Periodised Training Plan
In an attempt to improve my triathlon performances I’ve been working with a coach and I’ve been trying to follow a periodised training plan this year.
There are plenty of quite large books that go into great depths about periodisation in triathlon training (one of the best being Joe Friels “The Triathlete’s Training Bible“. At close to 400 pages I’m not about to explain the ins and outs of periodisation, but the basic premise is that you split your training up into various periods during which time you concentrate to a greater or lesser degree on certain aspects of your performance. These could be aerobic fitness, strength, endurance, speed or other aspects such as technique. One period leads to the next in a progressive manner so that the athlete can reach a peak for a particular race or races throughout the year. Periodisation should also incorporate rest and recovery during which time the body and mind can compensate for the training load exerted on it and improve ready for the next phase of training.
The usual basic pattern is:
A Base Phase during which time you work on overall aerobic fitness. This is usually carried out over the winter months and can be several months long. It will include lots of easy, longer distance training sessions at low intensity. During the base phase there can be a gradual increase in volume throughout the phase so as to increase aerobic capacity. This could also be called a foundation phase as it provides a good aerobic base and general level of fitness for the athlete to build upon.
A Build Phase during which time you build on the aerobic base that you have developed, but increase the volume of training done. This phase could be fairly short but prepares the athlete for the more intense workouts associated with the following phases.
A Strength and Endurance Phase where training session become higher intensity and higher volume, allowing the athlete to build muscle and power. This phase may target specific muscle groups or particular activities that will replicate those needed for races later in the season.
A Speed Phase which is a short phase where the training volume decreases but the intensity increases considerably. Typically training sessions will consist of short, fast, hard interval training sessions that allow the athlete to develop speed.
A Taper, during which time the athlete rests and recovers prior to a race. Training will still be done but by this stage there is no time left for improvement so the goal is to rest and recover so as to be at your peak for a race.
A Race. This may be a single race or a season with several races in it in which case there will need to several smaller scale cycles of training, tapering, racing and recovery.
A Recovery Phase, which can be a short recovery period after a mid-season race, or a longer period of recovery at the end of the season. This phase still involves physical activity but usually with less structure to the plan so that the activities are generally recreational rather than hard core training.
Creating a Plan.
Planning all of this into an annual training plan is never easy. In an ideal world you would have one priority race that you were aiming to compete in and then work backwards from that date allowing you time to fit in all of the necessary phases, doing each phase for a specific amount of time. However, the world is rarely ideal and most people have more than one race to train for, in fact, it is probably a good thing to have more than one high priority race each season as you wouldn’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket. If anything goes wrong for that one single race and you don’t compete or don’t perform then you may have put in all of this hard effort for nothing.
Races however affect the training plan as you need to taper, race and recover for each one, all of which puts your carefully crafted plan out of the window for a week or two. Of course, the best plans will accommodate these races.
All manner of other things such as illness, injury, family holidays, work and other commitments tend to affect the amateur athlete as well and these need to be taken into account when creating a training plan. Each individual will also respond differently to each phase of training so the duration, intensity, volume and even to some extent order of the phases will vary from person to person. As you can see, creating a plan isn’t easy.
Having a coach create a plan for you does of course help. Not only does it mean they can do the work of fitting all of the phases into the time available, but they are also more likely to tell you to do the sorts of training sessions you should be doing at any given time, rather than those that you want to be doing. It is all too easy when making up your own training plan to do those things that you either enjoy doing or feel like doing at any given time. That’s all well and good of course as this is supposed to be fun, but if you are looking for optimal performance then it might not be the best approach.
In addition to the phases outlined above, a good periodised training plan should have small scale cycles within each of the phases. In my case these are weekly cycles and generally follow a pattern of medium weeks, high weeks and recovery weeks. These cycles allow you to push your body, working it harder and harder. The recovery week is less intense and lower in training volume, giving your body time to recover and recuperate ready for the next cycle. It is during this recovery cycle that your body super-compensates and improvements are made.
How does it feel?
It’s early days yet and I’ve yet to compete since starting a proper periodised training plan but I can comment on certain aspects of it.
First up, it does require a fair amount of discipline and patience and at certain times of the year it is easy to feel as though you aren’t at your best. I’ve just come out of a fairly long (16 week) Base Phase and I’m now in a Build / Transition Phase before starting an 8 week strength and endurance phase. Although I feel fairly fit, I’m certainly not feeling at my best, and that’s because I’m not supposed to be. The whole point of periodisation is that it allows you to peak for certain times of the year without destroying your body. The very nature of a peak means that you can’t be at the top for the whole year, so there will be times when you feel slow and below par. It takes patience, discipline and confidence in the plan to remain positive at these times which can be difficult.
It’s important to remember that all being well you will indeed peak for your races in several months time and you will get faster and feel better when that time comes. The alternative it to stay at a steady, mediocre level of performance all year round. You may feel fairly good about yourself throughout the year, but there will be little overall improvement, just a steady level of homogenised fitness. You’ll probably do OK in races, but not as well as you possibly could. Periodisation on the other hand allows you to peak and perform at your best for certain races but does mean that you will be performing below your best at other times of the year.
One thing that I do like about a periodised training plan is that there is always something to look forward to. During a high week I feeling tired, fatigued and as though I’ve had enough, that’s fine though because I have a recovery week to look forward to next. By the end of the recovery week I’m raring to go again and can’t wait to do some more training. Again, that’s fine because that’s exactly what I’ll be doing next week. Having small scale weekly cycles means that things are always changing and there is always something to look forward to.
The same is true of the longer phases. Not only do they change things up during the year, but they should also fit in well with your annual plans. During the winter when the days are short, cold and dark you’ll be working on your base fitness. You can wrap up warm and go out for long, low intensity training sessions. During the summer when the days are brighter and longer you’ll be doing more sessions, but each one will be shorter and more intense. Just what you need in the heat of the summer, and certainly something I’m looking forward to at the moment.
Does it work?
Well, from my point of view only time will tell, but I’m sticking with it at the moment. I may not feel that fast right now but my main races of the year aren’t until May and July so hopefully by then I’ll be as fast as I possibly can be!