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Coach Paul Duncan: The basics of periodization

What is periodization in endurance sport training? How can you work it into your own plan? All your questions answered here:

If you consider yourself to be anything beyond a “casual runner” or “beginner triathlete”, you probably have heard of the term “periodization”. Periodization is an important in training to ensure long term improvement, avoid plateaus, and make sure the athlete is in peak condition at the appropriate time in their season. Without periodization, an athlete can achieve solid fitness, but reaching their “peak potential” at the time they want it to happen, will be unlikely.

How do you periodize a training plan? The plan will be broken down into “blocks.” For the majority of my athletes, this will be a three week block, followed by one week recovery, totalling a four week block. Of course this is dependent on the athlete’s ability to absorb workload and how well that athlete can recover on a daily basis.

While there are many variations of periodization protocol, here are some of the basic phases an athlete will go through in a build up to a key race. Every coach will use slightly different terminology, but we will use language that everyone can understand here.

Recovery phase:

The most under-looked phase by most athletes. This phase is assuming that the athlete is coming off of a key race. The recovery phase has a sole purpose of eliminating fatigue and recovering the body fully from the previous training cycle to ensure that the body is ready to handle the next big training block. This is a crucial phase. Without this phase, the athlete will never be able to peak in the long term. 

During this phase training will be very flexible and hopefully very stress-free for the athlete. For me, I typically stay away from any real structure, usually we will just give basic guidelines and upper limits, and make sure the athlete doesn’t exceed those limits. Complete days off are crucial here. For most athletes, no workouts will be over an hour and will be completely aerobic in nature, no intensity.

Basic adaptation phase (base phase): 

This is the first part of base-building. Some athletes may spend a very short time in this phase, while some may benefit from many weeks. This phase is going to totally vary based on the athlete’s needs and limiters. Many athletes will cross train during this phase. The main goal of this phase is to start building durability by increasing volume over the course of the training blocks. Intensity is going to be relatively low during this phase for most, aerobic in nature.

If strength is a major limiter for the athlete, a structured strength protocol will likely begin in the the adaptation phase.

Sport specific (base phase):

For most athletes, this will still be considered a base phase, but now we start getting specific to our goals. For serious athletes, the cross training will be significantly reduced and focus will be directly focused on the athlete’s sport.

During this phase, most athletes will start to see more “race pace” type effort, but the race pace work will likely be short and have plenty of recovery, especially at the beginning of the phase. The main intention here is to start re-introducing appropriate neuromuscular movement patterns. As the phase progresses, the amount of time with a higher workload will also increase.

Build phase or pre-competition build phase: 

The goal here is to really start to prepare the athlete for his/her specific race requirements. Of course these requirements will vary greatly between an athlete preparing for a full distance vs an athlete competing for a sprint distance triathlon. Also this will greatly be determined by the athlete’s previous conditioning.

During this phase, an athlete may also start to include lower priority races into the training schedule, it’s important that these races are well place and make sense to the bigger overall training picture.

Competitive phase or speed phase: 

For the sake of this article let’s include the taper and overload into this phase.

This is the final stage of training. This is where the athlete should be reaching true peak fitness, if the other phases were performed correctly. Just like the other phases, the length will be determined by the type of race the athlete is getting ready for, and the the athlete’s ability and previous conditioning.

During this phase, speed training becomes appropriate, along with race paced type effort. Recovery sessions should be extremely easy, and key session should feel extremely hard. The athlete should eventually reach a point of overload, where the athlete will reach their limit of how much training load they can absorb. At this point, the athlete will be at their maximum fitness potential for this training cycle and race preparation, but they will also be feeling an all time high in terms of fatigue, which is why the next section becomes the taper phase.

During the taper, the goal is to slowly reduce training load enough to reduce fatigue while still maintaining as much fitness as possible. If done properly, the drop off of fatigue will be at a higher rate than the drop off of fitness. The length of taper will again be very dependent on the distance of race, and the athletes ability to recovery. Generally speaking, less is usually more during this phase with a few exceptions.

It’s all about timing: 

The purpose of this writing is to help you understand the basics of what periodization means. Every coach is going to have different definitions about each of these phases and what is appropriate for which type of athletes, but any coach that deals with experienced athletes with long term goals should have a good understanding of how to write a training plan incorporating the basic elements of periodization. Understanding the basics is crucial for implanting structure that will benefit you long term.


Contact Paul directly. paul@qt2systems.com

About the author: 

Paul is a United States Army Veteran,  USAT Certified Coach, QT2 Systems Level 1 Coach, and OutRival Racing Level 3 coach. 

Paul also competes in triathlon and running events in his spare time.

  • 70.3 PR (4:24:26)
    140.6 PR – (9:51:53
  • Half Marathon – (1:24:21)
  • Marathon – (2:57:27
To learn more about Paul, go to www.qt2systems.com/coach-paul-duncan/