Reversible periodization, an interesting approach to training

The season is coming to an end, the days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping… this often leads to a decrease in motivation for the endurance athlete, with a decrease in the volume to be devoted to his weekly training.

It is now time to plan your competitions for next season and build your winter training to perform and achieve your goals.

Traditionally, during the winter period, triathletes and cyclists go on a so-called ” building ” preparation with low intensity work. In winter, temperatures are low, rain or snow are often present, so it is not pleasant to do long hours of low intensity training in these conditions! Wouldn’t there be better things to do to improve and/or be motivated by a non-monotonous training that will allow you to improve and prepare for the next season!

Let’s take a look at the principles of periodization

  • The traditional periodization

The concept of periodization has existed for more than 30 years, it consists in dividing the training cycle into distinct phases with specific objectives in order to achieve maximum performance at the time of the target competition. The model is as follows: the athlete must perform a high volume of low intensity training during the winter and then gradually reduce the volume of training to incorporate high intensity work as the competition approaches. This periodization model is described as ranging from general to specific (to competition).

Originally, traditional periodization was developed by the Eastern European bloc to prepare athletes, mainly Russian weightlifters, to perform in a single “Olympic Games” competition in order to win a gold medal.

What may seem surprising is that this model of periodization has been popularized among athletes and coaches around the world, it has now been used seasonally for decades while the same model is supported by very little scientific research that would prove its effectiveness or interest.

By using this model we will remove all the specific work during the winter period. All the work we have done upstream during the previous season and the specific adaptations that have taken so long to develop will be reduced or eliminated and we will have to start again almost from scratch at the more qualitative recovery on the development phase. Working at low intensity for several months will not prepare the body to maintain a high intensity over a long period of time. When the athlete returns to high intensity work, he or she will experience great difficulty and will often be frustrated because he or she will feel less efficient.

  • Reversible periodization 

By focusing on the specific requirements of long-term competition and the physiological and biochemical functioning of the human organism, we can put in place a global strategy to enable the athlete to be constantly on a positive phase and maintain his specific adaptations throughout the year. To do this, a different approach to periodization can be used using the concept of reversible periodization. Instead of having an accumulation of hours of low intensity training and gradually adding intensity as competitions approach, reversible periodization consists in reversing this model by performing high intensity work as soon as training resumes with parallel neuromuscular work via strength/velocity work to gradually superimpose volume to mix it with specific pace work.

With this model we do not work first on intensity and then on endurance. No, we use a different approach mixing intensity and volume all the time with a progressive increase in the training load over the blocks to respect the load ratios.

This different approach in reversible periodization must be considered and managed by an alternation of specific oriented blocks as recommended by the work of Issurin and Ronnestad on the use of the block periodization model.

In addition, high-intensity work must be maximized to produce the best physiological effects on the body, which will generate strong adaptations. Various scientific studies, including those by Seiler or Bacon, have shown that it is the accumulation of a high duration at high intensity (20 to 30′) using effort intervals between 2′ and 8′, with an effort: recovery ratio of 2:1 (the recovery period corresponds to half the period of high intensity effort), which could generate better metabolic adaptations (↑cardiac output ↑VO2max). High intensity work with short intervals (example: 30”/ 30”’) with a low accumulation of volume would generate metabolic adaptations at the peripheral level but will actually have little impact on the stimulation of VO2max.

The Seiler’s Hierarchy

In addition to the presentation of the concepts of traditional periodization and reversible periodization, it is interesting to give you a short introduction to the work of Seiler who is a Norwegian sports scientist specialized in training periodization who has worked extensively on training polarization.

His recent work on the hierarchy of endurance athlete needs in his preparation is in line with reversible periodization:

  • Importance of the training volume
  • Use of high-intensity work to maximize adaptations
  • Management of the intensity distribution
  • Regular use of the specific running pace during training
  • He also points out that the use of traditional periodization is not clear and certainly overestimated in its benefits in terms of progress.

Feedback from experience

We have been using this approach to training with our athletes for 6 years now. We were able to observe performance gains during the winter period and especially during competitions but also a pleasure for athletes to evolve within this training process which is not monotonous.

We also invite you to read the interview with Tim KERRISON, Head Coach Team Sky, on the subject of this approach to training:

To conclude

Traditional periodization is not bad, depending on the athletes and the discipline prepared, but reversible periodization may potentially be more appropriate for endurance athletes (triathlon, cycling, running…).

  • The interest of traditional periodization:
    • Professional athletes who have time to spend in training
    • Athletes who are fortunate enough to live all year round in a warm climate
    • Athletes who do not have good basic aerobic fitness
  • The interest of reverse periodization:
    • Increase his working time at high intensity to reinforce metabolic adaptations during an adequate period when the athlete does not compete in a series of competitions that could generate harmful fatigue
    • Respect for the principle of progressiveness and the management of load ratios
    • Train less in winter to avoid the constraints of bad weather
    • Interesting for athletes who do not have a high volume to devote to winter training
    • Athletes who train in cold climates during the winter
    • Maintain a strong motivation for training
    • Reduce the monotony of training sessions
    • With reversible periodization, the athlete will feel stronger and in better condition as the spring season approaches.
    • The combination of volume/high intensity and work at a specific pace will make it possible to maintain a higher intensity with the same level of effort (objective & subjective).

You now have all the cards in your hands to make your own choice of winter periodization.

To go further:

  • Bacon et al (2013). VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Training In Humans: A Meta-Analysis.
  • Issurin V, 2010. New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization.
  • Rønnestad & al, 2014. Block periodization of high-intensity aerobic intervals provides superior training effects in trained cyclists.
  • Seiler, & al, 2013. Adaptations to aerobic interval training: interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration.
  • Seiler, 2010. What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?
  • Tonnessen & al, 2014. The road to gold: training and peaking characteristics in the year prior to a gold medal endurance performance.