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Whether you’re building your own training plan or following a pre-set training plan, it’s important to understand that workouts don’t just happen arbitrarily. Instead, they should progress in volume, intensity, and specificity so that you peak at exactly the right time to perform well on race day. This concept, known as “periodization,” is the backbone of every good triathlon training plan.
What is periodization?
Periodization is a concept that began in Eastern Europe. It involves systematically breaking a longer time period, usually a season or year (called a macrocycle), down into shorter periods that focus on a certain training element (volume, intensity, etc) in order to build fitness, and eventually maximize performance. Macrocycles are broken down into several week training blocks termed mesocycles, which are further broken down into microcycles, typically representing a week. Periodization plans aim to balance training overload with recovery over a several week period (usually in a 3:1 ratio) in order to produce and absorb gains in fitness, a process termed “supercompensation.”
Different periodization models exist, each with their own advantages and considerations.
Traditional periodization model
The most common structure for a triathlon training plan is the traditional model, during which training progresses from general, lower intensity, higher volume training towards more specific, higher intensity work.
An alternative is reverse periodization, which begins with shorter duration, higher intensity work prior to moving into higher volume, lower intensity work. Experienced Ironman athletes, who may benefit from developing typical relative weaknesses in speed and power prior to moving into more race-specific long aerobic training, are sometimes candidates for reverse periodization. Reverse periodization also can improve training motivation, and may be useful in colder climates to avoid indoor winter monotony. For the purposes of this article, though, traditional periodization will be described.
In traditional periodization, after off-season recovery and a preparatory period (during which you might simply do light exercise for fun, or focus on things like strength training or mobility), base phase begins. The focus of base phase is using lower intensity, higher volume training to build a foundation of aerobic endurance and durability. This prepares the body for subsequent higher-intensity work. Heart rates, powers, and paces are generally kept under lactate threshold.
Early on, general aerobic cross training (cross-country skiing, rowing) fits in nicely. Skill work may be performed, and fueling plans should be developed. Base phase is also a good time to implement concurrent strength training, as any muscle soreness produced from lifting is unlikely to have a deleterious effect on the athlete’s ability to perform the otherwise low-intensity training.
After base phase, build phase begins. During build phase, the focus shifts from aerobic volume building to increasing intensity and working on athlete-specific limiters. Volume is usually either maintained or decreased.
Typically, early base phase focuses on adding in intervals at or near lactate threshold, and steady-state tempo workouts. As build phase progresses, depending on athlete needs and race-specific demands, shorter (seconds to minutes), higher-intensity intervals at suprathreshold to maximal intensities may be added in to improve force, power, and anaerobic endurance.
Training should become increasingly course-specific during this phase. For example, hill repeats for hilly races. Race fueling should be dialed in, and the focus of any strength training shifts to maintenance as other training intensity increases.
After base and build phases comes a taper phase. Sometimes broken down into “peak” and “race” weeks, taper involves decreasing workout duration and volume (typically by 20-50% per week) heading into a key event. Frequency is maintained, and race-specific intensity should be included in workouts every several days to keep feel and sharpness. The goal is to balance maintaining fitness with decreasing fatigue in order to optimize race performance.
How long should each phase be?
How long each training phase lasts depends on several factors, including athlete characteristics, season duration and layout, and race distances.
Typically, 6-12 weeks are allotted for base phase. Long-course athletes, particularly inexperienced ones, should opt for longer base phases, sometimes even beyond 12 weeks if the time frame allows, as they are more likely to be durability-limited than speed-limited. Shorter course (Olympic and sprint) athletes can fall to the shorter end of the range.
Build phase length can vary from around 6-9 weeks. Again, inexperienced long-course athletes may benefit more from longer base phases and shorter build phases. Short-course athletes and experienced, very aerobic long course athletes should tend towards longer build phases to work on their specific needs.
Taper phase length generally runs from 1-3 weeks. Usually, taper length is directly proportional to race length, but tapering is somewhat of an art. Less-fit athletes who are not carrying significant amounts of training fatigue may benefit more from more training, and a shorter taper. Additionally, experienced athletes with strong aerobic backgrounds sometimes feel stale with too long of a taper. Time period between races also factors in, as athletes racing back-to-back may take a shorter taper prior to the first race, in order to maintain fitness throughout the race time span.
And after racing? Well, that depends! At least a 5- to 7-day recovery period after any major race is warranted, with longer time off at the end of the season. If the time frame between races is within several months, move back through base and build according to needs (tending towards more base for longer races, more build for shorter ones). If that’s it for the year, recover for a few weeks, prepare for a few more, and then begin the cycle again.
However you opt to break down these phases, periodization can help build fitness, decrease the odds of burnout, and maintain motivation, so use these guidelines as you plan away for the season ahead.
Jennie Hansen is a physical therapist, Ironman champion, and USAT Level 1 triathlon coach with QT2 systems. Hansen has a background as a collegiate and professional runner, as well as a number of professional triathlon podiums. She has been in the sport for over a decade.