1985-86 Swim Coach of the Year.
One of my first observations on joining triathlon in the early 90s was how outdated and neanderthal the mainstream coaching methodologies were. In fact I couldn’t believe my luck.
‘These guys are decades behind swimming, I could be at the top within years.’
Seeing the opportunity I worked and worked to produce the best squad I could as fast as I could, driven in part by the belief that the other coaches would soon catch on and my advantage would be lost.
I got the first part right. Within two seasons we had one of the strongest triathlon squads in Australia.
However, I would have never imagined that over a quarter of a century later, over 1,000 professional race wins later, that I would still be shaking my head at the backwardness of advice being pedalled in mainstream triathlon.
Traditionally it didn’t bother me so much as we ran an elite squad. However, since focusing on our age group coaching we now receive nearly daily emails about articles or advice that conflict with our own training programs.
The most recent being from this Triathlon Magazine article about the use of periodisation.
In the 1960s Russian physiologist Leo Metveyev and Czech sport scientist Tudor Bompa, regarded as the fathers of modern periodization, organised the basic sport training periodization model to which we still refer. Since the 1960s, other coaches and exercise physiologists have created and modified periodization models, though the scientific basis for periodization remains a common ground.
If it is common ground, it is commonly wrong.
Conventional endurance training wisdom has indicated using your winter months for base and strength, transitioning into slightly sub-threshold training focus in the spring, and finally emphasis on work at, and above, threshold as the athlete enters into the competitive season.
This is still good basic advice, particularly for Olympic or Sprint distance athletes, or the well trained athlete preparing for half ironman distance, where pace at threshold is a fundamental pre-indicator of race performance.
No, it is not. It is bad advice.
We really need to break once and for all this dogma of doing ‘base miles in the middle of winter.’
You don’t have to do it. Never had to. I can tell you right now that we have more results than the top 10 coaches who espouse this philosophy put together.
How far back does reading articles like this take me?
In 1986 I was awarded New South Wales (Australia) Swim Coach of the Year and promoted to the coaching staff of the Australian swim team. Within three years the Wales Swim Club had gone from 51st to the top ranked Swim Club in Australia. Following the award I was asked to be keynote speaker at the Australian Swim convention.
My topic headline?
‘Why Periodisation as we know it is dead. Reverse Periodisation and the new way forward.’
In my introduction I spoke about how Tudor Bompa theories were no longer relevant in my team and how they wouldn’t be for others as swimming progresses to the new age.
So you’ll understand my frustration when 30 years later one of our athletes sends me this asking for my thoughts as we prepare for a season that starts in May.
National Champions. Coaching staff included father, John Sutton (far left) and brother, Brian Sutton (far right) who would later be National Swim Coach of Australia.
What makes it worse is that swimming or running usually taper for a big event only once a year. Twice at the very most. So if one was to use this broken down periodisation theory it would work best in those sports. Not in triathlon that sees its competitors usually racing two times a month over six months.
I don’t mean to attack the mainstream Tri Mags, but the truth is the demands of the modern economy mean the need for content often comes at the expense of quality, common sense advice.
When Multisport magazines first started I remember them coming out once every two months. Then they moved to a monthly version. There were also a few books published by the best athletes at that time, so not much harm in terms of training advice.
However, now it would seem we have daily posts about training and tips as magazines go digital. The need for new or rehashed content is so all consuming that every aspect is taken and regurgitated in 20 different ways – 19 of which are usually conflicting or counterproductive.
So once again please take this as your pass to not go out and try to brave the winter elements with long, slow training. Arrange your training and race schedule to suit your program and available time.
If you are in Europe or North America and plan to go on a warm climate camp to escape winter, please don’t think 40 hours of training for one week in January, February or March is going to help you in Kona in October. It won’t. Campers coming to our Gran Canaria camps should take that as a warning also.
We do work in the off season, but it’s short and sharp. Nicola Spirig just got back into work and here is a taste of three main workouts we’ve used over the last 5 days of work.
Swim: 1 hour. 30 minutes of 25 m fast, 25 m easy.
Bike: 1 hour. 20 x 1 min fast, 1 min easy.
Run: 1 hour. 3 sets of 8 x 50m fast, 50m easy recovery.
I have little doubt you will be seeing her name on a couple of Ironman 70.3 podiums in the early season, and with a bit of luck the podium again at the Olympics.
So if I entrust this methodology to the Olympic champion, you too should be brave enough to not burn yourself out with cold, long junk-mile workouts in the depths of winter.
Instead, look at your season and decide: ‘am I only going to complete in one or two important races in 2016? Or, am I going to enjoy my sport and race once a month or more?’
If your answer is the latter and you don’t want to crash and burn after 6 weeks of racing season, join the Angry Bird, Nicola and the rest of the Trisutto.com crew by keeping winter short, sharp and enjoy not trying to work out how you can train when it’s awful outside.
Tudor Bompa first espoused his theories in the 1960s, well before triathlon was even on the scene. If you’re still referring to his periodisation model now when for the past three decades we’ve shown incontrovertibly dominant results within triathlon doing completely the opposite, then that’s for you to decide. We’ll just keep winning and you’ll just keep thinking how unlucky you are.
During the winter keep fit, but keep it short and keep your speed. Then as the weather starts to get bearable add the aerobic work in the mix and watch your performance fly in the race season. And be ready to be shocked, the consistency will be there all season. Not just one or two races.
You can bet on that.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
In our group all-out short efforts are restricted to 90-95% of top pace.
For those not familiar with the the term ‘periodisation’, put simply it’s the breaking down of the athletic year into various portions where specific emphasis is placed on a certain training protocols. Now over the years much has been made of my preference for using reverse periodisation over the traditional method, which I believe is completely wrong in the triathlon context.
If we look at the traditional periodisation method, there is usually an initial period or ‘build up’ phase where the emphasis is on base miles. No fast work, but the accumulation of a lot of miles done at much slower than race pace. Depending on your coach or your training plan, this tends to last between 6 to 9 weeks.
During that time the body will adapt to the physiological needs of this training. This doesn’t mean the training’s working, it’s just that if you give the body enough time it will adapt to most situations it’s exposed to on a regular basis.
It’s when it is moved to the next phase of training, which starts to incorporate faster work with more rest periods involved that I believe two key problems with the traditional method begin.
Firstly, after the long base miles the body is not ready and completely unfit for the new ‘fast-work’ stimulus. Even the most studious of planning can see athletes getting injuries here. And secondly, as we move through the different periods aerobic function is depleted at each stage. This is crucial, as aerobic function is at the core of our sport.
Now rather than go through all the specifics of a periodisation plan that I know doesn’t work, I’d like to provide a bit of insight into the trisutto program and how we go about getting the results we do.
We begin our year as we finished it, by working each system within each discipline. We neglect nothing and we use speed even in our off-season. Where we are different is how we incorporate far more rest into the initial stages of the program. Unlike normal periodisation we do the bulk of our aerobic work closer to race day and cut down our fast work during this time. Many have asked me:
How could you possibly advocate doing speed-work without a base?
Very easily. Because in my opinion most triathletes’ fast work is done much too fast. In our group all-out short efforts are restricted to 90-95% of top pace. Any higher than that and the risk of injury increases exponentially and the additional benefit is minimal. So the 90% mark is our insurance policy against going too fast. We also keep our top end effort in the chamber for when we need it race day.
What people tend not to get with our sport is that triathlon is not a speed race. Even our shortest race lasts 1 hour. To jeopardise your yearly preparation by overdoing speed work is negligent.
Just as it negligent to be purposely diminishing your aerobic work close to a very aerobic race. Our last three weeks before tapering are our biggest aerobic weeks. In our squad we have a saying ‘keep the cup filled’ which refers to us keeping our aerobic capacity to a maximum as close as we can to the race.
To show you how we would approach a particular workout throughout the year let’s use a hypothetical set such as:
6 x 400m run efforts.
At the start of the season we would look for a pace that we want to achieve by the end of the year.
Say 60-66 seconds for the pro men and 70-72 seconds for the pro women.
In the first phase of the season we might do each 6 x 400m at that pace with an 800m jog for recovery. In the next phase of our training we’d cut this down to 400m recovery. In the third phase we’d cut again to a 200m recovery and finally, when we get to full-on race preparation mode we would do this set with a 100m jog.
Now of course the above times are for a pro athlete, but the principle applies across competitive abilities.
Let me ask every age-group athlete reading this article a question – who could do a workout of 6 x 400m?
I’d say every one of us.
So let’s take it one step further. Take your fastest 400m pace and add 8 seconds to it. Now who could do 6 x 400m at this pace even if you were given as much rest as you need?
In my experience not many of you.
So it doesn’t really matter what speed your operating at, this is a system you can use without running ‘all-out’, by being in control and keeping injuries to a minimum. Here is the key difference. As my athletes get fitter they don’t go faster. We cut the recovery time and thus using ‘reverse periodisation’ we build that 6 x 400m from a pure speed set, to an anaerobic set and then into the third phase we can use it as Vo2 max and race set.
This is how you get your best aerobic pace and I can promise you you’ll be ready to roll faster in each discipline than you’ve ever gone before.
Finally, and it’s not a superficial point I’d like to make, reverse periodisation fits in more naturally with the notion of an ‘off season’. In the European and North American continents you guys suffer through a real winter with shorter daylight hours and extremely cold weather. You have less opportunity to train and they don’t call it the flu season for nothing. During this time we do less hours and more quality which is conducive to a healthier immune system and also to indoor training. Not to mention giving you a bit of time to enjoy your Thanks Giving, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Building an Ironman: Matty Trautman celebrates victory at Ironman 70.3 South Africa. Photo by Chris Hitchcock.
Since the launch of my online coaching plans we’ve received a lot of inquiries about our different coaching philosophy and the build up we use in training. While we do our best to explain and advise people on how to get the most out of our method and plans, I thought it may be of some help to demonstrate by way of example.
Matty Trautman (IM Wales, IM 70.3 South Africa Champion) is a textbook case of the kinds of training we use. By laying his preparation out for all to see I hope to show how you can integrate the trisutto.com system of training on your way to producing a personal best result:
Matty joined camp in St Moritz last year where we changed a few techniques and honed a couple of things that I thought would be required to do well in the build up to his eventual win at Ironman Wales.
However, this is where we start the learning curve.
After Wales he was on the start-list to do IM Barcelona a few weeks later. Had his tickets booked, hotel paid for and was mentally prepared to race. Physically however, we decided that he hadn’t fully recovered from his maiden win so better to return home, regroup and start planning for the 70.3 in South Africa. Now for fledging pros this can be a very tough decision, so I was very happy that he took the professional option.
From here this is how the build up looked:
Part 1: Recovery
In this period he did only one session a day to keep body ticking over. This was needed to help recover physically after a couple of very tough European races and the Ironman victory at Wales.
Part 2: Lead In Training
We then moved into what we call lead in training.
Here we built the number of sessions back up to normal (usually twice a day) but without the volume or speed. Although returning to twice a day training, the sessions were for much shorter periods than normal.
Part 3: Stimulus Training
Matt then went on a Sutto stimulus program to work specifically on his swim. It’s Matt’s goal to get Top 10 in Kona. He has been told this is totally unattainable if he doesn’t make huge improvements in his swim over the next two seasons.
As his run is fine and his bike is pretty strong, swim stimulus was an obvious choice.
He did stimulus training for 4 weeks and during this period he kept his bike and run fitness ticking over while we drilled his swim. He was putting in to 8-9 swims a week.
Part 4: Short Course Training
We then moved on to an Olympic distance program where we added all his speed work in. Yes, it is early season and no, no mega miles were used as a base.
This phase was short, it was sharp and like many of our new recruits, he also doubted its effectiveness coming from the ‘early season is for the base’ school. We aimed his work towards his first training race of the season – an Olympic distance triathlon. This was to see how his swim was progressing and where he was physically. He smashed the race and totally surprised himself, not by winning, but by how good he felt with the new training.
Reverse Periodisation for Triathlon training.
Part 5: The Half Iron Distance Program
Here we lengthened the bike and run hours, along with the length of efforts. The long run got longer as did the long bike.
His swim workouts stayed the same.
The over distance component was still at a minimum and we started to cut his rest on the faster aspects of the work.
Part 6: Race Preparation Phase
I don’t like to call it a taper as too many people misapply the word, so we refer to it as the Race Preparation Phase.
Within this phase traditional methodology has everybody cutting their distances and resting.
We also rested but didn’t cut any distance of training in any of the three disciplines. Matt still rode at least three hours on the Tuesday before the race and on the Sunday still ran his long run. His long runs are very long, but no effort at all. On Wednesday he did a mid-week brick 5km swim session. The day before the race, he didn’t sit and rest but did a light workout on all three disciplines.
From 11th to 1st in one year. Matty using the half iron distance program before his Ironman 70.3 South Africa win.
Part 7: Ironman Lead In
After recovering from his victory at South Africa 70.3 he has now embarked on the lead in to Ironman training. The number of sessions is back to normal, with a few added active recovery days. He will do this for 9-10 days until he links up with coach in Gran Canaria.
Part 8: The Iron Distance Program
For the first time Matty will start to do the training that most associate with their early season base work. The longer aerobic components will be built into the program and he will do four weeks of this work.
Part 9: The Iron Distance Program Continued (adapted if necessary)
Once back in South Africa after camp in Gran Canaria we will monitor his recovery from the flight home before continuing with the Ironman program through its duration.
Part 10: Race Preparation Phase
The race preparation phase where we rest but do not cut the distance of training. This final phase leading into our Ironman will include a long run and a minimum 5 hour ride.
He will then race his next Ironman.
Matty’s preparation has been a textbook example of how our squad works in the early season. I just left the gym after watching the Olympic Champ Nicola Spirig run 8x400m on a treadmill and swim 30×10 second efforts on a stretch chord while preparing for her first early season race. We practice what we preach.
We do not overdo the long, over distance work at the beginning of our prep like mainstream triathlon and if you are smart neither will you.
Let’s all watch Matty finish his full preparation and see if he can take on the world’s best and fight for a podium at IM South Africa. The field is stacked and on 2014 form most wouldn’t give him a chance. My thoughts? I don’t need to talk the talk because my business is walking the walk. We’ll see you race day.
To all my followers and customers I hope this example can show you how to get the very best out of the products you have bought from us.
Thank you very much for all of your support.