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Part 2: Reverse Periodisation - Endurance Training Series

In Part 1 of this 6-part series we looked at the definition of periodisation and how it has been traditionally implemented for training in endurance sports. Periodisation is a concept that was coined in the 1960s, and essentially refers to the cyclical changes in the volume, frequency, intensity, and structure of training to elicit different training responses and improvements in fitness. The General Adaptation Syndrome is at the heart of this concept, as rest and recovery must be incorporated into each cycle so that all training stimuli can be assimilated. If you missed the first article, read about the traditional approach to periodisation here.

A New Approach: Reverse Periodisation

Despite the many successes of the traditional approach to periodisation, an alternative approach has been developed and was popularised in the media by parties such as Team Sky and Chris Froome following their Tour de France wins. The concept of reverse periodisation turns the traditional approach on its head, incorporating high intensity intervals into the first part of training Macro-Cycle. Moreover, the reverse approach to periodisation is a method that has been used to reach peak fitness twice in quick succession for athletes racing multiple times in a short time frame. Read on below to learn about the application of this method.

How is reverse periodisation put into practice?

The main argument that has been popularised in the media for reverse periodisation is to ‘beat the winter blues.’ This is for Northern hemisphere athletes who tend to struggle to complete a high volume of low intensity training during the winter months. Intuitively it makes sense to optimise your time during the winter months and avoid spending too much time in the cold, before developing into a higher volume in the spring and summer when it is pleasant to be outdoors. But what about the physiological implications and the impact on the method used for attaining peak fitness? Below is a flow chart indicating how a macro-cycle of training can be structured using reverse periodisation.

As illustrated by the above diagram, the first phase incorporates high intensity training at a low volume to maximise the efficiency of training during the winter. During this phase athletes develop their maximum power and strength in their relevant disciplines, pushing their ‘ceiling’ as high as possible. In the second phase athletes build their volume and work on their aerobic threshold, trying to bring it as close as possible to the ‘ceiling’ that they developed in the first phase of training. Finally, the pre-competition phase involves a high volume of training where the athletes focus on race-specific intensities during their intervals. This approach essentially allows athletes to build their fitness towards race specific work, as a result the use of race-specific work close to the competition has the double benefit of preparing the athlete mentally but also fine tuning the effort or power output required on race day.

Below is a chart illustrating how a reverse periodisation method can be used to structure a 24 week/6 month training macro-cycle building towards one specific race.

As illustrated in this above diagram, the initial training volume is low however the relative intensity is high, and the focus is on maximising the efficiency of training by incorporating quality intervals. The transition phase sees an increase in volume and a move towards threshold interval efforts to develop the aerobic system. The final pre-competition phase has the highest volume and a focus on race-specific intervals at an intensity that is lower relative to the first two phases of the Macro-Cycle.

The specificities of the training within each Meso-Cycle will be discussed in Part 3 of this series, but the above diagram already provides a good overview of how the workload is scheduled over the season.

What are the advantages of reverse periodisation?

As was discussed in the introduction, reverse periodisation has been popularised for athletes living in the Northern hemisphere who wish to maximise the efficiency of the training hours they put in during the dark and cold winter months. Incorporating reverse periodisation for cyclists for example allows them to do several quality sessions a week on the indoor trainer and avoids them having to do long, mentally taxing rides in the cold. Not only is it time-efficient but it can also help avoid burnout as it can be tough to reconcile the long winter hours with the summer objectives that are a long way down the road.

Moreover, using reverse periodisation allows athletes to tune into their race efforts over time as they approach their competition. By developing their maximum capacities first and then focussing on bringing their threshold up, athletes can get to know their body and understand their fitness intuitively, as such they learn to better understand the ‘feel’ of their race pace efforts.

Thirdly, another advantage of using reverse periodisation is that it can used to peak twice in quick succession for two big competitions or racing blocks. Following adequate recovery from an ‘A’ race, athletes can re-embark on a compressed macro-cycle using the reverse periodisation method. This allows athletes to use intense short intervals to raise their ‘ceiling’ again whilst already benefiting from good fitness. After the transition phase athletes are once again able to work on their race pace efforts to improve and peak again for a second competition.

What are the disadvantages of reverse periodisation?

Irrespective of the many advantages of reverse periodisation presented thus far, this method does also present certain drawbacks. First, it provides very little time to ease into training. Athletes are met head on with high intensity training right from the start of their macro-cycle. Depending on the individual this can present either a mental challenge to reconcile their training intensities with the time of the year, and/or increased injury risk. The potential increase in injury risk is mostly related to poor technique. If an athlete doesn’t engrain correct technique into their training, the high intensity intervals in the first phase of training could potentially lead to overuse or even acute injuries.

One of the biggest challenges of using reverse periodisation is the need to know oneself as an athlete and the need to understand the zones in which the training is completed. For experienced athletes this shouldn’t be an issue, however for athletes who are relatively new to their sport it might be favourable to use traditional periodisation first to get to know their body and their fitness before embarking on a Macro-Cycle that relies on reverse periodisation.

Final Remarks

To summarise, the reverse periodisation method presents several solutions to the drawbacks discussed in the first article about traditional periodisation. Namely, it allows athletes to avoid training long hours in the cold and it favours a build in volume over time to aid in developing durability and avoiding over-use injuries. However, certain drawbacks do remain with regards to the challenges of jumping straight into high intensity training at the start of a Macro-Cycle and the need for developing good technique to prevent acute injuries during this phase. Finally, there is also an inherent need to know and understand one’s body and fitness levels as an athlete to apply reverse periodisation without the help of a coach.

Stay tuned for Part 3 next week where we take a detailed look at training cycles to understand the utility of Macro, Meso and Micro Cycles as well as the importance of the 80:20 rule. If you missed Part 1 click here.

As always, if you have any comments or questions please let us know!

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