Yesterday on a recovery ride around Tuscany with Jesper Olesen, a Dane I met in Lucca where I’ve been training for the last several weeks, he asked me about something that always gets me going – “reverse periodization.” Would it be wise for him to train that way since getting in high volume is difficult in the winter?
Before getting into my answer, how about if I first explain what reverse periodization means.
The typical explanation is that it’s a way of organizing training so that in the Base period the athlete does short duration and low volume, but high intensity – especially above the lactate threshold. Then in the Build period the intensity is reduced to below the lactate threshold and workout duration is increased resulting in higher volume. I know that sounds very inviting to many athletes, but there’s a basic flaw in the thinking, which doesn’t necessarily make training in this way wrong. It just makes the concept wrong-headed. I’ll explain that.
The concept of reverse periodization makes a basic, flawed assumption: all athletes, regardless of the event they are training for, when using “standard” periodization should do high duration/volume in Base and high intensity in Build. That’s why its proponents call their concept “reverse” periodization. But that’s not exactly the way periodization is meant to work. It’s not always high duration/volume before high intensity and then the race.
The basic premise of periodization is this: The closer in time you get to the A-priority race you’re training for, the more like the race your training should become. Doing just the opposite – making your workouts more unlike the race as you approach it – would be counterproductive. You’d go to the start line having done few workouts like the race.
For many events and athletes, intensity is the key to performance. Using reverse periodization, when an athlete goes to the start line it may have been several weeks since any race-like intensity was done. He or she has been focused on duration and volume instead. Or at best, only a small amount of race-like intensity has been done recently. And for shorter events (let’s say that means less than about 4 hours) what’s the most critical element of the serious athlete’s race preparation? Race-like intensity. Doing less of it as you approach race day is just the opposite of what's needed.
So the flawed basic assumption about the philosophy of periodization it’s making is why I say it’s “wrong-headed.” Standard periodization doesn’t work that way. But it isn’t necessarily wrong to train the way it suggests – meaning high intensity in Base and high duration/volume in Build.
If training for a long event, greater than 4 hours, then race duration becomes more critical because race intensity is becoming so low that achieving it is not a big problem. The greater problem is maintaining that low intensity for many, many hours. So in this case, doing high intensity in Base, especially late Base, and high duration/volume in Build is exactly what the concept of periodization intends – the closer to the race you get, the more like the race training should become.
As it turns out, Jesper is training for such long events. So using this method is a reasonable way for him to train. He would make training increasingly like the race by doing this. So it’s really not “reverse” periodization he’d be doing.