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Reverse periodisation and the new way forward

One of my first observations on joining triathlon in the early 90s was how outdated and Neanderthal the mainstream coaching methodologies were. In fact, I couldn’t believe my luck.‘These guys are decades behind swimming, I could be at the top within years.’ Seeing the opportunity, I worked and worked to produce the best squad I could as fast as I could, driven in part by the belief that the other coaches would soon catch on and my advantage would be lost. I got the first part right. Within two seasons we had one of the strongest triathlon squads in Australia. However, I would have never imagined that over a quarter of a century later, over 1,000 professional race wins later, that I would still be shaking my head at the backwardness of advice being pedalled in mainstream triathlon.

Traditionally it didn’t bother me so much as we ran an elite squad. However, since focusing on our age group coaching we now receive emails about articles or advice that conflict with our own training programs.The most recent being from this Triathlon Magazine article about the use of periodisation. 'In the 1960s Russian physiologist Leo Metveyev and Czech sport scientist Tudor Bompa, regarded as the fathers of modern periodization, organised the basic sport training periodization model to which we still refer. Since the 1960s, other coaches and exercise physiologists have created and modified periodization models, though the scientific basis for periodization remains a common ground.' If it is common ground, it is commonly wrong. 'Conventional endurance training wisdom has indicated using your winter months for base and strength, transitioning into slightly sub-threshold training focus in the spring, and finally emphasis on work at, and above, threshold as the athlete enters into the competitive season. This is still good basic advice, particularly for Olympic or Sprint distance athletes, or the well-trained athlete preparing for half ironman distance, where pace at threshold is a fundamental pre-indicator of race performance.' No, it is not. It is bad advice. We really need to break once and for all this dogma of doing ‘base miles in the middle of winter.’ You don’t have to do it. Never had to. I can tell you right now that we have more results than the top 10 coaches who espouse this philosophy put together. As far back as 1986 I was awarded New South Wales (Australia) Swim Coach of the Year and promoted to the coaching staff of the Australian swim team. Within three years the Wales Swim Club had gone from 51st to the top-ranked Swim Club in Australia. Following the award, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Australian Swim convention. My topic headline? ‘Why Periodisation as we know it is dead. Reverse Periodisation and the new way forward.’ In my introduction, I spoke about how Tudor Bompa theories were no longer relevant in my team and how they wouldn’t be for others as swimming progresses to the new age. 1986. So, you’ll understand my frustration when 30 years later one of our athletes sends me this asking for my thoughts as we prepare for a season that starts in May. What makes it worse is that swimming or running usually taper for a big event only once a year. Twice at the very most. So, if one was to use this broken-down periodisation theory it would work best in those sports. Not in triathlon that sees its competitors usually racing two times a month over six months.

Wales Swim Club. National Champions. The coaching staff included father, John Sutton (far left) and brother, Brian Sutton (far right) who would later be National Swim Coach of Australia.

I don't mean to attack the mainstream Triathlon Mags, but the truth is the demands of modern economy mean the need for content often comes at the expense of quality, common sense advice. When Multisport magazines first started I remember them coming out once every two months. Then they moved to a monthly version. There were also a few books published by the best athletes at that time, so not much harm in terms of training advice. However, now it would seem we have daily posts about training and tips as magazines go digital. The need for new or rehashed content is so all consuming that every aspect is taken and regurgitated in 20 different ways – 19 of which are usually conflicting or counterproductive. In today's world of online magazines, and an abundance of ‘social media influencers’ who feed their followers a diet of misinformation with nice photos, there is even more conflicting and counterproductive information at every swipe and press on a mobile phone screen. So once again please take this as permission to not go out and try to brave the winter elements with long, slow training. Instead arrange your training to suit your program and your available time. If you are in Europe or North America and plan to go on a warm climate camp to escape winter, please don’t think 40 hours of training for one week in January, February or March is going to help you in races in summer or Kona in October. It won’t. We do work in the offseason, but it’s short and sharp. As an example, Nicola Spirig’s workouts at this time of year include: Swim: 1 hour. 30 minutes of 25m fast, 25m easy. Bike: 1 hour. 20 x 1 min fast, 1 min easy. Run: 1 hour. 3 sets of 8 x 50m fast, 50m easy recovery. So, if I entrust this methodology to the Olympic champion, you too should be brave enough to not burn yourself out with cold, long junk-mile workouts in the depths of winter. Don’t torture yourself trying to work out how you can train when it’s awful weather outside. This winter keep fit but keep it short and keep your speed. Then as the weather starts to get bearable add the aerobic work in the mix and watch your performance fly in the race season. And be ready to be shocked, the consistency will be there all season. Not just one or two races.

You can bet on that. In our next blog we apply reverse periodisation to the training year.


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