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Using reverse periodisation for triathlon

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

For those not familiar with the term 'periodisation', put simply it's the breaking down of the athletic year into various portions where specific emphasis is placed on certain training protocols. Now over the years much has been made of my preference for using reverse periodisation over the traditional method, which I believe is completely wrong for triathlon.

If we look at the traditional periodisation method, there is usually an initial period or 'build-up‎' phase where the emphasis is on base miles. No fast work, but the accumulation of a lot of miles done at much slower than race pace. Depending on your coach or your training plan, this tends to last between 6 to 9 weeks.

During that time the body will adapt to the physiological needs of this training. This doesn't mean the training's working, it's just that if you give the body enough time it will adapt to most situations it's exposed to on a regular basis. It's when it is moved to the next phase of training, which starts to incorporate faster work with more rest periods involved that I believe two key problems with the traditional method begin.

Firstly, after the long base miles the body is not ready and completely unfit for the new 'fast-work' stimulus. Even the most studious of planning can see athletes getting injuries here. And secondly, as we move through the different periods, aerobic function is depleted at each stage. This is crucial, as aerobic function is at the core of our sport.

Now rather than go through all the specifics of a periodisation plan that I know doesn't work, I'd like to provide a bit of insight into the Trisutto program and how we go about getting the results we do.

We begin our year as we finished it, by working each system within each discipline. We neglect nothing and we use speed even in our off-season. Where we are different is how we incorporate far more rest into the initial stages of the program. Unlike normal periodisation we do the bulk of our aerobic work closer to race day and cut down our fast work during this time. Many have asked me:

How could you possibly advocate doing speed-work without a base?

Very easily. Because in my opinion most triathletes' fast work is done much too fast. In our group all-out short efforts are restricted to 90-95% of top pace. Any higher than that and the risk of injury increases exponentially, and the additional benefit is minimal. So, the 90% mark is our insurance policy against going too fast. We also keep our top end effort in the chamber for when we need it race day.

Many do not understand that triathlon is not a speed race. Even our shortest race lasts 1 hour. To jeopardise your yearly preparation by overdoing speed work is negligent.

Just as it negligent to be purposely diminishing your aerobic work close to a very aerobic race. Our last three weeks before tapering are our biggest aerobic weeks. In our squad we have a saying 'keep the cup filled' which refers to us keeping our aerobic capacity to a maximum as close as we can to the race.

To show you how we would approach a particular workout throughout the year let's use a hypothetical set such as: 6 x 400m run efforts. At the start of the season we would look for a pace that we want to achieve by the end of the year. Say 60-66 seconds for the pro men and 70-72 seconds for the pro women.

In the first phase of the season we might do each 6 x 400m at that pace with an 800m jog for recovery. In the next phase of our training we'd cut this down to 400m recovery. In the third phase we'd cut again to a 200m recovery and finally, when we get to full-on race preparation mode, we would do this set with a 100m jog. Now of course the above times are for a pro athlete, but the principle applies across competitive abilities.

Let me ask every age-group athlete reading this article a question - who could do a workout of 6 x 400m? I'd say every one of us.

So, let's take it one step further. Take your fastest 400m pace and add 8 seconds to it. Now who could do 6 x 400m at this pace even if you were given as much rest as you need? In my experience not many of you.

So, it doesn't really matter what speed your operating at, this is a system you can use without running 'all-out', by being in control and keeping injuries to a minimum. Here is the key difference. As my athletes get fitter they don't go faster. We cut the recovery time and thus using 'reverse periodisation' we build that 6 x 400m from a pure speed set, to an anaerobic set and then into the third phase we can use it as Vo2 max and race set. This is how you get your best aerobic pace and I can promise you you'll be ready to roll faster in each discipline ‎than you've ever gone before.

Finally, and it's not a superficial point I'd like to make, reverse periodisation fits in more naturally with the notion of an 'off season'. In the European and North American continents, you guys suffer through a real winter with shorter daylight hours and extremely cold weather. You have less opportunity to train and they don't call it the flu season for nothing. During this time, we do less hours and more quality which is conducive to a healthier immune system and also to indoor training.

In our next blogs we examine reverse periodisation, and how to apply it to the training year.


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