Employing periodisation in your triathlon training plan can get you to race day in top shape – we help you pick what types of periodisation will work best for your tri goals.
Periodisation is a structured way of planning your annual training into periods, with each period having a specific focus. It’s not necessarily about being race-ready all the time but about building your fitness so you can peak for specific races.
There are three main types of periodisation models, each of which has pros and cons and better suits certain athletes. Linear periodisation builds base first, then intensity; reverse periodisation works on intensity and power then endurance building; and block periodisation focuses on a specific ability at a time in each period while maintaining the others, building them all together throughout the season.
Periodisation is a structured way of planning your annual training into periods
Here’s an introduction to each of these periodisation models to help you decide which might work best for you and how you can use them to develop your annual training plan (ATP).
Linear periodisation is the most common of the types of periodisation models and is a widely known concept. Pick up any endurance sports training manual written over the last few decades and you’re sure to find a section on it. In short, when using linear periodisation, you’ll start by building volume with low intensity, then as the season progresses sessions will see-saw, gradually increasing intensity while volume decreases.
In triathlon terms, you start your linear periodisation plan focusing on building your aerobic fitness in all three disciplines first through low-intensity endurance sessions, ideally building in duration to longer than your racing distance.
Linear periodisation is the most common and widely known periodisation concept
Once this foundation is built, the focus switches with the gradual introduction of high-intensity sessions, building the effort up to – and sometimes beyond – race pace. As high-intensity workouts increase, the volume decreases down to race distance, with the idea being that you arrive ready for your pre-race taper being able to achieve the right intensity at the right distance.
When it comes to Ironman 70.3 and Ironman, linear periodisation can still work, but it will require more consideration as endurance is so fundamental to performance at these distances and gambling it in favour of more intensity might compromise your race.
Linear periodisation advantages
Apart from year upon year of successes, the advantages of linear periodisation are that it’s easy to plan and easy to follow, giving a simple structure to your training and helping you stay consistent.
As the progression from endurance to intensity is very gradual, the risks of overtraining and injuries are reduced because you’re not suddenly shocking the system with different training.
If you’re new to triathlon and lack endurance, you’ll need to work on building up your aerobic fitness first before taking on and being able to absorb high-intensity work. This makes linear periodisation ideal.
For short course racing – sprint and Olympic – a linear periodisation gives you the base fitness and endurance needed to get through your event before building up to race intensity. This means that by the time you start your taper, you’ve been replicating the sort of hard efforts you’ll be doing in your event – so you’ll hit your race as prepared as possible.
Linear periodisation disadvantages
Despite its popularity and solid foundations, linear periodisation does have its limitations. As a long, gradual transition between endurance and intensity is required, you can only really squeeze in two or maybe three race periods, each lasting one to three weeks, throughout a season.
Another downside is that if you’re an improving athlete or have a particular weakness in one of the disciplines, the need to consistently swim, bike and run at volume doesn’t allow for extended periods focusing on one specific discipline.
The other big disadvantage is that while you can adapt a quasi-linear periodisation approach to long-distance triathlon, it’s not the ideal choice because high-volume, lower intensity workouts more accurately simulate the demands of an upcoming race than high-intensity, lower volume sessions – the opposite of linear periodisation.
Best for – beginners and immediate short-course athletes with one or two main races a year.
Reverse periodisation is the opposite of linear periodisation. The ATP starts with low volume, high-intensity workouts with the focus then changing to gradually decrease the intensity whilst increasing the volume.
Reverse periodisation advantages
Reverse periodisation is ideal for Ironman and Ironman 70.3 athletes. You’ll begin by building your power and strength with high-intensity workouts then work towards both race distance and race intensity in your training. This means you should reach your event with plenty of aerobic endurance – exactly what you’ll need for long-course racing.
Reverse periodisation is ideal for Ironman and Ironman 70.3 athletes
For athletes in the northern hemisphere, reverse periodisation also makes a lot of sense in terms of weather, light and temperature. Shorter, harder workouts can be done in the pool, on the trainer or treadmill then when spring arrives and things warm-up, long rides, runs and open-water swims can take their place.
Reverse periodisation disadvantages
The big disadvantage of reverse periodisation is the lack of high-intensity work when nearing the race period, meaning it’s probably not the best choice for short-course athletes.
Due to the ATP starting with high-intensity work, adopting reverse periodisation means the risk of injury is higher while less experienced athletes who haven’t built their fitness yet might struggle with being dropped in at the deep end and forced immediately into tough intervals.
As with linear periodisation, reverse periodisation is best suited for one to three race peaks per year. It also discourages from focusing on a single discipline for extended periods.
Best for – Ironman 70.3 and Ironman athletes with one or two main races a year.
Unlike the linear and reverse periodisation, which focus on improving several abilities at the same time, the idea behind block periodisation is to concentrate on just one ability before moving on to the next.
ideal for athletes seeking to improve on a specific weakness
For example, you might first do a swim technique focus – upping the training time in this area and tailoring sessions to reach the goal of improved efficiency – before moving on to another element of swimming or a different discipline altogether. Meanwhile, the volume of training in the disciplines you’re not concentrating on is reduced so that you’re maintaining, rather than building, fitness.
Block periodisation advantages
Because block periodisation allows you to put your efforts into getting fitter and stronger in one area, it’s ideal for athletes seeking to improve on a specific weakness – even if that’s experienced athletes making marginal gains.
Working in this way doesn’t result in a specific peak period of all abilities at the same time, which requires more comprehensive recovery, meaning it works well for athletes looking to maintain a good level of fitness – as well as make gains – over a long race season.
Block periodisation disadvantages
As beginners are usually able to make huge improvements in all disciplines when starting the sport, the narrower focus of block periodisation probably doesn’t suit first-time triathletes.
It can also be a little trickier to work block periodisation into your ATP as juggling the focus on each discipline while still seeing an upward trajectory in overall fitness ready for your races is a balancing act best suited to experienced athletes.
Best for – more experienced athletes requiring marginal gains or those with a long race season.
Which periodisation model should you choose?
As with all elements of triathlon, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to periodisation. However, as you can see from the above descriptions, certain types of periodisation models fit different individuals best, whether that’s based on your location, triathlon experience, race distance or the number of events you want to peak for.
Reflecting on these areas in tandem with your athletic goals should start to make your periodisation path and ATP clearer. While each periodisation model needs dedicated time in your training plan, more than one can be employed – for example, block periodisation focusing on weaknesses before going into linear periodisation. By experimenting over a few seasons, you’ll start to build a sense of what gets you into your best shape for your big races – and how you can tweak your periodisation to continue your triathlon progression in the future.