit as I possibly can be, and sustain that forever?
Erik Zabel raced all year, competitive for every race from February through September, more or less. His was the routine of every cyclists in the pre-EPO era. You never heard Fignon, Hinault, Coppi, or Merckx talking about "peaking." For them, it was simply a matter of getting in shape from the off-season.
So, is the notion of peaking a result of the doping era, in which athletes adjusted their drug regimines to build and peak? The most notorious sport of dopers, bodybuilding, is also the most cyclical, with building and stripping phases, each phase with its particular drugs, foods, exercises, and rituals.
For those of us who wish to be at our best all the time, unfortunately, we can't peak forever. We're all different, to some extent, but none of us can avoid fatigue--and that's the reason we must peak. It's the reason we have to cycle, to periodize, to just do different stuff, to go harder for one week and go easy the next.
Still, we're all different and often our bodies respond unpredictable. Sometimes, what we think is our peak is actually a steppingstone. Our bodies respond to the stress of our planned peak by...attaining an even higher peak--what exercise physiologists call "supercompensation."
Every bit of conventional knowledge about periodization suggests periods of base training followed by gradual building of speed and intensity, with rest days interspersed. You'd never consider going all out for two weeks straight as a kind of training for a race that follows.
Yet that kind of all-out intensity led Jani Brajkovic to see a massive improvement in his power output, a week after doing the Dauphine last year: his 5-minute power improved by 40 Watts--a 7-10% increase.
And consider this study, cited by Friel in his blog:
In 1992 a group of seven Dutch cyclists increased their training volume from a normal 12.5 hours per week to 17.5 hours for each of two weeks. They also boosted their intense training from 24 to 63 percent of total training time during that period. At the end of two weeks there was a significant decrease in all aspects of their fitness—they were on the edge of overtraining. But after two weeks of recovery, the riders experienced a 6-percent increase in power, their time trials improved by an average of 4 percent, and they produced less acidity at top speed compared with pre-crash levels. Not bad for two weeks of hard training.
If it was just Brajkovic, I'd dismiss the results as the effects of a few bags of blood. But several other studies have confirmed that periods of hard training followed by periods of active recovery lead to serious gains.
For those of us who love to race every weekend, this is a warning. We'll never achieve our peak fitness if our plan follows a typical MABRA (Sunday race, Monday rest, Tuesday hills, Wednesday flats, Thursday intervals, Saturday race) plan.
I'm not sure how supercompensation works, and I'm not sure event the smartests exercise scientists do, so don't necessarily run out and ride hard for seven days straight hoping for a big bump in fitness. There were no control groups who rode hard for seven days and then, for example, rode hard for another seven days--maybe their fitness improvements would have been even greater. There was no control group who just simply rested for two weeks. So it's hard to draw conclusions from a possible drug-taking pro and a few Dutch cyclists.
Still, they're pretty enticing results, and planning a crash into your peak plan might be worth a try.