It sounds ridiculously simple, but many great athletes or their coaches have failed on the major stage because they forgot one simple thing.
That simple, major thing is called R-E-S-T. It’s a four-letter word to some hardened athletes or their coaches, so used to hard training that they are wary of backing off, even for a short period of time before a major race, to ensure their best possible performance is possible or even likely.
The most useful form of R-E-S-T for an endurance-based athlete is very low intensity exercise at the lowest aerobic levels. This active rest ensures that the muscles are cleared of acidic metabolites and that the body recovers properly from intense training.
Whatever level of high intensity the athlete achieves in training or racing has to be compensated for with active rest that is at such a low intensity that it can be described as the opposite of the hard session just completed.
A brainy Russian physiologist named Nikolai Yakovlev worked out that for many middle-distance athletes in the normal bell curve, a final hard anaerobic session at exactly the intensity expected for the peak race was best done eleven days before the event.
This intense work bout would be followed by about 5.5 days of very easy low intensity active recovery (slow jogging for a middle distance track athlete) before the body’s deep anaerobic energy reserves would bounce back to a greater level than before at the apex of the super-compensation curve another 5.5 days later.
Astute coaches like New Zealander Arch Jelley, coach of 1976 Olympic 1500m gold medallist and world mile record-holder John Walker, would ration out blocks of steady easy running just so that their athletes wouldn’t peak too soon before a major race.
Arch, who is still actively coaching at 96 years old, famously got John Walker to stop all demanding anaerobic track work for two weeks in the final lead-up to the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Walker was improving so rapidly that commentators thought he’d peak before the Games started. Instead, Walker just ran steadily on the local forest tracks, and maintained his leg-speed with short fast sprints with lots of easy recovery, but no anaerobic session was done at anything resembling world-record intensities.
The result? The steady running kept his slow twitch muscle fibres and the aerobic system in excellent shape, and the short sharp sprints with plenty of recovery kept his sprint technique and pure Type IIB fast twitch muscles firing, while his anaerobic capacity couldn’t progress further because the most anaerobic fibres, the type IIA fast twitch, weren’t getting exercised.
This was like putting the athlete’s form on ice for a couple of weeks; just enough time to lead into the heats of his middle distance races, which served as further stimuli for his final massive peak, culminating in a very strong finish for second in 3:32.4 behind Filbert Bayi’s front-running world record of 3:32.2, well below the former world 1500m record held by Jim Ryun at 3:33.1.