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Triathlon Training Philosophy, Pt III: The Periodization Problem

This is the third post taken in part from a live presentation I gave for a group of athletes in late March discussing the philosophy of training.

To begin with, let’s get our lingo straight:
Periodization – a method of organizing training where different time periods have different focuses
Macro Periodization – the concept of periodization applied over long periods of time, such as a full season or several years
Mezzo Periodization – the concept of periodization applied over the course of several weeks
Micro Periodization – the concept of periodization applied over the course of several days or a week

To be clear, I’m all on board with Macro and Micro periodization. During the winter I tend to focus on pool swimming and running because riding the trainer is lame. That’s Macro Periodization. The last blog post was dedicated exclusively to Micro Periodization. What I have a problem with is Mezzo Periodization. Apparently it is supposed to look like this

You start small. Then you build volume a little the next week. A little more the next week. Then take a recovery week. The you start over.

People smarter than me, like my mentor Jason Digman, have pointed out some very real scientific reasons this doesn’t work. Of course, I’m not as smart as Digman, so my objections are rooted more in everyday training life. And it goes something like this….

Week 1: Athlete gets off to a great start and hits all their workouts.
Week 2: They hit the “build” week right and hit all their workouts.
Week 3: They are supposed to build, but I get a note like this Training Peaks. Know that the following are all actual examples taken from my athlete’s training logs this year. I didn’t have to look too far for examples.

What!?! ….”too cold” ….used the Stairmaster …no real athlete uses a Stairmaster.

Week 4: Recovery week. Great. We’ll get back and track after a little rest and…..

wha? Now the athlete had the nerve to ride their bike from Minneapolis to Wisconsin and back and then go for an unscheduled hour long run otb. Can you believe it? One record 70 degree day in March and they think they should be out playing.

Week 5: Another build week where we’ll really get out there and kill it. Right?….


Or not.

Week 6: Build week. Back on track.
Week 7: Build week with a C Race. Still on track.
Week 8: Recovery week. A little active recovery and ….
Again, can you believe the athlete would actually ignore my sage advice as a coach for “Active Recovery” and spend a full day wandering around Disneyland with their family? They know they should be holed up in their hotel room alternating between ice baths and the hottub to bounce back from the Disney Princess Half Marathon. They go out an walk for 12 hours. Sheesh!

You get the point. The best laid training plans get laid to waste when life gets in the way. So the concept of those perfect little Build week step ups in training followed by a Recovery Week might look good in text books but it does not actually work in the real world where my clients have jobs and families to spend time with.

What then is the solution? Multiple weeks at a certain volume followed by step ups in training that violate the 10% rule we are all supposed to be slave to.

The above model works well because it allows an athlete to repeat a certain volume for a couple weeks getting faster and faster from week to week.

“What about recovery!?!?” yell the traditionalists. Well, when life gets in the way or when your body tells you it needs a break or when you drink a liter of Russian vodka, then that becomes your recovery week. The key there is knowing and listening to your body. More on that later.

Check back in a couple days for tips on catching overtraining syndrome early and avoiding injury or burn out.

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