Reverse periodisation... well in truth, it's not really is it?

Reverse periodisation... well in truth, it's not really is it?

I know what you're thinking, this guys has too much time on his hands. Well... you're reading it, so don't be pointing the finger at me. Ok, 'reverse periodisation' is a popular training method at the moment. The theory is very simple, rather than the traditional 'winter base / aerobic miles' followed by higher intensity work in spring and building to a race peak (the classic pyramid), the reverse is applied. So reverse periodisation starts with the really short hard stuff in winter and then gets longer, so it is in fact a 'reverse pyramid' or 'upside down pyramid'... you choose. 

Except... it really isn't at all. 

Let's start with the traditional periodisation / pyramid method and outline the basic rules. This has been adapted many times by many people, but Lydiard was the creator and his model from the 1950's is still the basis for many coaches today. From the picture you can see the classic pyramid model. It's based on simple rules:

1. Start by doing lots of aerobic volume, easy/steady swimming, riding and running. This should be done for 4-6 months or potentially more.  

2. Once this foundation had been established over many months, add strength work in the form of plyometrics and bounding, in prep for the anaerobic phase. 

3. The anaerobic phase would be harder interval type work, this would be added in the final 6-12 weeks before the main race, based on the fact that people's gains  / development to anaerobic work tend to plateau within that time scale. Lydiard noticed not only that heavy anaerobic work would peak and plateau within 6-12 weeks, but also that it knackered people out if they did too much for to long, so a 6-12 week block was probably about right. He further noted that the real gains didn't happen unless the aerobic period had been done beforehand. 

4. Speed work (proper speed work such as 100m fast) is also added for coordination and efficiency, to help force and biomechanics. You can see relatively quick gains within weeks as the nervous system adapts quickly. Note that doing mile repetitions is not 'speed work'. It's 'hard work' but not speed work. Speed work should be 50-200m maximum. 

Ok, so as I said earlier, there's been lots of adaptations to this model over the years, but those points above are pretty much the basic principles that Lydiard founded. You get the picture. 

Let's look at 'reverse periodisation'

Okay, so let's look at what coaches term 'reverse periodisation' (what they're actually referring to is reverse pyramid). The plan is simple, we'll just flip the pyramid on it's head and do everything in reverse. We'll start with the hard stuff, then progress to the long stuff, it even suits our climate better as the winter weather is crap... it's a win win! 

Reverse periodisation is a very appealing model. You learn how to run fast or produce high power for short periods of time, then gradually increase the length of the training until you can sustain that speed or power for longer, up to race distance. 

So what's the issue?

Well, I'm not one to complain but I feel that it's important to point out that 'reverse periodisation' is NOT a reverse model of the classic pyramid and it would be wrong to pretend that it is. 

My experience of reverse periodisation is that athletes will start their plan in autumn with very short and high intensity work, such as 30 seconds or 1 minute maximal intervals. As the months go by, those intervals increase... 2 minutes maximum, 3 minutes hard, 4-5 minutes 105% ftp, 10 minute intervals at ftp... it goes on. In the final training block, there will be race specific work, some rides at Ironman pace etc. 

So... let's be clear, what most people believe to be 'reverse periodisation' is generally 9 months of maximal, progressing to slightly less than maximal, followed by a couple of months of fu** me this is hard... reaching the final crescendo of 'I can't feel my legs'. All you're doing it altering your interval length to plan a schedule which is constantly hard, hard, hard.... 

THIS BIT IS REALLY IMPORTANT. If someone were truly reversing the pyramid, let's think what it would look like (look at the picture). You would complete up to 12 weeks of high intensity work, mixed with some aerobic volume and then pretty much stop all interval work and switch to 6 months of easy aerobic volume. Is that what people are doing on the 'reverse periodisation plan?' ... I think we can all agree that 'no' is the answer to that one. 

The important thing to understand here is that by 'reversing the pyramid' if you think you're doing the same stuff but just in reverse, or in a different order... in most cases, I'd say that you're really not. In most cases, very little aerobic base work is done (at any time) and that's fine, so long as you know and understand that. But don't kid yourself that you're 'reversing a pyramid' when you're not. 

I could also throw in here the points Lydiard made about people becoming exhausted by hard anaerobic work so 6-12 weeks was maximum. He also noted that athletes plateau after that time so don't see a linear increase in speed or power, week after week. He also noted that they didn't get the gains unless they have done the aerobic base work first so starting with intervals was pointless. The point here is that you kinda can't reverse the pyramid... it has to be done in that order, or it just falls over. 

*If i could make one criticism of Arthur's pyramid (brave I know) it would be that it gives the impression volume disappears in the later stages. The point I'm making is that elite runners may do 100-120 miles of volume for base, but when they add intensity and interval work in the final 12 weeks, whilst the mileage does come down, they're probably still doing 100 miles+ even in the latter weeks. They don't stop doing aerobic volume and ONLY do high intensity work, so I guess that pyramid should probably be a tall rectangle? Or maybe the sides could slope in a bit but not to a 'pointy bit'.... You see where I'm going? No? ok, let's move on. 

So 'reverse pyramid' is the wrong approach?

Not at all, that's not what I'm saying. It can be very effective and may be the right choice, depending upon the person it's applied to, their personal characteristics, race history, race goals and other personal factors. Likewise the classic pyramid can (and does) continue to produce countless Olympic champions, because when applied to the right people, in the right manner, it works. 

The purpose of this post is simply for you to understand, that 'reverse periodisation' is not in fact 'reverse periodisation' and never will be. There's no such thing, it's simply a 'different kind of periodisation'. And whilst 'different kinds of periodisation' can be successful, what's touted as 'traditional methods' still work at the very highest level. But that's modern life I guess, we always like to think we've found a better way, when more often than not, we actually haven't. 

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Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He's also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner. His sporting talent first came to light when he won the school sack race aged 7 (tip for you... put your feet in the corners of the sack and run, don't try to 'jump' in the sack).