XTERRA Couch to Trail – It’s Time to Get Specific and Peak!



By 5x XTERRA Age Group World Champ Mimi Stockton

Last month, we discussed the four different phases of periodization training and how each one has their respective place in the overall plan. Now I’m here to delve into the third phase and fourth phases – Race Specificity and Peak.

In the last installment of XTERRA Couch to Trail, we discussed the Build Phase and what it entails.

Build Phase

Just in case you forgot, this phase requires more focus on specific systems and the types of workouts vary greatly.  The Build Phase’s primary objective is to maximize aerobic power and start building the top end. You want to put your energies into increasing muscular endurance and anaerobic endurance, so workouts typically drop in volume and increase in intensity. The key to this phase is to become more efficient (faster) at a certain distance or go farther for a certain time period.

This is done by adding “interval” training to your workouts. These intervals can be repeats in the pool, on the track, or on your bike. This phase lasts anywhere between four to eight weeks and comes after the Base Phase and before the big race. But, before we get to the big race, we want to do something called “peaking”. The final phase, the Peak Phase, typically lasts around 4 weeks and is race-specific.  It typically includes sessions that mimic the distance of your race (for most XTERRA races this is anywhere between 800 and 1500 meter swim, 14-18 mile mountain bike and 4-8 mile run), intense training days, and race-specific workouts.

The Peak Phase

“Peaking” itself is a very tricky thing to do. Basically, you are trying to bring together your whole season for one or two important races. It could be a regional XTERRA race, the XTERRA Pan Am Championship or even the XTERRA World Championship. Either way, you want to perform your best.

To be successful at the Peak Phase, the aim is to get the right mix of intensity and rest to produce race-readiness at the right time. It involves doing broken-up race simulations every third or fourth day, and then taking rest or doing easy sessions in between. These workouts should gradually get shorter as you progress through the first week or two. On the days between your race simulation sessions you should rest or train at low intensities and these workouts should also get shorter as the Peak Phase progresses.

The philosophy is quite simple: the closer in time you get to the race, the more like the race your workouts must become. When you are many months away from the race, you can include things that are very different from racing in your training plan such as cross-country skiing or surfing. But when we start approaching race date (3-4 weeks out), we do workouts that are very race-appropriate, like zipping around tight single-track with laser focus or running through the trails with a fierceness in your stride. Some of these workouts will actually feel like mini races.

So ho often should you do these workouts? And how intense do you want to go and for how long? These are very important questions that are worth investigating.

Frequency of Peak Workouts

Obviously, you can’t do a mini-XTERRA every day. You would very quickly become over-trained (and probably injured)! Therefore, you have to have easy days and maintenance days between the race-like workouts. If your A race is a regional race with a typical distance (800 swim/15 mile bike/5 mile run) you can do race-like workouts about twice a week in the last few weeks.

You want to do them frequently enough to prepare for the specific demands of the race, but not so frequently that you cause breakdown. If your A race is a longer distance and more physically demanding (I’m thinking Utah or Maui or any of those European races with massive mountains), then your race-like workouts might be a bit less frequent. The frequency of race-like workouts really depends on the A race for which you are training.

Intensity of Peak Workouts

For the competitive athlete, the key to success is intensity. This does not necessarily mean going as fast as you can. Rather, it means training at intensities that are appropriate for your A-race goals. For example, if your goal run pace in an XTERRA is seven minutes per mile, then the closer you get to the race, the more time you must spend running at a seven-minute pace, especially after a mountain bike ride. By the time the race rolls around, running at that pace should be second nature for you. Keep in mind that during the Peak Phase, many coaches believe that no more than 20 percent of your training should be done at anaerobic threshold or above. You want your body to get an appropriate, but not excessive, challenge.

Length of Peak Workouts

Notice in the last paragraph that I did not say the key to success for the competitive athlete is how long the workouts are. Some endurance athletes tend to believe the length of their workouts is what their training should be all about. Sometimes that’s the case if you are new to the sport and in the build phase working on boosting your engine. But once you have a solid base-line level of endurance, duration is no longer the key to your success.

The workout length is not unimportant – it’s just less important than intensity. Early in the season, especially in the Base Phase, your workouts will tend to be longer, but once you hit the Build Phase, those longer workouts shorten and the intensity increases. This will prepare you for the race much better than if you simply did more, slow miles in the pool and on the trail.

The Peak Phase absolutely focuses on your racing goals. Race-intensity workouts should be your primary focus during the Peak Phase of training. This is the best way to take the general triathlon fitness you have built through the preceding phases of the training cycle and turn it into maximum race-specific fitness. What is paramount is that the pace of the workouts be close to your goal race pace for the swim, bike and run and that the workouts be very challenging without thrashing you completely.

Periodization Training

Each of the phases we discussed — Base, Build, Race Specific/Peak — interact with one other like the links of a chain, making the final result an optimally prepared athlete that is both physically, technically and mentally ready for the race at hand. There are common elements among all athletes, but how you take these elements, mix, prepare and ultimately use them is what matters. What you want is for all the little pieces to come together to allow you to have the race of your life.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Check out their upcoming training camp in Scottsdale, Arizona set for April 26-29 at https://nextlevelendurance.net/camps or email them at info@nextlevelendurance.net.