Flip your Training Pyramid Upside Down

Triathlete running on a dirt path
September 22, 2016

Mike Ricci


While writing this article, I mentioned the topic to one of my athletes, who averaged 10.2 hours of weekly training and raced to a 10:32 at IM Arizona. His reply was: "Just tell all your IM distance athletes to not waste all their fitness gains in the off-season, and instead use their late-season fitness bump to catapult their off-season training into a Kona slot for next year. Period." Good advice, right? I think so too. For years, we've been told to use the approach of building a base through the winter months with long, easy aerobic workouts. These workouts roll into strength and tempo workouts and eventually into speed/track workouts before peaking for your key race of the year. This essentially turns into a lot of easy running and easy cycling through the cold winter months when the weather isn't that great in 80% of the US. Winter just isn't the time to be doing long, easy workouts. Not when the temps are colder, the roads are slicker, and daylight is harder to find. If you really want to do brain-numbing bike rides on the trainer, then be my guest. But I'm here to tell you there's a better and more efficient way to do it. I know this because I've been coaching since the late '80s with an alternate approach and seen impressive athlete achievements, and it's how every good coach I've had since then has coached me.

My argument as to why I think you should train with a different strategy is simple: If you end your season with a great deal of fitness, why take 4-6 weeks off in the 'Transition period' and lose all that hard-earned fitness, just to start rebuilding it in a few weeks? Why would you do that? Granted you need a break mentally from hard training and your body needs a break from the hard work as well. That's understandable. However, I would rather see an athlete take a week or two of low-key aerobic training or even no training, and then get back on the horse nice and easy for a few weeks, but really, they should be back to building power and threshold for the upcoming season rather quickly.

As the old methodology goes, when the weather does turn better, we should then hit it hard once we can get outside again. My problem with this way of thinking is that it's backward! Why should you spend lots of time on a trainer for hours on end at a low power output, or running lots of easy miles at too slow of a pace, and then expect to go out and hit your intervals fast when it's time? Here's the answer: if you spend lots of hours riding easy on the trainer, or logging lots of easy run miles, you'll be very good, maybe even great at riding very easy for long periods of time or running very slow for long periods of time. This method doesn't translate into more power on the bike or a faster 10k come spring. In order to race fast, you need to train fast.

You can't stop doing some faster speed work for months and then expect to just 'turn it on' after you've done months of 'base training.' Your body needs speed training year-round as it's not easily maintained unless you are accessing it all the time.

Another point to remember is that an older athlete needs less endurance and more of the faster, harder stuff as they age. As you get older, you most likely need more speed and more strength work. If you don't access these fast-twitch muscle fibers consistently, you won't be able to use them when you need them. Learn to implement speed sessions often and you will see changes in your paces across the board. You have to be patient of course, but if you stick it out, your patience will be rewarded.

Since I started coaching, I've turned the periodization pyramid upside down. The athletes that I coach, like you and me, have time constraints. Instead of doing easy aerobic base first, my theory has been to add it in last, AFTER I've built up my anaerobic system and raised my lactate threshold. In other words, get fast, then add endurance. Would you rather do your easy rides at 16 mph, or at 20 mph, after you've added some quality cycling to your program? It's going to depend on how you set up your season, so keep reading.

If you aren't training with lots of easy long miles this winter, that doesn't mean you aren't building or maintaining a base — quite the opposite, actually! Even though you aren't specifically targeting a 'base period' of training, you are doing aerobic work, and as long as you are consistent you'll be fine. You may not be doing as much as your friends are, but then again, who wants to do a 3-hour trainer ride?

My philosophy has evolved from my 'hard training in the winter and building aerobic base in the spring' to a more cutting-edge approach. I categorize the year into 3 parts:

1. **Single Sport Focus (SSF):** After the season is over, athletes should be working on their weakness — whether it's the bike, swim, or run. We spend about 2 months focusing on that one sport while maintaining fitness in the other two sports. While maintaining fitness in the other two sports, what we are really doing is working on form and speed. Short, fast bursts of pure speed. Just like when you were a kid. Run fast, take a rest, and do it again. Fire up those fast-twitch muscles — wake them up! More on this below.

2. **Speed Play:** While the SSF is going on, you are working on building good skills in the other two sports. For example, swim drills along with fast 25s and 50s holding as near-perfect form as you can, or bike drills along with high cadence riding up to max rpms as you get smoother and more efficient with your pedal stroke. Lastly, doing lots of run drills to nail down an efficient run form and then adding on some fast 15-60 second bursts that help you become more economical. D3 Athletes: remember to log into the athlete page for videos with techniques and drills for swim, bike & run!

3. **Base Building:** Once we roll through a few focus periods (8 weeks for each sport), this should take you to right around March. Now you'll have a solid foundation of good form, lots of fast workouts in our arms and legs and you can now add endurance. How long does it take for an endurance athlete to build endurance? Around 6 weeks. And don't forget you've been training for the past 16-24 weeks, at this point, so you don't need as much endurance work as you think.

**Race Specific Training:** As we hone in on our A race, now is when we work on race-specific training. If you are racing an Olympic distance race as your A race, then here's where you add in 4x10k on the bike, at goal race HR/Power/Pace, followed by 4x2k off the bike all at goal race pace/HR. You can build up to this workout over several weeks, but you get the point; this is very specific to your most important race. For a Half Iron race, you may ride 40-50 miles at goal Power/HR and pace, followed up by 8-10 miles of running at goal

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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