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Could Reverse Periodization Work for You?

Flipping the periodization concept on its head might be the key to your next PR.

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Triathletes tend to think about periodization like a typical pyramid, an idea introduced by running coach Arthur Lydiard in the 1950s and championed by training experts across endurance sports of all distances. But top coaches are now telling their athletes to do the opposite.

“Taking a solid fitness base and adding in a bunch of slow, easy workouts never made sense to me,” says Mike Ricci, founder and head coach of Boulder, Colo.-based D3 Multisport. “Being a powerful athlete can take years, but to be a ‘fit’ athlete with endurance only takes weeks.”

To fully understand what he’s talking about, you’ve got to know about the principles behind periodization. Its pyramid-like training model looks like this: At the bottom is the “base phase,” where athletes build aerobic fitness through moderate but long efforts. The next step is to sharpen up through the “build phase.” Here, athletes do less overall volume but add in intensity to work on their threshold heart rate, pace and/or power. At the top of the pyramid is the taper, where athletes further reduce the volume to recover but keep sharp with very short efforts.

Reverse periodization flips that timing. Athletes start in more of a build phase, doing the shorter, more intense efforts first to build their power. Then they move to the aerobic phase and add mileage to build their aerobic capacity. Chris Pilone is a 17-year veteran coach from New Zealand who coached Hamish Carter to an Olympic gold medal in 2004. He describes reverse periodization like this: “It means a period of more intensive training which could last for varying lengths of time (4–12 weeks) and then moving onto a period (again 4–12 weeks) of higher volume and more moderate training.”

There are several benefits to this approach, chief among them is doing more race-specific training closer to the actual race. (While more applicable to long-course racing, Pilone has also used this approach for short-course triathletes and distance runners.) “Longer workouts and long, what I would call, up-tempo workouts much closer to racing means you are using exactly the energy systems that you will be using in a race but still have some speed and snap in the legs from the previous, more intense phase,” he says.

Doing shorter, more intense workouts during the winter and early spring also means less time on the trainer and treadmill. Even the most motivated triathlete struggles with indoor training, so minimizing the time spent inside while still producing results is a major bonus. Less time on the trainer or treadmill also allows an athlete to focus on a weakness, like swim technique, or hit the gym to increase overall strength.

Ricci does caution that this version of periodization may not work for everyone. “A beginner athlete with zero aerobic capacity would be best to build some fitness before taking an off-season of fast, hard training,” he recommends. “If you’re a swimmer who has never run before, I would work on building that run fitness slowly, as going from a prone athlete to a vertical one is pretty rough on the lower legs. Being cautious and building slowly is key.”

For everyone else, try focusing first on power and speed. Then as your first race gets closer, take your newfound strength and work on being able to go farther. This approach may be just what you need to nab a new PR.

Reverse Periodization in Action

Coach Mike Ricci recommends that an athlete with a 70.3 race as their A-priority event build their speed and power over the winter. Then, as the weather improves, add in the longer bikes and runs. Around 12 weeks in, begin race-specific training at goal race pace, heart rate and/or power.