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In Issue 9 we looked at how to plan a season. Now, in issue 10 we will delve a little deeper into season planning and explore the science of Periodisation. Periodisation involves breaking the season into manageable training blocks and utilises the core principles of training to prepare the most effective training program for each athlete and their chosen event(s).

What is Periodisation?

In the case of developing structured training programs Periodisation is simply the process of taking the annual or season plan and breaking it down into smaller, specific training blocks. It is a popular, well used and successful method that was outlined in detail by Tudor Bompa in his book (Periodisation: Theory and Methodology of Training).

Periodisation is based on early eastern European training methods that dictate that success in endurance sports requires the ability to resist fatigue, and this quality is built through the use of long training days. Traditionally one would move from high volume/low-intensity work to low volume/high-intensity work and should progress from a general preparation phase to a specific phase, before trying to ‘peak’.

Included within this theory is the notion of compensation, that is, overload and recovery, as discussed in detail in Issue 5.

The FIT principle

The FIT principle refers to Frequency, Intensity and Time. It is the manipulation of these variables that allows a coach to determine each athlete’s workload. We know that to bring about physical or mental change, a training stress is necessary; altering FIT means this can occur.

Frequency – Frequency is simply how often one trains. This is dependent upon a number of individual factors including: availability, work commitments, family commitments, age, training age, goals, event and even time to event. It has been shown that as little as five sessions a week can be effective in improving ones fitness but if managed 12+ sessions is still reasonable for some age groupers. Additional sessions are effective but will have diminished benefit; however, it is these small gains that are essential to long term development and success of athletes. Many professionals will often train 18-20 sessions a week, amassing up to 40hrs of training! Back to back training sessions, such as a late PM run and then early AM run, can be an effective way to safely increase training load. Frequency is very individual and it is important to note that lots of sessions is no substitute for the employment of long term, consistent hard and smart training.

Intensity – Training intensity was discussed in detail throughout Issue 8 of Journey. Intensity refers to manipulation of how hard one trains. The intensity of individual sessions and intervals is critical to the effectiveness of any program; different training intensities will result in different training affects. The focus of each session or each phase will determine its intensity. They are also dependent upon race distance, goals, training phase and time to event. Intensity can be measured through the use of RPE scales, heart rate monitors and power metres. Generally speaking, closer to events (and prior to taper) key sessions should reflect race length and intensity. For example, a 5hr ride including 3hrs at IM pace.

Time – Time refers simply to the duration spent training, or more specifically the number of seconds, minutes and hours spent swimming, cycling, running or otherwise conditioning the body. This also refers to the time within a particular heart rate zone or other measure of intensity. As per frequency, the time spent training is very individual and should reflect individual circumstances and goals. Along with intensity, the duration of key sessions in the 6-8weeks prior to event will directly affect performance and conditioning on race day. This may include sessions like a 50min swim, or a 7-8hr brick over the weekend.

Principles of training

Whilst the workload prescribed to each individual is determined through the manipulation of frequency, intensity and time, each athletes program should be written based on the principles of individualisation, progression, overload and specificity.

Individualisation – refers to the necessity for a program to be built around an individual’s needs, goals, and physical and mental capabilities. We all come into the sport with our own unique set of physiological, socio-cultural, biological and psychological attributes that must be developed. No two athletes are the same; and thus, no two programs can be the same. Each athlete will have different physical abilities, work schedules, family commitments, goals and overall capacity to cope. Furthermore, each athlete will have their own set of strengths and weaknesses that will need to be addressed and managed. Group sessions are often very practical, effective in gauging fitness and offer the ability to train with other likeminded individuals. It is the role of the program manager, i.e. the coach, to effectively manage such sessions to ensure they fit into the overall schedule of each athlete as they work towards their individual goals.

Progression – Any program must adapt and evolve over time, as goals change or as the necessity arises. The planning phase should identify training blocks and allow for adequate recovery so that such progression can occur. The body responds to new stimulus which can be introduced in the form of increased workload or changing workload. As previously stated, most programs follow the premise that training should progress from a general phase to a specific phase as the event draws nearer. A typical season may involve a base period, strength phase, overload, and performance phase then taper, race and recovery or transition period. Whilst a plan will be specific to the race, individual phases and sessions must remain flexible and adaptable. All programs require periods of review whereby coach and athlete assess the program and its effectiveness in order to keep moving toward goals and targets.

Overload – research and anecdotal evidence suggests that overloading or the addition of a new stimulus is required for improvements in physical capabilities to occur. However, it is important to note that this adaption occurs during periods of recovery. Periods of overload or sessions that add new stimulus are designed to test and stress the body and if managed correctly will result in increased fitness/performance capabilities. One simple example of progressive overload may be running 60mins in week 1, 70mins in weeks 2 and 3 and then 80mins in week 4, but, overload can come in many forms including; increased volume, increased intensity, and increased frequency, or, reduced rest periods.

Specificity – any program needs to be specific to the needs and requirements of each individual and the event for which they are training for. In general terms, specificity of training should increase as the event/race approaches. Just as goals should be specific, the program designed to reach the said goals needs to be specific. Specificity refers to the ability of the program to reflect the requirements of race day whilst also addressing the issue of individual programs, phases and sessions being specific to the needs of an individual. The overall flow of a given program should adequately prepare the individual for the rigours and demands of the race they are preparing for, address weaknesses and develop their strengths. For example, a 5hr ride is not specific to the requirements of a sprint distance athlete unless they are increasing their training volume to reach another goal. Further, if an ironman athlete has a strength deficiency in their glutes they may complete a similar volume of training to other athletes whilst also doing activation work in a gym, or doing running drills that actively engage this muscle group.

Peaking and Tapering

The goal of tapering is to deliver a fit and fresh athlete come race day, thus allowing them to peak during the event. Taper methods can vary somewhat, however, the general premise is that there is a reduction in the overall volume of the program in the 2-3 weeks prior to the event whilst intensity remains high – i.e. at the levels it was at during the performance phase (previous 4 weeks). Caution must be taken during this period because as the athlete trains with less volume they will be fresher (less fatigued) when they do train which may result in them pushing too hard and causing injury. Furthermore, care should be taken to ensure program structure does not vary too much – this may act like an added stimulus and cause injury or illness. For events over 2hrs in duration, taper coupled with a carbohydrate loading phase over the 24-48hrs prior to race start will have best results. See issue 4 for more information on the carbohydrate loading.

FIT changes during taper – Frequency may drop slightly over the 2-3weeks leading into race day, but duration will reduce significantly by race week, often up to 50%. The duration of the key weekend brick will have halved from 3weeks out to 1week out. Intensity will remain constant, and even increase slightly from 3 weeks out to 1 week out, in an attempt to ‘sharpen up’ or ‘freshen up’ – this will help athletes experience the phenomenon of peaking.


Season planning should start from the end date / race date and work backwards. It is best to plan a season during the transition period. The coach should identify the phases of training based on the time to the event, including general preparation, strength preparation and performance phases. Such planning should also include identifying what dates/events will affect the campaign, as well as, the inclusion of B, and C races. It is important to consider the race course, including the climactic conditions, terrain, road surface, altitude, location etc, so the program can be prepared accordingly. More on planning in issue 9.

Putting it all together

All training programs need to take into account several factors including the age of the athlete, years in the sport (training age), stage of development, goals, time available and financial resource. It is important to plan the season of training and racing around such factors. Consistent, committed, long term training towards SMART goals will bring about the best performance results. Adequate rest and addressing weaknesses is essential to success. Coach and athlete should plan for events using Periodisation and the four training principles to break the season up into training phases and blocks – this should include recovery and adaption. More on athlete management in Issue 11 of journey.

Table 1: An Example of Periodisation at work

Time to event Training Phase Focus Example session

16weeks Strength Build strength base and volume 5hrs in the hills at easy pace but working up all inclines in the saddle

12weeks Strength Endurance 1 Developing Strength Endurance 5hrs in the hills including hill repeats of: 5 x 7min efforts just below threshold

8weeks Strength Endurance 2 Developing SE at Anaerobic Threshold 5hrs in the hills including hill repeats of: 10 x 5min efforts just below threshold

6weeks Performance 1 Maintaining volume but increase intensity 5hrs in the hills including hill repeats of: 10 x 2min efforts just above threshold

4weeks Performance 2 Developing speed endurance Ride 5hrs but include 8 x 15min TT efforts

2weeks Taper Maintaining Speed Endurance Ride 3hrs but include 4 x 15min TT efforts

0 – Race week Taper Peaking RACE

+ 2weeks Transition Recovery 2hrs easy spin

Mixing it up – Reverse Periodisation

The theory of reverse Periodisation is based on the premise that perhaps intensity, not volume is the key to improving endurance potential. Those who support this method often quote Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ Ian King, an Australian strength and conditioning coach, offered an alternative to the traditional model of endurance training in his book Foundations of Physical Preparation. Demands on the body are different at low intensity compared to high intensity training, and by shifting from low intensity training to high intensity training athletes are creating a new load for their body which may not be ideal so close to race day. Simply, reverse Periodisation involves, developing a speed and power base and then gradually increasing the volume as the event draws nearer. That is, ensuring an athlete can perform at the required speed then build the distance/time over which they can perform at this said speed. For example, time trialling 10kms at 250watts 12 weeks out from a race, and building to riding 100kms at 250watts by 2 weeks out. Or, running 2min intervals at threshold and then progress to running 20mins at the same intensity over a period of 6weeks.

Whilst this method seems logical, further research has suggested that it is not ideal for all athletes but should be considered by those athletes who have fallen into the trap of repeating their training methods season by season, or those who are time poor through the winter months. Practically, it is those athletes with a prior existing aerobic base or who have spent many years conditioning their bodies in more traditional ways that have been shown to experience greatest gains from the reverse method. Traditional methods and Reverse Periodisation should be used with caution, under the guidance of qualified coaches for best results.

Table 2: Traditional Periodisation vs. Reverse Periodisation

Traditional Periodisation Reverse Periodisation

1. Develop an aerobic base Development of speed and power base

2. Develop foundations of specific endurance (threshold work) Develop foundations of specific endurance

3. Carry out specific endurance work, together with and speed and power training Combination training – increase duration, maintain specificity

4. Taper Taper

The above article was compiled with the consultation of the coaches at ETPA and through the use of further research listed below. It should be used as a guide only and does not guarantee success. For more information on the material discussed please contact ETPA directly. Stay tuned for Issue 11 – Total Athlete Management.


Miles Browning, Sram Racing Team, Total Athlete Management

Triathlon Australia, NCAS Level 1 Triathlon Coaching Course, Unit 9

Nick Grantham, Base Endurance: Move forwards with reverse Periodisation

Tudor Bompa, Periodisation: Theory and Methodology of Training (4th Edition).

Ian King, Foundations of Physical Preparation. King Sports Publishing (2000)

Mat Tippett – Elite Triathlon Performance Australia

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