Reverse Periodisation

The principles of periodisation based on Eastern European principles are the foundation of many athletic training programmes.  Surprisingly little is supported by research despite the fact that it is widely used and widely written about, despite the numerous presentations on this topic, and despite the fact that it apparently works based on practical observation (2).

Tradition dictates that to be successful in endurance based sports you need to complete high volumes of training. The traditional approach is to move from high volume/low intensity to low volume/high intensity work. Basic periodisation also moves from general to more specific work as the competition approaches (5). This is a popular method and is heavily featured in the classic book on periodisation by Tudor Bompa, Periodisation: The Theory and Methodology of Training. Volume, early on in the training cycle is better, but what if intensity and not volume is really the key for unlocking your athletic potential?
 
An Alternative Approach
 
Albert Einstein’s definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I’m sure when you read Albert’s quote you thought to yourself, well that is obvious; of course you can’t expect to get a different result by simply doing the same thing over and over again.
 
Well, whilst I agree with you that it seems obvious, what I am constantly amazed at is that even now, how often I see people doing exactly that. What would your reaction be if I suggested you try the exact opposite of everything you believe to be true about developing endurance? Would you be prepared to give it a shot?
 
Now I’m not suggesting that classical approaches should be scrapped altogether, but in events where local muscular endurance is required, as for swimmers, runners, cyclists, rowers and triathletes, reverse periodisation may be the better option (5). The same can also hold true for athletes competing in team and combat sports.
 
Changing Paradigms
When I graduated from University more than a decade ago the books and research papers that I had been studying all told me that there was just one way to improve your endurance capacity. I’m pretty sure that paradigm still remains as the cornerstone of many a sports science manual.
 
As I started to work with athletes from various sports I found myself reciting the now well entrenched mantra of those traditional models for endurance training “you must first develop an aerobic base…volume is the key”. Whilst I was outwardly recommending the development of an aerobic base, my gut instinct and own training experience nagged away at me, is this the only way?
 
Just a couple of years out from university, around 1999 I discovered an alternative approach that was being offered up by Ian King, an Australian strength and conditioning coach. In his book, Foundations of Physical Exercise, Ian presented an alternative to the traditional model (Fig 2) for the periodisation of endurance, ‘Reverse Periodisation’.
 
The Light Bulb Moment
 
As I read Ian Kings book I had one of those ‘light bulb’ moments and I’m going to share with you an extract from his book.
 
“(page 80)…The ‘reverse’ approach is based on maintaining intensity closer to that at the competition demands, recognising that initially the athlete’s capacity to perform this will be low. Then to increase the volume progressively, without sacrificing the intensity. In summary, the goal is for the athlete to learn how to run fast over a distance that they are capable of running fast over, then increasing that distance.
 
The difference in approaches of these two models is essentially this – the traditional model commences with capacity (volume) and shifts towards power (intensity). The alternative model, as the name suggests, reverses this approach – commences with power and shifts toward capacity.”
 
What I liked about this ‘revised’ model was that it made intuitive sense. Whilst there was, and continues to be a distinct dearth of research to back the training methodology, this alternative approach made, and continues to make sense to me.
 
Despite a lack of scientific research, people that made a living from coaching athletes such as Charles Poliquin and Istvan Bayli continued to contribute to its design and use. Here was a training method that could be applied across a wide range of sports, from endurance events such as swimming and running to team and combat sports.
 
His model for reverse periodisation (Figure 3) can be traced back to eastern block sprinters. Infamous track coach, Charlie Francis understood the importance of training intensity and in his book, Speed Trap discussed how East German sprinters began their training at top speed over short distances, before increasing the distance as the season progressed. This training methodology was not reserved purely for sprinters and was also used by their swimmers who completed tough workouts in an endless pool (3). King’s argument was that what worked with speed and power athletes could also be of benefit to any sportsperson taking part in events that required an element of endurance. Key to his rationale is the concept that speed endurance must be developed at the appropriate pace.

A Traditional model for the periodisation of endurance.

1. Development of an ‘aerobic base’.
2. Develop foundations of specific endurance (threshold work).
3. Specific endurance work and speed and power training.
4. Taper.
 
The revised method pretty much flipped the more traditional approach on its head. Athletes using this method by pass the ‘aerobic base’ work and start by training specific endurance and speed/power training before moving onto threshold work and then tapering. At no point are they moving slowly for long durations.
 
1. Development of a ‘speed and power base’.
2. Develop foundations of specific endurance.
3. Combination training (variety of duration/specificity).
4. Taper.
 
 One aspect of the more traditional approach that I often struggled with was that whilst developing an ‘aerobic base’ much of the training focused on central adaptations of the cardiovascular system (heart and lungs), paying scant regard for the muscles used to actually move the body! As Ian King pointed out in his book Foundations of Physical Preparation, “…endurance is more complex than this…specific conditioning for specific sports…is a special blend of the various physical qualities. Conditioning is not just endurance, and certainly not just about the heart and lungs.”
 
The demands placed upon the musculoskeletal system at slow speeds are totally different to the demands place upon it when working at higher intensities. It just didn’t make sense to me that you could expect an athlete to spend months plodding around building an aerobic base and then expect them to crank up the speed and start working at higher intensities as the competition season approached.
 
Essentially you are asking the musculoskeletal system to re-programme itself to cope with the increase in training intensity. If you want your athlete to compete at a certain intensity why not start at the intensity and build the volume on, not only will you get central adaptations that will go a long way to developing a lungs like dustbin liners but you will also develop the inter- and intra-muscular coordination that will help the athlete compete at the appropriate intensity. The development of endurance goes hand in hand with the functional specialisation of the skeletal muscles (6)
 
Take Home Message
I believe that reverse periodisation of endurance offers an effective alternative to more traditional training methods. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I’m not suggesting that we completely scrap the more classical approaches, simply that, if you have fallen into the trap of repeating yourself year after year, now may be a good time to try something new. This may be the first time you have ever heard of, let alone considered using reverse periodisation.
 
If you still need some convincing take some time to consider some practical points.
 
1.      Why do you start each year like you’ve never trained before? Low intensity, steady state efforts are in my opinion a waste of precious training time if you already have a good training history. I would question if there is any need to do lots of long, low intensity work at all, as this will just lead to specific muscular adaptations – unless of course you want to compete at a slow pace for a very long time! Doesn’t it just make more sense to train the body to work at race intensity and then increase the volumes and therefore your endurance?
 
2.      If cycling or running is your thing and you live in the northern hemisphere, you know that during the winter months, the nights draw in quickly and you will find that it can become too dark/dangerous to ride on the road or run out on the streets in the evenings. This often means you will have to slope off to the garage for a session on your indoor trainer during the week or pop to the gym and jump on a treadmill, and many people can only sustain about 45 minutes before boredom sets in! So with a reduced work time available it makes sense to train more intensely during the winter and to increase the longer rides and runs as the evenings draw out. Reverse periodisation is the perfect training method.
 
Fellow athletes may try to fill your head with misinformation about how all you need to do is develop a sound aerobic base and then build your speed work. But remember, if you are not happy with your current performances, simply doing the same thing over and over again is not going to help.
 
Albert Einstein knew a thing or two, maybe it’s time to stop following the crowd and try something new. What do you have to loose?
 
References

1. Bompa, T Periodization. Theory and Methodology of Training.

 2. Cissik J, Hedrick A, Barnes M.  NSCA J: 2008: 30 (1): 45–51.

 3.Francis, C. Speed Trap: Inside the Biggest Scandal in Olympic History.

 4. King, I. Foundations of Physical Preparation.
 
 5. Marshall, J. Peak Performance: 2004: 198 (June)
 
6. Siff, M. Supertraining

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Nick GranthamReverse Periodisation

40 Comments on “Reverse Periodisation”

  1. Charlotte Ord

    Great article Nick. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I can help my marathon & ultra runners smash their PBs & this makes perfect sense to me also, both from a speed & injury prevention perspective. I’d be interested to know roughly what time frames you use for each phase of the reverse periodisation protocol?

  2. Nick Grantham

    Charlotte, the main thing is it will take some convinving as your athletes will be locked into an ‘endurance – results by volume approach’. I’ve not got hard and fast rules regarding the training blocks as it usually depends on a number of variable – time to competition, number of training sessions, training history etc, etc. I wouldn’t have a phase that lasted more than 8 weeks and more often than not you are probably looking at 4-6 week phases. We can chat more about it this weekend.

  3. Gavin

    For my sport indoor rowing what type of sessions would you be recommending.
    Race lasts 6 mins

    so intervals at or below race pace and reduce recovery time or increase number of intervals.

    Would it be ok to do the long traditional stuff with a few interval sessions per week ?

    Thanks

    gav

  4. Nick Grantham

    Hi Gav,

    Thanks for the question. The thing for me is that you need to establish what pace you want to be working at in order to achieve your target time. Once you have that number dialled in you start to do intervals at that pace for as long as you can hold it for. You should then look to increase the duration of each interval. Initially you will have longer recovery periods between each interval but as your fitness improves you will be able to reduce the rest periods.

    I can’t see the logic in lots overdistance work. How many 100m sprinters do you see running 1500m repeats?! In my experience the argument in endurance sports for overdistance work is to ‘groove’ technique. I still think this is a little flawed – you are grooving technique at a pace that you are not going to compete at so from a neurmuscular patterning point of view I think it’s still a flawed argument. So, if your technique is solid then I don’t really see much point doing the traditional stuff. That said (and there’s always an exception to every rule!), I’ve worked with a couple of athletes that were getting toward the end of their career and they just felt odd if they didn’t do some long steady state work, so I was happy for them to keep some overdistance work in the programme for more psychological reason than physiological.

    It all comes back to this – are you happy with the results you’ve been getting with your current training? If the answer is no then why not try something new? As Einstein says “stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get a different result”

    All the best with your training Gav, let me know how you get on.

  5. John Barker

    I had the courage to change in 2008 – and this coming from a Sport Science graduate who has had the volume first/speed second drummed into them!

    I heard a (very progressive) triathlon coach say the best way to cover an Ironman quickly is to Get Fast First…and thats for an event lasting 8 to 17 hours! Speed takes a long time to gain, whilst endurance gains happen much more quickly…

    Only need to start doing higher volume work 4-6 weeks out from your event – takes some courage to believe I can tell you when conventional wisdom suggests otherwise…however, it works – when you start your volume work you’ll see how you can carry the speed gained for longer periods of time…

    Oh…and do some of Nick’s S&C work and you’ll get even faster…

  6. Nick Grantham

    John, yep, takes some balls to go against conventional wisdom!
    Who wins a triathlon….the fastest triathlete!
    Get fast first and develop the ability to endure working at that intenisty.

  7. Bo Chudosnik

    Some great points Nick!!

    My only concern is athletes who surf the net without your background read this article and go,” yep great idea let’s give it a go – and start picking up small niggles/injuries because they may not have begun training to train if that makes sense.

    Perhaps a caveat to make the warm up longer etc when taking up higher intensity efforts etc

    Keep up the good work.

    P.S It’s hard to stay on top of everything happening in the world and your articles are a regular read!!

  8. Nick Grantham

    Hi Bo,

    Thanks for the kind words. Agreed, I guess I’m guilty in the assumption that the people that are regulars on the site appreciate that they need to take the training advice and use it intelligently.

  9. Nick Ball

    Hi Nick

    Great article. Could another benefit of the reverse periodisation approach be the development of good mechanics? To often high volume initially may mean poor meachanics as the athlete fatigues towards the end of the set/session. Building good mechanics/technique initially and then building volume so they can maintain these efficient mechanics longer in my eyes would be far better.

  10. mcg-ie

    Excellent stuff. In line with what I’ve been thinking about re: periodization for soccer players. I used to train for aerobic base first but ‘m more and more convinced by SAID principle and holistic training so I am now looking to start exactly as you describe and move from low volume/high intensity to high volume/high intensity near the end of season when the games come thick and fast, before tapering for the last few games. It’s great to see people not accepting the “conventional wisdom” though 🙂

  11. Nick Grantham

    Eric, great to hear you are going to try something new. There’s not a huge amount of evidence to support the reverse periodisation but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful approach. I’ve used it with many athletes from a range of sports and found it beneficial. It’s not the only approach I use, but it is one that I favour.

  12. Nick Grantham

    Nick,

    I think so. Nothing worse than seeing people bimble along for slow steady state running based work and then wonder why when they try to go flat out they don’t have the appropriate movement patterns to cope with high speed and intensity.

    It’s an approach I use in strength training, I would rather have multiple sets of say 2-5 reps with great technique than 2 sets of 10 with the last 8 reps in each set being completed with crappy technique.

    Garbage in = garbage out.

    Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect!

  13. Matt Smith

    Practice makes permanent. Make sure you are practising the right things!

  14. Gavin

    Hi Nick,

    I’ve just come back to this post it is a timely reminder for me.
    As I have not put into practice these principles I am going to give it ago however and see how I get on with it.

    I did OK this year and improved my times a bit form 6.15 to 6.11 on the rowing machine, but I was hoping for more.

    Gav

  15. Nick Grantham

    Gavin, it takes time to make the switch as it is the complete opposite of everything we have been traditionally taught. All I can say is that in my experience working with a wide range of athletes from a variety of sport, reverse periodisation is often more effective than a traditional approach.

    You can expect to get a different result if you keep doing the same thing…give it a try and let me know how you get on.

  16. Ben Pedley

    When I think of endurance training I think of two important parts, Base and Speed work. Each part serves a different purpose. Speed work is a great stimulus for improving (or maintaining) the quality of your oxygen delivery system, but it has a limited capacity to improve skeletal muscle adaptations. This is where Base Training comes… in. Base Training is an effective way of increasing you capillary density and the concentration of oxidative enzymes. Without these adaptations your working muscles cannot make the best use of available oxygen. I agree with the first part of your post that your training should focus on increasing the duration of training overtime, and not the intensity! But I don’t think you should undermine the importance of base training. It should always play a part in the weekly training schedule, no matter what time of the year. If you omit (or substaintally reduce) the role of either Speed or Base, for months at a time, then your performance will suffer. I think this rule is particularly important for beginners who are in the phase of improving both parts of their endurance engine!

  17. Nick Grantham

    Ben, thanks for the comment. The intention is not to undermine the importance of developing a base, I just feel that the emphasis can be overplayed by the endurance community.

  18. Ian Willows

    Hi Nick,

    I have just read this post although it looks like you originally wrote it in March 2010.

    I am an S&C coach with 11 years experience. I couldn’t agree more with your post. I use this method with many athletes with good success. Maybe a slightly different topic but I believe Eric Cressey wrote something about doing the opposite for success too and he is doing quite well also!

    As you stated it doesn’t take away the need for aerobic conditioning. Having worked with so many athletes and recreational sports people like yourself, it is so common and can be a continuous battle to try and steer them away from the lots of miles, or long distance type of work. How can you increase your aerobic fitness? Mike Boyle writes about this in his new book ‘Advances in functional training’. He states that to develop the aerobic fitness he uses anaerobic work! I always use interval work with endurance athletes – speed is the key.

    Why is it that i see such a lot of athletes any age and especially junior sports people who are being asked to do ‘X’ amount of hours practice a week. This ‘X’ amount of hours is an awful lot on top of other commitments i.e. 16 hours per week! Admittedly these hours are not fitness sessions but do have technical work too. My question is, where is the strength & conditioning hours an athlete should be doing each week?

    Those athletes that I see, who had been doing endless amounts of base or conditioning work, reduced this amount then increase other areas i.e. S&C work and ‘bingo’ results improve!!! There are other factors here too as to why that person will improve with this approach but these are what I think are the fundamentals. Again I still implement the importance of practice/repetition but with a balance of time available to develop other key areas i.e. S&C work, rest/recovery/regeneration (i believe you refer to this as invisible training).
    If we can get the athlete to decrease (not get rid of) the endurance work and increase the interval speed work this leaves more time for the other important factors, hence – quality vs quantity.

    Good to know your thoughts and experience with this. Keep up with the posts, enjoy reading them and learning from it.

    Regards,

    Ian Willows

  19. Nick Grantham

    Hi Ian,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s something that I’ve been using for about the past 10 years, ever since I read Ian Kings books and spoke to Istvan Bayli. It just makes so much more sense to me.

    Regards
    Nick

  20. Nick Grantham

    Ian King (Australian Strength Coach) popularised this so would be a good source. A quick search on google will throw up a range of artciles (some good, others not so good!).

  21. Rob

    Another really good article Nick.
    You can't endure what you haven't got.
    Speed, strength, power, whatever.
    Vern Gambetta always states speed, then speed endurance. Strength, then strength endurance.

  22. Dean Coulson

    Hi Nick
     
    Interesting article. I discovered this a few years ago with my own training regarding combat sports. I hadn't read any of your reference books, but it occurred to me that why are sports specific athletes pounding the streets for this base fitness, when they should consider the approach of working at the intensity of their sport and increasing it. it didn't make any sense at all.
    Through my own training I gave up middle distance runs as  a method of improvement of fitness and "aerobic base" and started to concentrate on shorter intense training in my sport (although running does have its own place). Increasing general physical preparedness or GPP allowed greater gains in fitness, strength, power and recovery and also trained the aerobic energy system at the same time.
    since then I have stopped my combat athletes from running for competition prep and as a result, they find that they are faster and stronger and have that extra mile when they are fighting.
     
    great article
     
     
    Dean

  23. Robbie Redpath

     Great article Nick as usual very well presented.   However it saddens me slightly that we still have to get this message across even to some high level coaches who are working with some of our brightest prospects!  I am of the firm belief that if more athletes engaged in strength training there endurance would benefit by default!  Great book by Barry Ross – (coach to Olympian Alyson Felix) Underground secrets to running faster –  explains his methods regarding mass specific force. 

  24. Joe Lemon

    Hi Nick,
    I am currently undergoing a s and c internship at Sussex Cricket Club and have been given the opportunity to design the academy players off season training programmes, this method makes a lot of sense to me however the head of s and c is quite conventional thinking so I'm not sure whether to try and utilise it or stick to a more traditional style which he prescribes? Or maybe try and combine them?
    Really interesting article and good luck with the olympics!
     
    Joe

  25. Nick Grantham

    Jo – sorry for the delay in replying, it’s been a mad month with the Olympics. The key is to plant the seed with the coach and he may be more open to the idea than you think.

  26. Martijn

    Good article Nick, 
    I am an Athlete myself (professional) and my races are in between 1-2 minutes. 
    We are pretty much training the whole year around, with peak performances wanted in december and march. All year around we do sprint training sessions (6-12 sec.) and from june on we do interval session close to racing speed. Also all year around we do easy endurance training but never much longer than 2 hours. 
    So i guess it's not far from reverse periodisation. 
    How ever, how do you take in to account that from interval-speed sessions you will need greater recovery time, thus this limits you in trainingload in pre-season (load defined as trainingtime x intensity) ? And these workouts will be lactic, so how do you keep balance in the lactate system not destroying you aerobic system?
    Maybe speed is hard to train especially make leaps forward in speed, but i can tell you from my own experience that aerobic levels trained down (because of to much focus on the anaerobic system) is hard to restore. It can be done, but it will take time and if you are in this position you will never maintain racingspeeds for long. 
    My real question i guess is, where is the optimum? Because there will be a moment in the program that you cannot increase time spent at racing speeds, because your base will fall and your threshold level will drop. (that is if racing speeds are above threshold level, like in my sport).

  27. Nick Grantham

    Fantastic question – I don’t know the answer! I accept that if you only spend your training time at race intensities you may experience a drop in aerobic fitness but I think the key message is to chase quality of work rather than constantly looking for volume of work at slow speeds. It sounds as though you are doing a pretty good job. Thanks for the comment.

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  30. Nick

    I like this alot.  I have aligned to this training since watching race results not improve after years/months of "base" .  Sometimes my mind plays tricks and I think i want to go back as its easier in some ways to plod than to push hard.  Have you got any advice on rest days or rest weeks? This is where I fall over, trying to put too many hard sessions back to back.

  31. Nick Grantham

    A very simple rule of thumb that I took from Ausie S&C Coach Ian King is every 4 weeks take a half recovery week (I would drop 40-60% of volume from training) and then every 8-weeks take a complete recovery week (there I said it – have a week off!).
    You must have at least a full rest day every 5-7 days (10 at a real push) – I would suggest 1 full day off and a 1/2 day off every 10 days but listen to your body, keep a training diary and do what works best for you.

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