Periodization - the basics

For the novice triathlete, the principle of periodization is not all that critical, however once you embrace the lifestyle of the competitive triathlete, you will need to give thought to planning your year to give adequate balance to your training, racing and recovery. This article briefly outlines the principle of "periodization" and provides links to excellent references for further reading.

Importance of Periodization

Triathletes at any level are required to undergo intense training programs. This includes clocking up dozens of kilometres on the road and in the water as well. With the tremendous amount of energy and effort spent on training, it is essential to plan effectively and efficiently for your racing season. In an extreme sport like triathlons you need to do some careful planning.

One of the important aspects of planning apart from the obvious intensity, frequency and duration is the periodisation of your annual plan. Primarily, periodisation is the breakup of your overall training plan into smaller segments, with each segment having a specific outcome. Today, this is a preferred method used by an increasing number of triathletes, to design their intense training schedule.

In addition to your training schedule you also need to plan your racing season. As a triathlete, you need to build up your own personal calendar in order to peak in every race. It is not possible to race every weekend, all the year round, which can only result in injuries and can affect your overall performance significantly. Your schedule must be focused on the main races you plan to compete in during the year. Planning should include training sessions, recovery periods and specific breaks.

Periodization made easy

Some triathletes struggle with the concept of periodisation. However, it is important to get it right and create phases in your calendar where you build your body and allow it to adapt to the training stimulus with planned sessions of lower intensity workouts, and even interim periods of distinct rest.

One of the best ways to plan for the season is to seek the services of a professional coach. However, there is no harm in mastering your own periodisation plan.


See some of the excellent reference books in our shop for more about Periodization planning.

Prioritise your Races

As a competitive athlete, the first thing you need to do is determine what you would like to accomplish during the year. You can start by prioritising your races as A and B events.

"A" Races - your primary racing goal:- ‘ A’ races are your key races on which you need to base your training efforts. They should be similar formats and will likely be the distance that you feel you are best suited to (eg. Sprint, Olympic Distance, 70.3, Ironman - see our Race Distances article for more info). These are your goals for the season so gear your training calendar for these races or events. When it comes to ‘A’ races, choose wisely. Consider the distance, location and the weather you will be competing in.

Obviously, for shorter distance events you can comfortably fit numerous races into your annual calendar but if your A race is an Ironman distance event, and you're not a pro, you will be unlikely to attempt more than 1 or 2 races per year of this type.

Periodisation involves scheduling at least 12 weeks of specific training for an ‘A’ race. Mid to long distance triathlons require up to 18 weeks of preparation. Training for mid-long distance triathlons is best achieved by following a training program that follows a strategic pattern, designed to increase your aerobic base fitness or endurance, increase your VO2 max or capacity for intensity, and bring you to your peak performance at precisely the right time. The human body is extremely capable of adapting to stress loads through a cyclic pattern of build and adaptation phases and this is the key principle to periodization within a training program.

A typical periodization model involves increasing the volume and intensity of your training sessions slowly over the weeks of your program, reaching a peak that is held for a few weeks before rapidly tapering off to similar levels as where you started. The longest/hardest ssessions are completed up to two weeks before the race. The last two weeks before a race sees training sessions reduce in volume, to facilitate recovery and be at your peak for the race. The length and type of taper will depend on the duration of the event. Typically, you need to taper off longer if the event is longer.

The next stage of Periodization is allowing adequate time for recovery in between your races. However, this is where "B" races may come into the schedule (see next section below). Assuming the "B" races will be shorter, or less demanding, you can use these as part of your training for your main race. There is also much to be gained the more frequently you race, such as learning to control pre-race nerves, learning how to pack your gear bag, experimenting with new equipment before your main race (computer, shoes, running without sox), fine-tuning your race nutrition, using a computer to track your race time, and most importantly but all to often ignored, transition practise!
‘B’ Races – scheduling other race goals:- ‘B’ races are usually the shorter distance races, or events on courses you have previously done and feel confident. However, as mentioned above, these may serve as the perfect warm-up for your ‘A’ race events if you can schedule your calendar accordingly. It is important to balance training for ‘B’ races, so that it does not interfere with your preparation for ‘A’ events. So, do not include any ‘B’ race in the week of an ‘A’ race.

Most ‘B’ events would have a different format but can still contribute to your ‘A’ race preparation if you plan carefully. If your "A" race is a triathlon, you may even use run only events or aquathlons as your "B" races, to work on specific areas of weakness. If you have a ‘B’ race such as a 10K or cross country event prior to a triathlon ‘A’ event, then reduce training a few days before the ‘B’ race without the same taper as you would for an ‘A’ race.

‘C’ Races – time for developing skills:- These races or events are usually single-discipline events. Depending on your goals, you may choose events in the discipline that you favour most and use these as your "off season" training to keep you fit and active in the winter, but because you enjoy the sport, it will give you a break and leave you feeling refreshed in the periods between heavy training programs for those "A" race challenges.

Alternatively, you can focus your "C" races around your specific area of weakness, again by sticking to single-discipline events such as swimming. These races will help you develop skills, so schedule them early in the season as base training. This will be a build up to ‘B’ races such as aquathons, duathlons, or fun runs.

In your "C" races you do not need to have any performance goals or push yourself to the limit. Treat these as minor warm-ups for all your major events. The main advantage of ‘C’ events is that they keep you fit and mentally geared for the more serious training you'll do later.

Recovery Periods

Recovery periods are an essential element of your periodisation plan. The major factors that influence your recovery period are:
  • Your fitness level
  • Intensity of training
  • The type of racing

A two week recovery period with no racing is typically essential between races. However, training sessions can continue.

Plan your Calendar

Select your ‘A’ races and put them on your calendar first, which should be a full 12-month plan. Prioritise ‘A’ races followed by ‘B’ events.

Do not add any ‘B’ races that can conflict with your ‘A’ race programme. This also helps you determine your overall goal as an athlete.

Your calendar can include a 6-week period of no racing or training for complete rest and recovery. Most Australian's find winter is the best time for this period. Once you are addicted to training it may be difficult to taper off completely for 6 weeks. However, this is an important period for recovery, so that your mind and body can rest and rejuvenate in time for the next season. There are plenty of ways to remain in tune with your sport. Spend time on other activities like yoga and focus on your weaknesses, so that you can get back to training again with a rejuvenated mind and body.

The bottom line is not to overdo training even when you are addicted to working out. As much as training is a good thing, it can have an adverse impact on your performance in the long run, if you overdo it. Therefore, it is essential to have a break. This is where setting up your annual calendar helps. You will learn to respect the importance of recovery, easy weeks and learn to focus better during non-race periods.


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Created: August 2011
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