The importance of periodisation in training
2016 Ironman 70.3 World Champion, Holly Lawrence
For many of us, the new year is a time to begin increasing our training in preparation for spring/summer races. To be successful in triathlon, our training should be structured in a way to optimise performance. Training programmes are defined by volume (how much), intensity (how hard) and frequency (how often). These variables can be manipulated to determine the way your body adapts to training.
So, how do we structure training to maximise effort but still gain a sense of enjoyment and well being? In other words, how to we find that balance between training hard and recovery?
We all need to train hard to improve but the relationship between training load and performance is individual. Recreational triathletes or those of us new to the sport tend to have smaller training loads but will initially benefit from large improvements in performance. Conversely, more experienced triathletes will require higher training loads to cause small increases in performance. These improvements in performance, however big or small, are the result of adaptations to your body and its response to exercise. This adaptation process relies on a sufficient, and regular, training stimulus to bring about a physiological change. In other words, we need to train above a certain ‘threshold’ level to overload the body, make ourselves feel tired and activate our physiological repair mechanisms. This may mean increasing the duration of your long ride or increasing the intensity of a threshold swim.
The acute fatigue (tired legs, sore muscles!) experienced during periods of heavy training is only to be expected and with adequate recovery, it will disappear, and your body will adapt to the increased training load. Recovery should therefore be the ‘bedrock’ of your training plan going forward. You’ll often find that people skip a rest day because of missed training and the fear of losing fitness. If you continue to train when tired, your body will suffer increasing levels of stress which could lead to further fatigue, over-reaching (short term excessive training), possible over-training and under-performance. We then find ourselves in a vicious circle where training is increased in reaction to under-performance rather than increasing the recovery period.
An example of a personalised trainSharp training programme
The best way to ensure sufficient recovery is to take a cyclical and periodised approach to your training.
Periodisation is perhaps better described as a planning process where you select your goals for the new season and design your training programme balancing sufficient training stimulus with adequate recovery. As a simple example, you could train in a four-week cycle. This means training volumes/intensity gradually increase for the first three weeks resulting in periods of overreaching. Heavier training weeks are required to ensure the sufficient ‘overload’ needed to promote adaptation and enhance future performance. During these periods of functional overreaching, you may experience a reduction in performance before a recovery phase in the fourth week.
These cycles can be bolted together to form larger blocks (or phases) of training which then focus on the development of a specific energy system. This cyclical and phased approach will ensure you have adequate recovery to balance the heavier weeks whilst minimising any detraining effect and increasing the likelihood of improved performance by the time race season arrives.
At trainSharp, most of our elite triathletes and cyclists based in the Northern Hemisphere are now in the ‘base’ phase of their training. This phase tends to be the longest as it establishes the aerobic groundwork for the hard work ahead!
Typically, this phase is characterised by long duration, low intensity efforts designed to build a solid endurance base with increasing focus on strength endurance over a period of 12-16 weeks. These long duration, low intensity training rides evoke physiological changes within the working muscle which enable your body to adapt to an increasing training load. Adaptations include an increase in the density of mitochondria (the oxygen power house) within your muscle cells, an expansion of the muscle capillary network, an increased haemoglobin content and an increase in total blood volume all of which result in an improved blood supply. These changes increase the aerobic capacity of your muscle fibres, making them more efficient at processing and extracting oxygen from the blood. They become more fatigue-resistant thereby enabling you to ride longer distances.
Other metabolic changes include a slower use of muscle glycogen and blood glucose, an increase in the utilisation of fat stores for energy and less blood lactate production at a given work rate. Over time, these long rides will develop your economy and mechanical efficiency. The feeling of effort and fatigue during these training sessions should be generally low but may increase from time-to-time if the session includes some hills or sprint efforts. Your breathing should be controlled and regular during most of the ride and continuous conversation should be possible. Towards the end of this phase, we would introduce some race pace/threshold efforts (zone 2/3) and higher intensity intervals.
As you progress towards your race season, the emphasis of each phase will become more race specific with a focus on building lactate tolerance, power and race pace efforts. At this stage, we would recommend having a fitness test (blood lactate profiling & VO2max test). The 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Champion and trainSharp coached, Holly Lawrence carries out regular fitness testing with us to keep track of her training progress and, perhaps more importantly, provide her with accurate training zones and her functional threshold power. This power and heart rate information is then used to ensure that each training session was accurately paced and targeting the right zone.
We would expect your training intensity to peak four to six weeks prior to the start of your race season. During the race season, the emphasis will be on reducing training whilst sustaining intensity to maintain racing efforts. The final phase of the annual plan would usually be recovery or transition to another event or sport.
Trying to plan your training can sometimes be like juggling plates! Take a step back and identify your goals and objectives early and then plan your training around these goals. Remember that, whilst periods of heavy training are required to achieve increased levels of performance, this can only be achieved if you have a well-structured training balanced with adequate recovery. Finally, your training philosophy should never compromise quality for quantity. If you feel too tired to train at the appropriate intensity, take a rest rather than complete the session sub-optimally.
For more information on trainSharp coaching and fitness testing packages email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01892 577802.