An alternative periodisation for triathlon
Periodisation for triathlon? Linear, reverse and polarised periodisation are the common methods applied to triathlon. So what is periodisation, how does it work and what variations are there?
Periodisation is simply the method of planning a season / or multiple seasons to achieve peak performance at a desired time to help dictate training sessions. It applies to all sports. Periodisation at amateur level often addresses a single season. At elite / pro level, periodisation is often a 4-year cycle to prepare for the next Olympics!
Depending on the sport and training approach, there are many variations; linear, reverse, undulating, conjugated, etc. In most sports, triathlon included, most coaches use the method taught by their governing body and derived from the original work founded by Russian sports physiologist Leonid Matveyev. This was later adapted and translated by the Romanian sports scientist Dr Tudor Bompa.
“Dr. Tudor Bompa is recognized worldwide as the foremost expert on periodization training. He first developed the concept of periodization of strength in Romania in 1963, as he helped the eastern bloc countries rise to dominance in the athletic world.” Tudor Bompa Institute
The linear approach
The linear model is often referred to as the “traditional periodisation” model. Like most of the periodisation models, it was developed for single discipline, STRENGTH / POWER sport (track and field events, all forms of weight lifting, etc).
For single discipline sports linear periodisation works well as it becomes more specific towards the event in question.
Aerobic / endurance sports have since “borrowed” the methods and applied them to their sports.
How the traditional model works
Simplistically, the traditional model aims to prepare athletes to peak at a set point by changing the training stimuli to meet the competition demands. The season would begin with one stimuli / focus and transitions to a different stimuli / focus towards the end of the season – when needing to peak. This is a gradual switch, over weeks / months.
This single sport / strength model has been adapted for AEROBIC sports (not just triathlon); here is a brief overview of how a triathlon season is commonly planned:
- The season starts with a high, and gradually increasing, volume of low intensity work; e.g. 6-hour bike rides
- There is a gradual reduction of low intensity training that is replaced by increasing amounts of higher intensity training towards the peak period (main race); e.g. shorter (2-3hours) including threshold, VO2max and maximal effort sessions several times per week
- This linear model then finishes with a long taper in the 1-3 weeks before the key race, often reducing workload by up to 50%.
Figure 1 – Traditional linear polarisation model for triathlon – 24 weeks or more in duration
In Figure 1:
- The red line is low intensity (aerobic work), which starts high and is reduced.
- The purple line is higher intensity work (threshold and anaerobic efforts), which starts low and builds, before tapering off.
- Technique work, the blue line, illustrates how a larger emphasis would be placed on perfecting movements towards peaking (again, bear in mind the model is based on a single sport event and elite athletes needing to perform less movements to achieve a result; e.g. a single repetition for weight lifting – where technique is VERY important).
Pay close attention to the arrow showing where peaking should occur – in the middle of the red and purple line.
What this means is that the athlete will (should) perform somewhere between the low intensity and higher intensity workloads.
The traditional periodisation model typically has one long training block, typically consisting of the Preparation, Transition, Competition periods as shown in Figure 1. The overall programme can last 24 weeks or more and over this period there will be repeated build/recovery weeks, such as 3 build, 1 recovery within each period.
Traditional methods are successful
The traditional model has been successful for many years and will continue to have success, but the success isn’t necessarily attributed to the method.
Any given athlete can make good progression following any training method, especially pro / elite athletes who also have genetic advantages! However, the over-riding reason for this is that adopting the model provides structure and promotes CONSISTENTLY and consistency alone helps improvements.
The question is, will these endurance athletes achieve results faster and safer by following another method?
Is the linear method the best method?
Remember, triathletes are ENDURACE and MULTISPORT athletes.
The major “problem” with the traditional method is that it swaps training stimuli – reducing aerobic work with increasing higher intensity workloads. The body doesn’t adapt to multiple training stimuli very effectively, but it can make partial gains simultaneously.
Strength and power athletes tend to have relatively low need for aerobic levels at their peak Whereas endurance athletes require the opposite – they have a relatively low need for strength and maximum power levels but do need high aerobic levels.
Simplistically, the human body adapts to the stress (training) placed on it. If you train lots of low intensity, you’ll develop a big aerobic base but a low peak strength / power. Likewise, if you train your body with lots of higher intensity at low volumes, you’ll develop a high peak strength/power and a low aerobic base.
The linear model, based on developing a single sport power event, starts the season at low volume and then builds intensity towards the peak period. This gets the athlete ready to move fast or lift a heavy weight on race / lift day.
Linking this to endurance sport, this means, if aerobic volume is decreased closer to race day, the body will adapt to the decreased stress by becoming less aerobically conditioned. Remember that as a triathlete, an endurance athlete, your aerobic fitness it the number one priority. Prioritising low intensity (aerobic) training, adding strength and being able to consistently train this way, week- after- week, year-after-year is key to long term development.
As an endurance athlete, we don’t want to reduce your aerobic conditioning as you get ready to race.
We therefore coach using a model that does develop the specific attributes that you need to complete an aerobic event.
A more appropriate periodisation for triathlon
By adapting the linear model, we can create a periodisation process that is more suited to triathlon. We don’t exactly follow the reverse or polarised model, as each athlete is different, but the general trend of their season is biased towards a “reverse” approach. This will all make sense in a minute.
By “reversing” the aerobic training aspect of the linear model, we are training the body to adapt to more low intensity / high volume efforts later in the season. The aerobic volume is gradually increased week to week – simulating the durations you would face in the race!
As well as gradually building the low intensity, aerobic distance, we also build your strength and threshold elements. It is important to expand a little on these components:
- We want strength training performed aerobically, not anaerobically
- Threshold training increases VERY gradually and is primarily feature in 1 bike session per week
Note, threshold / race pace training is not used as much as the traditional triathlon training model, instead focusing more on below race pace and ABOVE race pace (strength work).
This approach increases training intensities and volumes gradually, so your body can adapt to the stress safely and even adapt to multiple stimuli (aerobic, threshold and strength). Aerobic fitness takes priority, but the gradual increase of threshold and strength training does let the you become more efficient in these areas too.
Due to the gradual increases, overtraining and injury rates are much lower. Not only because the stress is built slowly, but also because it allows the you to judge your own wellbeing day-by-day knowing the steps upwards are small. We need the ongoing consistency to help you continue to improve without the need for recovery breaks that disturb your development.
No rest for the wicked
We barely taper our athletes! Tapering (decreasing training stress) before a race, in theory, allows the body to rest and then perform better. But remember, the body adapts to stress – the body perceives training less as a new stress!
This means that your body adapts to the new demand of less training – you don’t “lose” fitness, you adapt to less demands!
The body begins adapting to (less in this case) stress within 72hours. That means that your body will adapt to a lower fitness level in 3 day. Thus, our athletes typically train up to 3 days before a race before they taper – and the amount of taper varies from one athlete to the next.
How we gradually build the stimuli
Our approach to periodisation consists of blocks of training that each lasts (typically) 15 weeks. Therfore, each year will have 3 blocks that will follow-on from the previous block. We repeat this process, making the athlete progressively fitter and stronger.
Typically, and noting that we are all different, this is how we increase the training stimuli:
- 15 minutes extra each week (starting at as little as 60min) to the weekly long bike ride
- 2 minutes / 2x25m extra to strength intervals
- 2 minutes extra each week to the bike threshold session, to a maximum of 20 minutes per threshold rep
Figure 2 – Polarisation progression for triathlon – 15 weeks in duration
Figure 2 illustrates a typical periodisation approach over 1 season:
- Aerobic (green line) and threshold (red line) intensity progress in a linear manner (in the amounts described above)
- Strength intensity (blue line) climbs and drops – “cycling” two steps forwards, one step back. The body needs to “de-load” periodically, to let the muscles recover, but there is never a regression trend.
Note there is no technique line in the graph above?! As many of you know, we DON’T advocate technique work for triathletes. We coach simple movement patterns that multisport adults can manage. If we were coaching a youth swimmer, cyclist or runner, we would incorporate a different strategy.
Initial concerns and, then, revelations
The small increase to each training element is so gradual that it initially looks and sounds too easy. The differences between our periodisation for triathlon model and the “norm” can, and often does, cause worry amongst our athletes in their first season.
While our athletes are doing low miles, their friends are doing high miles. Then, closer to race day, our athletes are still training hard and long, while others are tapering (you already know why we don’t taper).
However, our athletes do make key observations early on, before they even race and see results.
- Noticeable and regular increase to performance (times reducing in swim, bike or run reps) and power levels increase at lower heart rates (even though we don’t train to power, it is still a feature for many of our athletes)
- Improved feelings of wellbeing – mentally and physically feeling strong
- Lack of injuries – while their friends are experiencing aches and pains!
- ENJOYMENT – they enjoy the journey because the stress increase is manageable
By using this model, our athletes race stronger/faster, enjoy the experience more and recover much faster than their peers. Their aerobic fitness is high, their strength is high and therefore, their race pace (threshold levels) is high.
Others reversing periodisation for triathlon benefits
We are not the only ones using this approach.
- Brett Sutton uses this periodisation model with all his triathletes, including two of his current champions – Daniela Ryf and Nicola Spirig
- Joel Filliol is another coach referring to the reverse / polarised periodisation model. He once stating: “that what is called “reverse periodization” is just proper periodization and planning for long-distance triathlon training.” Triathlete Magazine
Some of Joel’s athletes include Vincent Luis, Mario Mola, Katie Zaferes
We are not alone, but in the minority, which is good for both us as coaches and you as athletes!
We have used the traditional linear periodisation approach in the past (it’s true!). We still have athletes we coached back then with this model. Now, these individuals, following the revised periodisation approach, are
- feeling healthie
- rarely injured (apart from non-triathlon related activities!)
- are happier in life and racing faster!
Healthier, happier, faster athletes is why we coach! We must make athletes better, it’s our job, it’s our passion. Reversing the tradition has helped us achieve this, much like the rest of our approach reversing the tradition:
- Using buoyancy and simplicity in swimming
- STOMPing at low(er) cadences on the bike
- Running tall and running with the heel touching first
Traditions sometimes need to be broken! Not because they are wrong, because there is a more specific / efficient way of doing things. “Traditional” / linear periodisation works best for single discipline sports that are strength and power focused.
Those that continue to follow the traditional prioritisation model will continue to progress. But what development, health and performance benefits would they gained sooner and more safely had they chosen a different periodisation model?
For endurance sports it is VITAL not to decrease aerobic miles as they progress through the season. The traditional periodisation model does just this. It’s not wrong, the sport is wrong. Traditional periodisation was originally designed for power / strength athletes. These athletes need to increase their strength and power for meets/races.
Are you willing to go against traditional to gain better health and results?