Periodization of Training – Is it truly the best way to train for multi-sport events?

Inverted Training PeriodizationHead Coach of the Thanyapura Triathlon Academy, Sergio Borges, developed his own coaching method, Inverted Training Periodization, in 2004. He has since refined it, and combines his experience coaching athletes of all ages and abilities with a fundamental belief in the need for an individualized and realistic training plan so each athlete can achieve their goal – from staying healthy to becoming a champion. This blog post details his favored method of training from Sergio’s point of view.

Since I started to coach athletes over 20 years ago, I always contested the traditional method of training that was available at the time. The traditional periodization that implies that ideally an athlete can only peak for an event one or maybe two times per year made no sense based on what I had experienced and started teaching others. As an athlete myself, I wanted to do well in most races of the season and not only in one or two.

In addition, I noticed the strong lack of development of proper motor skills, technique and strength during the “base phase” that so many training partners religiously applied to their training. In fact, most of them started the “base phase” faster than when they finished, and faster than their season races! Obviously it made no sense adding volume in training when the basic foundation of skills were not yet developed!

Today I see many athletes with poor motor pattern development increasing their chances of injury and poorer performance due to the unsuitable volume they do during the base phase of the traditional “periodization” training approach. I guess for many, the fear of “not conquering the distance” is responsible for most of the over-distance training done out there — and many of the mistakes!

Not satisfied with the information I was getting from coaches and books to explain the reasoning behind using a traditional periodization theory for multi-sport training, I began to develop an alternative way of training that culminated in an article about “Inverted Training Periodization” that was published in the USA Triathlon Journal in 2003. As the name implies, inverted periodization focuses on developing technique,strength and speed first and endurance closer to your event(s).

A few years ago I stumbled across different training methods that actually completed the gaps I had in my philosophy. This methods corroborated what I had seen in my own and in the training of my athletes and focused in addition on other important variables including:

Balancing hormone levels (Effects) in training

Developing motor skills

Cyclic training (instead of periodization) that allows athletes to achieve multiple peaks during the season

Qualitative instead of quantitative training

Balance Energy Systems

More and more there are increasing numbers of coaches and sports scientists contesting the traditional periodization of training. The basis of training periodization was founded several decades ago when scientific knowledge was far from complete and athletes’ workloads, results, and demands were much lower then they are currently. At that time traditional training periodization as a division of the whole seasonal program into smaller periods and training units was proposed — and generally accepted without much challenge.

Due to the small number of publications and the reasonably small population of scientists studying the field, this “traditional periodization” was republished many times and became a universal and monopolistic approach to training planning and analysis without much debate or study. However, recently further progress in sport science has reinforced the extreme contradictions between traditional periodization and the successful experiences of prominent coaches and athletes.

In triathlon especially, it has become clearer that athletes guided solely by heart rate monitors and powermeters or those who follow a pre-determined training cycle using the principles of traditional periodization (one in which there is a “base phase” complemented by the unchallenged, generic approach of training for 2 or 3 weeks followed by a recovery week) rarely reach their full potential and are often prone to injury, poor focus and a lack of self-awareness. Most of the athletes today are guided only by “numbers” and often lose their ability to interpret their bodies’ responses to training.

Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that triathlon is littered with the wreckage of professional and age group athletes who have destroyed their body’s immune function, endocrine balance and biomechanical health often permanently or for very long durations due to highly catabolic approaches to training — too much volume, too long “intense” sessions, little explosive speed or strength built into their training, and a general lack of emphasis on basic motor skill development. As a result, the strong focus on aerobic “gains” without the corresponding balance of more anabolic training sessions leads to increasing breakdown, generally evident in increasingly poor performances, greater fatigue, lower sex drive, more injuries, inability to concentrate, “puffiness” and weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations and insulin resistance and a littany of other symptoms.

The negative consequences of traditional periodized training have begun to be outlined in sports science literature as a pattern of drawbacks and outright contradictions between traditional theory and desired outcomes, including:

1) Inability to provide multi peak performances during the season (one shot Charlie)

2) Drawbacks of long lasting mixed training programs (an emphasis on “zone training” and aerobic capacity makes you slower)

3) Negative interactions between non-compatible workloads that induced conflicting training responses (too many catabolic effects and not enough anabolic ones)

4) Insufficient training stimuli to help highly qualified athletes to progress, as a result of mixed training (too tired to train properly)

A proper training method should focus in a way that sequences specialized training cycles, where highly concentrated training workloads are focused on a limited number of motor and technical abilities. I advise to divide the training focus into five recognizable Systems (Strength, Neuromuscular, Speed, Lactate Threshold and Endurance) that should be focus on in each Training Plan.

However, unlike traditional periodization, which usually tries to develop many abilities simultaneously, you should apply training stimulation of carefully selected fitness components for a set block of time, an approach sometimes referred to as “Block Periodization.” This method emphasizes several of the systems in one training phase using sessions and structure designed to enable high consistency and rapid recovery — with a great deal of emphasis on repetition. We then shift emphasis to one or more other phases, based on the needs of the athlete, the race calendar and the previous and upcoming areas of focus.

In his recent book about Block Periodization , Dr. Vladimir Issurin comments: “The basis of contemporary training was founded several decades ago when scientific knowledge was far from complete and athletes’ workloads, results, and demands were much lower then they are currently.”

As our sport evolves, we triathlon coaches and athletes need to acknowledge the increasing evidence of flaws in the general approach to training that is common with the approach used by many major coaching companies today. Here I provide an alternative to training that might better suit athletes’ needs. “Thinking outside of the box” should be the general rule for any athlete or coach looking to improve his or her abilities. If you feel that you have reached a plateau in your training, if you’re constantly tired and have yet to reach your goals, then maybe it’s time for a change in your training method!

– Sergio Borges



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