As an endurance performance coach, I understand that every triathlete, regardless of their experience level, desires to improve and perform at their best. This goal requires more than just discipline and a will to work hard—it calls for smart and efficient training strategies.
One such method that has been around for a long time is called periodization. Periodization is a practical and flexible training strategy that helps you maximize your workouts and time and improve your performance. It becomes particularly valuable for age-group triathletes who often find themselves juggling between training, work, and family life.
So, whether you’re new to the concept or need a refresher, I’ve put together a straightforward guide to periodization training. This article is not meant to be an advanced discussion but just the basics. Here, we’ll discuss what periodization is, why it may work, and how to incorporate it into your training regimen.
What is Periodization?
Think of periodization like your training navigation system; it’s, a way to divide your training into different periods, each with a specific goal. This might involve building endurance, working on speed, or focusing on recovery.
You start with a base phase to build general fitness and endurance. Moving forward, you’ll transition into phases focused on speed, strength, race-specific, and finally, the taper (and sometimes, a transition phase). Each phase lays the groundwork for the next, creating a domino effect in training.
Initially used in sports training like track and field events, periodization has become integral to training strategies across all endurance disciplines, especially for triathletes. As we juggle three sports simultaneously, it’s essential to have a plan that ensures variety and the right work emphasis at the right time. It helps you peak for your primary races and reduces the risk of overtraining and injuries.
The Reason Periodization Training Works
The effectiveness of periodization lies in its core principle: gradual and systematic progression of training intensity and load. By focusing on specific fitness aspects at different times and building in rest, you avoid overloading your system, thus reducing injury risk, and ensuring consistent performance improvements.
Different Ways to Use Periodization
There are several periodization models, and the choice depends on your personal needs and goals. Some athletes might prefer a traditional style with less frequent focus changes, while others may prefer a more dynamic approach, leaving flexibility for unpredictable work and family life. The important thing is to find a style that fits your lifestyle and keeps you motivated.
“Prioritizing your recovery periods will allow your body to build load tolerance and absorb all the training you’ve been doing. These periods allow you to get your head back on straight – reducing injury risk and ensuring you’re ready for the next training block.”
In simple terms, athletes use periodization training to be in the best condition possible at a target time. But there are various ways you can go about it. Here are a few.
- Traditional Periodization: As the most conventional model, traditional periodization involves progressing through the typical cycles of base, build, race, and transition/recovery.
- Inverse Periodization: This approach involves starting with high-intensity training and gradually decreasing the intensity while increasing the volume of training. This method is often used by athletes who have a shorter training period before a competition.
- Block Periodization: This type involves breaking down a training cycle into blocks, with each block focusing on a specific training goal. For example, you may have a base-building block, a speed block, and a race-specific block.
Certain types of endurance athletes can benefit from specific approaches to periodization, as it allows them to clearly plan their training and recovery periods in a way that best suits their timeline, race objectives, and lifestyle.
Periodization prompts athletes to work at targeted levels of effort while prioritizing restorative periods, helping them avoid performance plateaus while minimizing risks of overtraining and injury.
Using Periodization in Triathlon Training
Periodization provides a clear roadmap to balance your swim, bike, and run training. You’ll understand when to push and when to back off, aligning your training phases with your race calendar and ensuring your fitness is there when it matters most – on race day.
Periodization training isn’t only for young or pro athletes; it’s adaptable for anyone committed to performing at their best. It’s flexible and can be tailored to meet the unique needs of age-group triathletes, those balancing training, work, and family commitments.
Making a Basic Periodized Training Plan
Creating your periodized plan begins with setting clear goals. Identify what you want to achieve in terms of outcomes: perhaps it’s completing your first triathlon, improving your time, or getting on the podium.
Once your goals are clear, break down your year or season into specific training cycles based on your race dates. TrainingPeaks has an Annual Training Plan (ATP) that can help with this, or you can just use a spreadsheet – which is what I do.
Each phase of your plan should focus on different aspects of your training – endurance or general prep, strength, race-specific or speed, and the taper and transition phase.
Map out these phases keeping in mind the timing of your key or “A” races. But remember, an effective plan isn’t just about getting in the work; it’s about getting in the right work and recovery.
Prioritizing your recovery periods will allow your body to build load tolerance and absorb all the training you’ve been doing. These periods allow you to get your head back on straight – reducing injury risk and ensuring you’re ready for the next training block.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Periodization
Remember, your plan is not set in stone. Be prepared to adjust it based on how your body responds to training. Ensure your training complements, not overwhelms, your life.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of periodization training for endurance:
- Set target goals: Identify your long- and short-term goals as an endurance athlete and set realistic expectations. Pinpointing your A-races and goals is a pivotal decision that will guide the structure of your periodization training.
- Be consistent: Consistency is key when it comes to periodization training. Stick to your training plan and work to complete each cycle before moving on to the next one.
- Track your progress: Keep a training log to track your progress and make adjustments to your sessions as needed. Over time, this will help you to identify what is working and what is not and adapt accordingly.
- Build around recovery periods: Recovery is just as important as training when it comes to periodization and absorbing the load. Make sure to include sufficient rest days and recovery periods in your training plan to allow your body to recover and rebuild.
- Vary your training: Incorporate a variety of training methods – such as high-intensity intervals, tempos, long endurance days, and recovery sessions – all in an effort to keep your training variable, engaging, and grow-enabling.
- Consider hiring a coach: A qualified endurance coach can help you to create an individually-tailored periodization training plan that’s aligned with your race objectives and overall lifestyle.
Periodization training is a potent tool in your triathlon training arsenal. Give it a try and feel the difference in your training and racing. Happy training!
Also from Jeff
- Ultimate Guide to 50K Ultra Training: From Marathoner to Ultra Runner
- What to Expect from Your Endurance Coach: 6 Essential Factors
- Have a Crappy Workout? Here Are 6 Reasons Why
Photos by Phil Roeder at the Hy-Vee Triathlon
Jeff Lukich is the owner and head coach of Drive Multisport and leads Better Triathlete's coach match program. He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Level 1, USA Cycling (USAC) Level 2, and USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach. A 10x Ironman finisher and Boston Marathon Qualifier, Jeff specializes in coaching long-course triathletes, ultra-runners, marathoners, cyclists, and athletes with unique events, such as double Ironman, staged races, and SwimRun events. Learn more about Jeff.