As most people know, running is a year-round sport. Aside from the competitive seasons of fall cross country and winter/spring track and field, summer is one of the most important training blocks of the year. However, a question that plagues most runners is how to train over the summer without peaking too early and being burnt out by the middle of the season. Or worse yet, ending up with an overuse injury before the gun goes off at their first meet.
There is an inordinate amount of stories of high school runners who start the summer motivated and ready to train, and then end up physically or mentally "fried" by the time fall comes around, with their fastest times hitting in late August and early September. It's a crisis that many athletes don't tend to worry about, but it still carries huge consequences. Personally, I had always carried in my head the mantra of 'the more you train, the faster you will run.' While that is mostly accurate, it is not always the case. Often times overtraining can have the same effect as undertraining: slower times and a disappointing season.
So what does it mean to peak too soon? Basically, your "peak" is the time when your body is in its best condition to race. You're trained, but you're also fresh. You feel well-rested while maintaining the same level of fitness you had in the middle of your training. One's peak often depends on their taper. A taper is the time before a big race, or usually during the postseason for high school runners, where athletes pull back on their training a little, running at a lower volume. This allows for runners to sustain their fitness while making sure they are fresh for postseason races.
In most cases, peaking too early is either the result of too much or too little of a taper. Dramatically changing your training a few weeks before a race can cause confidence and anxiety issues, but not adjusting anything can result in no peak at all. According to Runners World, the best type of taper cuts down volume by anything from 25% to 60%, and adds higher intensity workouts, either at race pace or threshold pace. As you can see, there is a great variety to the "perfect" taper, which means that the biggest component of a proper taper is that it fits the individual runner. It's important for a taper to cut down on mileage, but the decrease depends on the runner, their experience, and their strengths. This goes the same for workout intensity. If a runner is more speed-oriented, interval workouts may better prepare them to race. If they are stronger at endurance, they could benefit from tempo or threshold runs. There is no cookie-cutter taper that will work for every athlete. As long as it cuts back on volume and slowly increases the intensity of workouts, it can be individualized for each unique athlete.
Of course, overuse injuries are guaranteed to result in an early peak. Almost every experienced runner has battled injuries, and a lot of us know how disappointing it can be to miss out on some of the most important races of the season because we pushed it during training. Summer is one of the best times to train, but it is also one of the best times to recover. Better to take a break in the summer without the pressure of an upcoming race, and ensure a healthy season with your peak right when you need it.