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Reverse Periodisation: Going Hard Over Winter

There’s a common phrase in the triathlon world, which goes like this: “winter miles, summer smiles”.

This is derived from the traditional training periodisation recommended in training plans and set by many coaches; that is, completing the long steady endurance sessions in the winter and then introducing the speed work in the spring, with the aim to sharpen you up for race season.

Mark Pearce, Head Coach at Intelligent Triathlon Training (and formerly Head Coach at British Triathlon), believes that in many cases, it’s prudent to do the exact opposite for longer distance triathletes.

Naturally every single athlete is different so I would never prescribe one training periodisation plan to all my athletes. If you’re racing short distance duathlons in winter, just doing long steady miles might not help you much! But irrespective of an individual’s race calendar, so-called ‘traditional’ training periodisation doesn’t even make that much sense for middle and long distance athletes.

Most athletes race in the summer. Most athletes want to get faster. I think that goes without saying, especially for age groupers. If you spend the whole winter working on endurance but not doing much intensity, then come the spring, you will be able to ride or run for a long time. Great, for longer distance stuff.

Thing is, you won’t be able to do it very quickly. Trying to then retrospectively add in speed is illogical. You will have a great base, but as soon as you try to go faster, you won’t be able to hold that pace or intensity, simply because you have not increased your threshold. 

I work on the basis of what is sometimes referred to as reverse periodisation. I will prescribe quite a lot of high intensity sessions over winter (which is perfect timing, really, given the weather!), with the objective of increasing threshold/FTP/VO2 max. Once these limits are breached, you know you have improved, and can start to build upon holding that for longer periods of time. 

Now, you take an athlete that has managed to increase their threshold over winter, so they are faster – potentially in all disciplines, but let’s stick with bike and run now as swimming is very technique-orientated. That athlete now needs to apply the long steady endurance miles, along with some tempo work, to be able to hold that given pace/intensity, or in other words; improve their fatigue resistance.

By the way, as the athlete’s threshold has increased, so has the power/pace output for the endurance sessions, as endurance sessions are based on a percentage of FTP/threshold. This means that the endurance sessions are now being completed at a faster pace than previously. The key is then to build on that, gradually increasing the distance so that eventually the athlete can hold a given power/pace over a longer distance.

A typical bike session to improve FTP

Along with longer level 2 sessions (base miles), we use sessions such as this in the 6-8 weeks prior to a significant 70.3 race to develop that muscular endurance and fatigue resistance.  These are high load sessions and you need to fuel with race fuel, do the session on your TT bike and on the aerobars as much as possible, oh and be ready to dig in.

Warm Up: 20 min @ 65 % of FTP

Work: 1 hr @ 85 % of FTP
Recovery: 5 min @ 55 % of FTP

Repeat 6 times

Hard – Work: 3 min @ 95 – 100 % of FTP
Easy – Recovery: 1 min @ 55 % of FTP

Recovery: 4 min @ 55 % of FTP

Work: 45 min @ 85-90 % of FTP  (Keeping variability index below 1.05)
Cool Down: 22 min @ 60 % of FTP

 

If you are racing regularly then these might only be 3-4 weeks prior to a major race –  there are no hard and fast rules.

Really, it just comes down to science, but too many people are stuck in the traditional ways of thinking which state that building an endurance base over winter is the key to race success in the summer. Reverse periodisation makes a lot more sense for the majority of UK age group athletes who are racing longer distances in the summer race season.

So, before you head out on that bitter long ride in the rain and wind, perhaps take a step back and think about whether you might be better off with a hard interval session on the turbo…

 

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