What does Periodization mean and how does it Apply to Triathlon Training?

Triathlete working out in a gym
January 26, 2009

Mike Ricci


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If you have ever wondered how the Russians were kicking our butts for three decades in sports, here is the answer. Yes, there were some Eastern Block women that looked like they could play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, ‘Steel Curtain’, and maybe that wasn’t natural, but the answer is something called ‘periodization’. Tudor Bompa, who is considered the ‘Father of Periodization’ refined the ideas of Russian sports scientists in the early 1960s. During the 1940s the Russian scientists tried dividing the training year into different training periods. Previously, the training was to maintain the same constant stresses year round. Could you imagine doing the same workouts week in and week out? The new method was to create some periods of training that were easier then the others to promote rest and to let the body grow stronger. Most training programs today are rooted off of Bompa’s theory, and its how the successful athletes of today train. Periodization involves many variables including frequency (how ‘often’ you train), duration (how ‘long’ you train for one session), volume (how ‘much’ you train in a given week or cycle) and intensity (how ‘hard’ you train at any given time). From these variables a recipe is created that will hopefully help you reach your peak for the key race(s) you are targeting. There are four to five phases in a given annual training plan, with the variables changing within each phase. Please see the following chart:

Phase           How long:           Frequency       Duration               Intensity      VolumePrep           4-8 weeks           High                       Short-Medium       Very little      LowBase           12-24 weeks       High                        Medium- High       Moderate      Moderate to HighBuild           4-8 weeks            Moderate-High    High                       Heavy              ModeratePeak/Race   3-5 weeks             Moderate               Short                       Heavy              Low

The first phase of training is called the Preparation (Prep) Phase. This is a period of time from three to six weeks. It involves performing your aerobic activities at a low heart rate and it helps your body adjust to the rigors of training again. This is also the time to work on your drills for each sport. This would include many of the drills in swimming, isolated leg pedaling in cycling and/or strides in running. The workouts in the Prep Phase are usually short in duration, low in intensity, and may be frequent. The volume for this cycle is low. This period prepares you for the Base Phase.
The Base Phase can last anywhere from twelve to twenty four weeks. The longer this phase lasts usually means the more aerobically fit you are entering your key sessions for the season. The Base Phase runs in three to four week ‘blocks’, and can have up to six blocks within this phase. These would be called Base Phase Two, Three, etc. The amount of blocks you have in this phase is dependant on your training experience. If you are in your first few years of training, the more blocks you do in the base phases, the better off you will be in the long run. This phase continues to focus on increasing your aerobic capacity while improving your efficiency with drills and skill workouts. The intensity in this cycle remains low or non-existent, while the frequency may drop, and the duration of your longer workouts keeps extending itself. The volume in this cycle starts out low, but will eventually be your greatest of the year as you get closer toward the end of your base phase. After the Base Phase has been completed and you get closer to your key races, the next step is the Build Phase.

The Build Phase drops in volume, increases in intensity and may keep the same or drop off in duration. The key to this phase is to become more efficient (faster) at a certain distance or go further in a certain time period. This is done by adding ‘interval’ training to your workouts. These intervals can be repeats in the pool, on the track, or on your bicycle. In this phase, the volume is consistent, the intensity high, and your duration for your long workouts should be at an all year high. This phase lasts about four to eight weeks and comes right before the big race. Before we get to the big race, we do something called ‘peaking’.

The Peak Phase and ‘peaking’ itself is a very tricky thing to do. Basically, you are trying to bring together your whole season for one or two important races. It could be the local triathlon where you need to beat your training partner, or it could be a qualifier for the World Championships. Either way, you want to perform your best. In order to peak for the race, we taper down our training. We cut back to let our bodies rest and restore itself. Our volume is low, our intensity is high, and our duration is short. Frequency for some is quite high, as some athletes like to keep their ‘feel’ for the water or keep their running ‘rhythm’. Others don’t have such problems and cut back the frequency as well. This is when training is personal choice. After your race, and hopefully successful racing season, you move into the final phase of the year, the Transition Phase.

The Transition Phase is a time to just kick back, and do something other then triathlon. It can mean a time to do nothing for a few weeks, or it could mean the time of the year that you try out some new sports that don’t involve swim, bike, and run. Toward the end of this phase, you want to start organizing your plans for the upcoming season. A new Prep Phase will almost be upon you and you get to do it all over again.

Michael Ricci is a USAT certified coach. He can be reached for personal coaching at mike@d3multisport.com

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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