Keep Periodization Simple!
Periodization really doesn’t need to be as complicated as we make it out to be. Those who are new to endurance sport simply need to increase the amount of time they spend training being careful not to make rapid changes that could lead to breakdowns from injury or illness. It’s only slightly more complex for experienced and competitive endurance athletes.
In my Training Bible books (for cyclists and triathletes), I devote three or four pages to the theory of periodization. There are entire books written on the subject, so my few pages were quite a shortened version. In later sections, I discussed application of the periods of training—Prep, Base, Build, Peak, Race, and Transition. I use these terms, not because I want to, but because I have to. If everyone did their A-priority race on the same day every year, then I could refer to time using the months of the year. If, for example, everyone’s race was the last weekend in May, I could then talk about how everyone would train in November, December, January, and so on. It would be quite simple and easy to understand. But everyone’s A race is not on the same weekend, so I have to use different terms to refer to time. The names of the months won’t do. Hence, the period names above.
The following table explains what the training periods mean—their purpose and typical length.
|Prep||Prepare to train.||2–4 weeks|
|Base||Establish basic abilities.||12 weeks|
|Build||Build race-specific fitness.||8–9 weeks|
|Peak||Increase rest and race specificity.||1–2 weeks|
|Race||Rest and prepare to race.||1 week|
|Transition||Recovery both physically and mentally.||1–8 weeks|
Another way of explaining periodization is that physical stress is gradually increased over the course of many weeks. Some describe it as a methodical system for gradual physical adaptation that avoids exhaustion. Others think of it as the alternation and progression of high and low work loads. It’s also been referred to as a cyclical system for the practical application of the principles of training. This could go on and on and become increasingly vague and complicated. But I believe periodization can really be boiled down to one simple sentence:
Periodization means that the closer in time you get to the race, the more like the race your workouts must become.
If this is all you know about periodization and you adhere to it, you’ll do fine. Because when it’s all said and done, the most important question is: Are you prepared to race? If you can answer that question affirmatively—which you can if your workouts have been like the race—then you will have a great race. If you’re not sure, then you haven’t made your workouts enough like the race. It’s that simple.
So what does it mean to make your workouts like the race? It has to do with three things—how frequently you do racelike workouts, how intense your racelike workouts are, and how long your racelike workouts are. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Racelike Workout Frequency
In keeping with my simple definition above, early in the year—the Prep and first few weeks of the Base period—your training is quite different from your A race. For example, the training outlines in my Training Bible books call for you to do some weightlifting. At no time in an endurance race do you stop to lift weights. This is not racelike at all. So what do you think should happen to weightlifting as the season progresses into the late Base, Build, Peak, and Race periods? You do less and less of it. It becomes infrequent.
Becoming more frequent during this same period of time are workouts that are like your race. So by the time you get to the late Build and Peak periods, many of you can’t do that every day. You would very quickly become overtrained if you tried to do so. So you have to have easy days and basic fitness / maintenance days between the racelike workouts. If your A race is a sprint-distance triathlon or a bike criterium, you can do a racelike workout about once a week in the last few weeks. In fact, you can do a lot of such races during this time. But if you are training for an Ironman or a six-hour, mountainous road race there’s no way you can do that every week. But you can do portions of the race every week, such as long bike rides and long runs. For example, I have Ironman triathletes do abbreviated Ironman races twice in the Build period with several weeks separating them. That’s frequent enough to prepare for the specific demands of the race, but not so frequent as to cause breakdown.
So the frequency of racelike workouts depends on the race you are training for.
Racelike Workout Intensity
For the experienced and competitive athlete, the key to success is intensity. This does not mean going as fast as you can. It means training at intensities that are appropriate for your A-race goals. For example, if your goal run pace in a triathlon is seven minutes per mile, then the closer you get to the race, the more time you must spend running at seven-minute pace, especially after a bike ride. By the time of the race, running at that pace should be second nature for you. But in the Base period you won’t do much seven-minute-paced running. You’ll do runs that are much slower and some that are even faster. They are not specific to your goal pace, but they have a purpose, which is explained in my books.
Racelike Workout Duration
Notice in the last paragraph that I did not say the key to success for the experienced and competitive athlete is how long the workouts are. Endurance athletes tend to believe the length of their workouts is what their training should be all about. That’s the case if you are new to the sport. You’ve got to build the endurance to finish the race. But once you have a good level of endurance, which you should have after about three years of serious training, duration is no longer the key to your success.
This is not to say that workout length is unimportant. It’s just less important than intensity. Early in the season, especially in the Base period, your workouts will be quite long. Your longest workouts should be in the last few weeks of Base, what I call Base 3. Then in the Build period there will actually be a slight shortening of your longest sessions as the intensity increases. That will prepare you for the race much better than if you simply did more miles slowly as most self-coached athletes do.
Summing Up Periodization
For the competitive athlete, that’s all there is to it. Make the workouts increasingly like your race by appropriately increasing the frequency of your racelike workouts, making the intensity of these workouts more like the race, and training at durations that are also racelike. All of this will eventually lead to a best race ever. It’s really quite simple.