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Part 4: Comparing the two approaches to Periodisation

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

The two approaches to Periodisation were described and explained in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. As a reminder, Periodisation refers to the cyclical changes in training volume, intensity, structure and focus over a season. Part 1 of this series looked at the traditional approach to Periodisation in endurance sports, whilst Part 2 looked at the reverse approach to periodisation that has been popularised in recent years. In this fourth article we review the five main similarities and three key differences between the different approaches to periodisation.

The 5 Main Similarities

1. Reliance on Training Cycles

As you will have understood from the first few articles, both approaches to periodisation rely on the implementation of training cycles at the Macro, Meso and Micro levels. Splitting an athlete’s training in different cycles of work is a key attribute of the periodisation concept, allowing athletes to focus on different elements of fitness at different times in the season.

2. You have to get fit to get fit

Again, both approaches rely on the idea that you have to progress towards your race fitness by building different levels and types of fitness one after the other. Athletes can’t do the same type of race-specific training all year round (i.e. they must use training cycles as mentioned above), but must start from their base level and work through different types of training to reach peak fitness.

3. Specificity

When it comes to endurance sports training, regardless of the approach you take to periodisation, progress and performance will rely on the specificity of your training. What does this mean? This means that your training needs to be tailored to your sport and specific to your goals, your lifestyle and your strengths and weaknesses. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that can be blanketed over all endurance athletes, everyone has to tailor their programme specifically to their needs.

4. The General Adaptation Syndrome

Referring back to the definition of periodisation in the first article, the whole principle behind this approach to training is that appropriate cycles must be used to prevent overtraining. Both versions of periodisation rely on the GAS, it is a defining factor underpinning the structure and content of all training sessions and training cycles.

5. The 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 Rule is another one of the key factors underpinning both approaches to periodisation. In both cases it is recognised that there is a trade off between volume and intensity when it comes to structuring training load. Implementing the 80/20 rule provides a guideline to ensure that athletes can sustain their training load by respecting the appropriate training zones during each session and overall intensity levels across the training cycles.

The 3 Main Differences

1. Opposite approaches to building fitness

The traditional approach to periodisation builds fitness through initially focussing on a high volume of base aerobic training. This implies low intensity and long hours, focussing on the aerobic base to build solid foundations on which to later build with higher intensity intervals. In contrast, the reverse approach to periodisation focusses initially on improving maximum capacity through high intensity intervals at low volume. Following this initial phase, reverse periodisation then aims to bring the athlete’s threshold capacities up as close as possible to their max capacity. Both approaches have been proven to work for various sports at various levels, but as you can tell from this brief description, the two approaches differ quite significantly.

2. Opposite approaches to volume and intensity distribution across the season

One of the key differences and selling points of the reverse approach to periodisation is that high volumes of training are reserved for the latter phases of the Macro training cycle. This prevents athletes from having to do long hours during the cold winter months. Whilst the traditional approach to periodisation relies on high volume in the first part of the training cycle, as explained above, reverse periodisation focuses more on higher intensities initially, and builds into high volume later in the season as athletes approach race season. This trade off between volume and intensity is a key determinant of overall training load, and the two approaches to periodisation take different views of how volume and intensity are distributed across a season.

3. Mental challenges

Each approach to periodisation has a different set of mental challenges for athletes, particularly in the early part of the Macro-Cycle. Depending on which periodisation method athletes are using they may struggle to reconcile the type of training they are doing early in the season with the amount of time they have left until race day. Looking at traditional periodisation, where the focus is on volume during the first training phase, the long hours at low intensity can be mentally challenging and need to be managed carefully to prevent training burnout. Conversely, the reverse periodisation method can be challenging for endurance sport athletes as they find themselves doing high intensity intervals in the depths of winter, months and months before their race. If the theory and logic behind their training hasn’t been explained carefully then athletes might struggle to understand why they are doing VO2 intervals in the depths of winter.


In conclusion, it is evident that both periodisation methods are quite similar in several ways, particularly when it comes to the specificity of training, the use of training cycles and the need to carefully manage training load by respecting training zones. However, the underlying differences between the two methods lie in the methods used to build fitness and the way in which volume and intensity are scheduled over a season.

If you missed any of the first three articles, click here to catch up now!

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