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.
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 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 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
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)
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?
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