This past week I saw the term “reverse periodization” thrown around again. And this expression has always puzzled me. Reverse from what? From what some think is periodization? It used to be that ignorance was bliss. Now, it just seems that ignorance is just… an opinion.
For the benefit of all of those that think that the term “reverse periodization” makes sense, I will go through a (very) brief history of periodization. The theory of periodization started in the former Soviet Union in the 60’s. The classical work associated with periodization is Matveev’s “Periodization of Sports Training”. Central to the concept of periodization is that training for any sport should be planned going from using general training methods far from the goal competition, to using more specific training methods as competition approaches. Another important concept associated with periodization is the division of training in temporal blocks: microcycles (1-2 weeks), mesocycles (4-8 weeks) and macrocycles (6-12 months). Each macrocycle is divided into three periods: the preparation period, the competitive period and the transition period. The preparation period is further divided into a general phase and a specific phase.
For mainly political reasons, the classical theory of periodization took some time to reach US shores. Even though the work of the Soviet sports scientists was available throughout Europe in the 70’s, influencing training methods profoundly, that was not the case in the US. Enter Romanian sports scientist Tudor Bompa. Dr. Bompa is sometimes called the “Father of Periodization” in the US, but more accurately he is the translator of periodization. Through his books, he brought periodization to the US, influencing the way American sports scientists and coaches think about and plan training. The downside is that most American sports scientists have a unilateral view of what periodization is, Bompa’s view. One thing that strikes me as odd in the US is the poor background that most coaches have in the classical training planning theories. It is very hard to see further if you don’t know where the giants are.
As you can see by the definition above, periodization is a fairly broad concept that allows for many variations. Throughout the years, many periodization schemes have been devised for different sports. Instead of going through periodization schemes that most readers of the blog are not familiar with (Bondarchuk, Platonov, Navarro, Tschiene, block training, etc), I will use as an example a periodization scheme from a US sports scientist that, not surprisingly, had his formal training in Europe: Dr. Jack Daniels.
Dr. Daniels’ running training 24-week plans are divided in 4 mesocycles of 6 weeks each. The first 3 mesocycles comprise the preparation period and the last mesocycle the competitive period. More specifically, the general preparation period is represented by the first two mesocycles and the specific preparation period is the 3rd mesocycle. Dr. Daniels uses often two-week microcycles, especially during the specific preparation period. As for the training methods employed throughout, they evolve from using general (non-specific) training methods in the first two mesocycles, to using more specific training methods in the last two mesocycles. For example, in the plans geared for 5-10km, the training emphasis in the last two mesocycles (specific/competitive period) is towards functional threshold and VO2Max training, while for marathon training the emphasis is on functional threshold and marathon pace training. So there you have it, Daniels’ plans are a good example of classical periodization:
- Training going from non-specific to specific.
- Organized in cycles (micro-, meso-, macro-)
So where does that leaves us regarding the so-called “reverse periodization”? Joel Filliol wrote here that what is called “reverse periodization” is just proper periodization and planning for long-distance triathlon training. I could not agree more. The fact that are some coaches that are still prescribing VO2Max training to Ironman athletes during the specific period is just plain odd. One possible reason for this oddity is that some coaches think that VO2Max training has some kind of peak-inducing characteristics. Because this kind of training is usually featured in the last phases of training for endurance races that last under one hour, common lore is that when you start to do VO2Max training, your peak must not be far away. God forbid you do VO2Max training the first 4 weeks of your season, because you will be peaking 6-8 weeks into the season. This obviously doesn’t make any sense at all. Another possibility is that some people think that VO2Max training is specific to Ironman racing, which in that case they (and their athletes) have even more serious problems.
Due to the characteristics of Ironman racing, with a long build and few intermediate races, classical periodization concepts like the ones stated above are especially taylored to training for Ironman. Note that I wrote the word concepts. Concepts are not recipes. If you use periodization concepts, you don’t need to “reverse” anything to apply periodization to long-distance triathlon training.