My thought process went something like this. Swimmers put in an inordinate amount of work compared to the length of their races, which mostly last between 20 seconds and 2 minutes, with 3 events lasting between 4-16 minutes. At the height of training, I recall putting in 100,000-yard weeks. We would build up to this massive volume before dropping off as we hit the back-half of the racing season, added more race-specific interval work and tapered down into NCAAs. Races were short, and as the season progressed, training became more specific to each swimmer’s specialty events. In triathlon, every article I read and every coach I spoke with followed a similar trend – start with a lot of base miles, then progress through more and more race-specific intervals as volume dropped to compensate for the uptick in intensity. Yet, Olympic distance races were taking us pros anywhere from 1:45-2 hours. The premise every coach was espousing (again, to my knowledge) just wasn’t making sense to me. Which is why I chose not to work with any of these coaches -- I could not buy-in to their programs.
Part of the reason the athletes with whom I work achieve their successes and enjoy the program, especially the Masters athletes for whom I have a particular knack, is that when everyone else is zigging, then we zag. Triathlon is mostly an endurance sport, even at the Sprint distance. So, way back when, I decided to begin my preparation for the following season by first lowering the volume and drastically increasing intensity. Then, simply, I reduced intensity as race season approached and increased volume. 20-plus years ago, I called it Trickle Down Training. Today, you read about Inverse Periodization or Reverse Periodization. Same thing. The hypothesis is that it’s better and easier to build endurance on top of speed rather than the other way around.
Once I took this approach with my own training (because I experiment on myself before I ever have my athletes follow any approach), I hit the following season’s early races with turbo jets on. I went from winning one small race and placing top 10 in a good number of others to winning 7 races against top-caliber fields. But what I was too young to grasp at the time was how to best structure a multi-peak season and when to know when too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. As I tried to refine the approach, I hit the following year’s early races in even better form. But, come mid-season, the wheels fell off and I cratered. Luckily the season didn’t end until late-November that year and I was able to rebound for some podium results in October.
With time and experience has come the knowledge of how to better structure training for an entire calendar year, regardless of the racing season’s length and regardless of a single or double peak for myself or one of my athletes. As I've continued to innovate my coaching approach, I’ve gravitated away from and now back to my Trickle Down approach. I find that it is especially critical for the Masters endurance athlete to follow this structure. As we get older, our speed – both raw and sustained – wane more quickly than our endurance. And, if we ignore that top end speed in favor of endurance work, we are actually facilitating our slowdown rather than fighting it.
Here is a high-level overview of how a Masters triathlete focusing on 70.3 or Ironman races could structure his/her training program (or any triathlete for that matter).
5-Cycle Trickle Down Approach:
CYCLE I Strength & Technique: (8wks, 6-10hrs): low volume/low intensity; strength training -- weights, hill repeats, low cadence, pull with paddles & kick with fins
CYCLE II Speed & Strength (8-16wks, 8-12hrs): medium volume/very high intensity; endurance mainly thru S & B; L7 sprints (short sessions, Max effort) & L6 (anaerobic capacity)
CYCLE III Aerobic Power & O2 Economy (6-12wks, 10-18hrs): medium volume/med-high intensity; SST/L4/L5 across S/B/R; maintenance work in weight room
CYCLE IV Aerobic Capacity (4-8wks; 20-30hrs): high volume/low intensity; L1-L3 with L7 sprints
TAPER (2-3wks; 40-60% hrs): lower volume/med-high intensity; L3/SST/L4 on hard days; taper down long workouts -- R first, then B, then S; final week use Cutdown Intervals (1min S, 2min B, 90s R)
You will notice there is a wide range of weekly hours. This is because each of us has different constraints on how much we are able to train during the week and even on the weekends. Finding an appropriate balance of workouts and how those workouts flow day-to-day is important to the approach succeeding. Also, if you are a Masters runner or Masters cyclist, the premise for this is the same, but you’re simply focusing on one sport instead of three.
The key here is to plant a stake in the ground from you first key race and count backwards from there. This is why there is a broad range of weeks for each cycle. The point is to fit the pattern to your goals while spending more time on those cycles which better focus on your weaknesses and less time on your strengths.
There you have it. Trickle Down Training, or Inverse Periodization, or Reverse Periodization – or whatever you want to call it. Maybe it’s best to call it just Periodization. If this is a new approach for you and you decide to try it, I wish you the best of luck. I’d love to hear about your successes. If you have questions, feel free to drop me a line through the website and I’ll be happy to respond.