Competitive performances are built on a foundation of training. The training which precedes the competition phase should demonstrate a gradual improvement in the amount of specific training that has occurred. Prior to entering this phase, all competition-specific physical combinations and technical elements should have reached their highest levels of development. The competitive phase involves the implementation of the benefits of previous training. The focus of athlete development in this phase is psychological and tactical.
The amount of fitness work that is done in this stage should be that which is appropriate for maintenance training. Each competition should be preceded by an unloading microcycle, the primary function of which is to allow for adequate resources to be applied to the other stresses which surround competitions (e.g., travel, competition hype, media).
The normal competition-phase training is to start with a period of reduced work called the “taper.” A taper is necessary if an athlete is unduly fatigued and recovery is required. With this suggested structure of an annual plan, the unloading cycle at the end of the precompetition phase allows for regeneration. Thus, the competition phase is not confounded by the anxiety associated with trying to time a “taper” to allow maximum regeneration to occur in concert with the competition. The maintenance training associated with this phase should not allow athletes to be fatigued to any unnecessary degree nor will they regress in fitness. They should be able to proceed with competition-specific training.
Some training sessions should model the psychological atmosphere and demands of competitions. Athletes should perform their competition routines in these simulated conditions. Such simulations will reduce the stress of competition. The degree to which simulations do mimic the actual organization, atmosphere, and expectations of competition will govern the success of the preparatory experience practice.
The training stimuli of the competition phase should be the most specific of any training phase. The major emphasis is on training intensity, which should, in major part, be the same as parts of the competition performance. Training at speeds other than race-pace (non-specific training) should be confined to recovery paddling and occasional maintenance training sets. Specific training can be attempted without covering the actual competition distance in its entirety.
Within this phase there still is a transition. Right throughout the training plan, the transition from one phase to the next should be subtle and hardly, if at all, noticeable to the athletes. The early stage of the competition phase should include practice and low-level competitions that are interspersed with stimulating, maintenance-training sessions. These early competitions should be used as testing grounds for the tactical, technical, and psychological features which have been developed. The latter part of the phase should be the period of serious competitions, and by this time, all elements of intended events should have been developed. Only alterations in the emphasis or sequence of already established performance elements should be new features. From a fitness viewpoint, maintenance training should continue to provide the energy base for specific performance. The nature and amount of that training will depend upon what training has occurred in previous phases. The latter stages of this phase should concentrate on providing positive and enjoyable training sessions, only involving activities that have been demonstrated at earlier training sessions or in competitions.
The nature of the competitions and their scheduling will determine what occurs in this phase. Ideally, it would be best to have a period of serious training, perhaps two microcycles, and then an unloading microcycle at the end of which is the primary competition. After each competition, there should be a very brief unloading or moderated microcycle to allow the athlete to recover from the other-than-physical stresses of competitions. Unfortunately, most high-level competitions and agendas do not allow these ideal conditions to occur. An important coaching decision will be whether or not to permit alternations of training and competition microcycles.
The schedule of competitions will affect coaching decisions. The greater the number of competitions, the more stressed athletes will become. In the absence of stimulating training, stresses on frequent competitors tend to accumulate, placing them in a detraining spiral.
If the training plan has been completed successfully, the competition phase that includes the peaking procedure will produce increased race specific performance. The competition phase should be one of enjoying the fruits of previously completed training. It should allow ideal physiological and psychological states to be achieved for implementation in serious and important races.
Peaking concerns the development of an athlete to the point of being capable of performing his or her very best. It is a feature that is influenced more critically by psychological factors than by either fitness or skill. Psychological factors mediate the peaking response. The training plan that is proposed here asserts that both fitness and skill factors should be fully developed before peaking is attempted.
Where possible, competitions should be planned for the end of macrocycles. That time period facilitates adequate development and unloading to occur before the competition. Peak performances generally occur after maximum specific fitness and skill states have been attained — one of the reasons for attempting to attain those states at the end of the precompetition phase. Peak performances cannot be accelerated by sudden increases in training loads or the introduction of new technique items. The maximum training response will only occur when the stimulation is optimum for an individual. Unexpected distractions and stresses detract from the peaking response, reducing the quantity of resources that can be applied to the competitive performance. Peaking in a maintained fitness state is the least complicated procedure. Consistent fitness states will contribute to consistent performances.
Indications of performance capacities occur well before the competition since fitness and skill levels will have been attained. Their maintenance will allow other performance factors to be emphasized. This means that gradually, as the competition approaches, athletes should feel good about their fitness and skill precision, and be encouraged by the greater emphasis on factors that are purely related to the competition (e.g., tactics and psychology). This will occur as a refreshing change in the training regimen and will do much to promote high levels of self-efficacy in athletes. This contrasts with the “normal” peaking procedure (tapering) where recovery, skill refinement, tactical development, and psychological focusing all appear to occur simultaneously in a relatively brief time period. The problem with this simultaneity is that a coach or athlete cannot tell which area is progressing well and which is not: it deteriorates into a hit-or-miss process. Such a situation does not need to arise if training plans have been formulated and implemented properly.