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What does your training progression towards a race look like? What are the stages? Chances are, if you’re following most traditional training advice, you build a “base” of aerobic fitness first, Then, as your race gets closer, your training becomes progressively more specific. Speed and tempo sessions are usually a major part of this “build” phase.
For those planning a spring race, this means some significant time pounding the pavement and in the saddle during the winter. If you’re like me and live somewhere with an actual winter, spending significant time outside isn’t practical, safe, beneficial (in some cases), or even enjoyable. But, even if you decide to train indoors during most of the winter, which many of us do, do you want to spend endless, boring hours slogging away on a treadmill or turbo trainer?
If you can’t change your environment, change your approach.
Let me introduce the concept of reverse periodization. It sounds all technical and scientific, but it’s quite simple. Instead of training in the order I described in the first paragraph of this article – do the reverse (hence the name). Focus on your speed first, thereby training goal pace, and then expand your aerobic base from there. Picture an inverted pyramid instead of a traditional one.
What does this mean for training? Use the winter to focus on speed and strength with high-intensity intervals. At first these intervals will be quite short. Over time, increase the duration of intervals while holding speed constant. For example, you may start out early in your training by doing 5-6 brief, 15-20 second hard sprints within an otherwise moderate 30 minute session (whether running or cycling).
Several weeks in, this session can evolve in terms of repetitions, interval duration, and overall time. Later on, you’ll build to a more challenging session, like 10x 1-minute at max effort with three minutes of recovery. A personal favorite are Russian Steps on the turbo trainer.
Build is the key word. It’s tempting when jumping back into training to over-do it. With intervals, this can be a recipe for injury. On the bike, for example, trying to push too high a gear too quickly in an effort to build strength and power can easily result in patellar tendonitis or some other nagging injury you don’t want come April.
As you work your way towards your race, these early season speed sessions evolve into race-specific tempo efforts. The end point is still the same – race-specificity. But you just take a different approach in getting there.
Both approaches, reverse periodization and traditional periodization, have their benefits. They each have limitations as well. Reverse periodization isn’t for everyone. I’ve heard anecdotes that reverse periodization works better for more established endurance athletes, those with a few years of training and racing under their belt. I’ve tried it myself with some success.
But the only way to see if this is approach works for you is to give it a shot. That’s part of what triathlon is all about – experimentation. Trying different approaches in the pursuit of self-improvement.