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Everything you need to know about endurance training periodisation

This post is a long one, so sit back, feet up, bottle of water and here we go, everything you need to know about endurance training periodisation, covering a single year or multi-year level to the microcycle (weekly) level, the methodology you need for planning out your training structure. Why lactate testing and the methodology behind using the results to inform training planning and workout sessions. And finally Aerobic and anaerobic capacity and power: what are they and how should they be developed?

Let’s dispel a commonly held principle, People in the past, well they still do, considered endurance to be the only effort that you can maintain for a long period of time. To improve aerobic capacity, most people think you have to do a lot of volume at low intensity. Wrong, what I have found is that in fact the best way to improve aerobic capacity is to do a certain volume but not too much. Also, if you don't mix easy efforts with short intensive bouts at high intensity, you will never have an optimal improvement of your aerobic capacities.

From doing this for a long time you must differentiate between how your muscle fibres are able to produce aerobic energy, compared to how you perform during your efforts. A great example is this, if you see a car driving very fast on a motorway (Highway depending on where you are), you will automatically assume what type of engine that car must have to be able to make it go fast. In other words, you assume a difference between ‘performance’ and what strength and power there must be in the engine to create the speed.

So, when we talk about Aerobic capacity, what we are talking about is that it is a property of your muscle fibres, and what are you doing with these capacities in those properties equals power.

A different example of this is where you have triathletes with the same maximum oxygen uptake at the muscle fibre level, but the athlete with the lowest aerobic cost can win the race.They win not because of efficiency, it's because the athlete with the lowest cost has a greater range to use those capacities. This makes a big difference in the planning of training objectives. If we can measure that someone has very high capacities but doesn't perform well, then we know that the problem is on the power side. The sessions then used for power development are totally different than exercises improving capacities.

Without good power to use your capacity you are at risk of overuse and over-training, which can lead to injuries. The coach needs to know whether the athlete needs better capacity, or better power. In the past the mistake that almost everyone makes is to have a biased focus on improving power without any effort to look at the capacities. So to summarise: your aerobic and anaerobic capacity is the size of your engine, and the power is how much of that engine can you use.

We often see in practice that you can never improve power and capacity at the same time. For your season and planning it is critical to plan in advance when the best time is to improve your capacities would be, and when you focus on power in preparation for racing.

In short, think of it like this: Capacity is for training and power is for racing.

In the 1970's (it has been validated on more occasions than I can count since then) there were studies that said if you want to trigger the mitochondria (the part of the cell where you produce your energy), you need to go to a very high intensity. Otherwise, it'll only be a part of your mitochondria that will receive a training impulse.

Let’s put that statement in context: Long distance at an easy pace for aerobic development will only activate your mitochondria in your slow muscle fibres up to 80-90%. So how do we access the 10-20% of the other mitochondria? They need more intensive work to be involved in the development of aerobic capacity.

So when planning a capacity session (commonly known as aerobic) you will need within that session so very high but very short intense efforts to recruit as a whole all of your mitochondria.

This can be translated to any sport. Related listening

Developing capacities and power for long distance triathletes

Not only is this very difficult to get right but it is equally as difficult to answer because the response to a training exercise designed to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity can differ significantly from one athlete to another. There is a solution, well 2 actually, but both involve lactate testing where we are measuring the response time/clearance to make a good estimation in the planning of how much time we need to spend in capacity or in power.

Through this we want to identify how much training time must be aerobic or anaerobic focused.

As an example, a starting point would be for a short distance triathlete in the build phase you would need one exercise with short high intensity with easy rest if you're training four times a week. The rest of the sessions that week would be at a very low, easy pace.

For the same athlete in the competition phase, two to three weeks out from the race, you should replace these sessions moving more to threshold work when you maintain moderate speed for longer periods. If you do this once a week as an amateur that will be enough. The mistake almost all athletes and quite a few coaches make is that they are doing too much ‘quality’ work. If you do too much at moderate intensity, you are always triggering development in the aerobic power area. Doing too much work in this area means you lose a lot of your aerobic capacity – in other words you will lose capacity of your engine. It's a balance you have to make - you need to see how far you can go without losing capacity and improving the percentage you can use of that capacity. If you want the highest usable oxygen uptake during the race. You will need to find the right balance between aerobic and anaerobic throughout the training period. The challenge in triathlon though is that you are training through three different disciplines. A perfect example of this is an IRONMAN, where it is important to not lose too much energy in the swim you'll then suffer a lot on the bike and run. At any level I couldn’t count the amount times I have seen athletes exiting the water 1st and then lose places either though the race or at the end. This is either down to working too hard during the swim and not having enough capacity or the bias in training was not loaded enough to bike and run.

If it’s the latter (i.e., a super strong swimmer and not because you simply swam too hard which is easy to correct) In order to avoid this the volume increase in the competition preparation mainly occurs in running and cycling, but not as much in swimming.

Furthermore, it is important to also combine disciplines in the training phase, which is very different to the build phase. In the build phase if you're working to improve capacities each week you have one main objective in one of the disciplines. You can never make it work for a combination of goals across disciplines within one week. Again this has to be planned in advance and take into account your abilities in each of the disciplines. The differences will not be estimated or defined by the distance, but more by the properties of the conditioning profile. If you have really poor capacities and you're training for a long distance event it's possible, but your volume would be lower than an Olympic triathlete that wants to be prepared for the Olympic games and has higher capacities. If you have really poor capacities, you should be very careful with your training or you break the engine. I have worked with a lot of athletes who previously did more volume, and they were then amazed that by doing less they were actually faster in competition.

Training Adaptation

Training adaptation is simply always first breaking something to trigger the body to build up – this is known or described as super-compensation. If you never give the body the chance to super-compensate because you are always breaking it, you will just be broken. Yes, you will learn to suffer, which is important but its far less important than recovering properly/Super compensation to make the next gains.

To have the highest return of your training load you must look for enough opportunity to super-compensate. Easy running, cycling, and swimming are triggers for super-compensation.

Lactate testing.

With lactate testing can use the lactate values as input values for simulation models. These models allow us to define and describe the muscle characteristics which give us much more reliable information about capacity and power. Sometimes we might see that an athlete has an incremental improvement in power but not capacity when we train capacity. We then know that something is wrong between the communication of the training plan and the reaction of the athlete. Ideally testing should be across 2-3 years and can then see how well or how bad they respond to certain types of training. You can sometimes then see that doing one anaerobic exercise session a month is enough to keep their anaerobic capacity at an acceptable level. If you do more you could see that you expend more energy for no improvement.

For other athletes maybe they need once a week anaerobic capacity is needed to have a response. The biggest benefit is that It's individual to each athlete, so you need to do the tests to see how well they are responding to the characteristics of training. You can do this with lactate tests to see where the improvements are and see if you're getting the results from the training exercises that you expected. You can then adjust the training programme accordingly. With the top athletes you need an interval of 6 weeks between lactate testing. This allows you to work with a mesocycle - a combination of a time period where you train hard and then you combine that with the next period where you do very little to allow super-compensation. The working phase and super-compensation phase forms one mesocycle. In the working phase you do more than you feel able, but the recovery phase is easy with not too high volume. By taking measurements in the first week of each mesocycle as it's the week you have the highest probability to measure the super-compensation and not the fatigue of the training.

Using lactate for planning training sessions

It's always interesting to quantify what happens during training so we do estimations of training intensity based on lactate. What's important is how an athlete makes a difference between recovery and intensive work.

When we make calculations of training intensity it's important to listen to the athlete.

In our research we found that a certain lactate level is not a good reference for training intensity.

If you work with two athletes and you give them a training set and instructions to do it on the same lactate level you will find the impact of this will be totally different. It's not good enough to estimate training intensity at certain lactate levels. It is important to have an estimation of what impact a certain lactate level training can be expected on the organism. This is a more difficult component in a training evaluation. it's the interpretation and use in training that is even more difficult.

Planning periodisation

I start by discussing with the athlete when they want to be at top level for competition. The better the athlete, the more peaks you can have during the season. If you are doing this yourself then sit down with a year planner and map it out. E.g. For someone who has achieved an International top 10, they can have 3-5 peaks a year, which means during that year you'll have 4-5 macro cycles. A macro cycle is from the start of the build to the main competition.

If you are an AG and you know there is a lack of capacities, it's better to plan one or two, or maybe a third small peak in a year.

If you have a lot of top competitions, they all require a certain preparation which is power focused. However doing too much power we know that you lose capacity.

For athletes who have built up their capacities over years and they are very stable despite doing a lot of power work, they can afford a lot of peaks. Your macro can be small - with 6 weeks restoring capacities and then 2-4 weeks race preparation - making a 10 week macro. This can be repeated 3-4 times a year. Remember if you are not an elite or top level AG you have to plan at least 12-16 weeks for building up. This is due to the fact that your capacities aren't as strong, so your development of power will go faster. This means you will only need 2-4 weeks preparation inclusive of the competition, giving an 18 week macro cycle. Which translates as you can't have a big build up with short macros and thus can't have too many in a year. For average athletes, if you go for 12 weeks of build phase, it may give you 4 (2+1) mesocycles, with around 16 weeks per macro cycle. This equates to having around three peaks but no more than that. If you train in altitude you need to consider adaptations which may be slower or faster in this area.

I hope that this has helped, yes, it’s a lot of information but if you employ some of the strategies then you will see a big improvements in your training and therefore your races.

Sisu Racing Triathlon Coach

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