Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Inverse periodization

Every now and again there seems to be a buzz about "inverse periodization" or "inverted periodisation" - this time it has been the success of the British Cycling team in the London Olympics and, in particular, that of Bradley Wiggins, together with their philosophy of "marginal gains" that has brought the subject once more to the fore. While it is interesting to see how top athletes train, I am always wary about applying the same ideas to myself in just the same way as I wouldn't attempt to train at the very same speeds that they do.

The traditional concept of periodization is credited to Tudor Bompa, a Soviet coach and author of "Theory and Methodology of Training". For political reasons, his teachings took some time to cross the ocean to reach the shores of the US but they have, since then, been established so firmly in the minds of most coaches that they are no longer questioned. A season is broken down into macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles with a particular emphasis on different aspects of training in each cycle. The fundamental assumption is that volume is key and so the first phase is an aerobic base phase of relatively low intensity. Then, to this base threshold work is added, next, speed intervals and, lastly, a competition specific phase. It can be injurious to add volume at the same time that the athlete is engaging in high intensity training.

When training for an ultra distance event, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to be doing high speed interval training just weeks before an event the whole of which is going to be run at a much slower speed. Intuitively, many athletes move their interval training to the beginning of the training cycle as a result. A common misconception seems to be that this practice is all there is to inverse periodization.

As Nick Grantham explains in his excellent article, the concept behind inverse periodization is slightly different. Rather than the focus being on building up a base of high volume on which to stack intensity, the idea is deceptively simple: to train at race pace for increasing periods of time until it can be sustained for the length of the race itself. For example, if the target is to run 100m in 10 seconds, you might have an athlete run as far as they can in 10 seconds until they are finally able to run the full 100m.

In terms of preparing for a longer distance event, this means that instead of the conventional aerobic-threshold-speed progression, the initial cycles are more like speed work as they are relatively short and relatively fast sessions, while the later cycles are more like threshold sessions as they become longer and longer. In the meantime, the athlete will have adapted to the training in such a way that a speed that was preceived as an interval intensity is now more of a threshold intensity. At least, this is my understanding of the principle.

I also think that this method might be particularly suited to running as the mechanics involved in running at 12-15 kph are quite different from 16-18 kph and 18-20 kph etc. I would have thought that the more practice your body gets at running at race pace, the more efficient your biomechanics. Contrast this with cycling, for which the technique doesn't change quite so radically thanks to gears and the non-ballistic motion.

I'm not entirely sure how these ideas which seem to have had a fair amount of success in events lasting a few minutes can be translated into training for longer distance events. I don't think running an ever increasing distance at Marathon pace would be very effective, for example. Having said that, something that I have found works for me is to prepare 10K races, then Half Marathons before finally progressing onto the Marathon: I find that my speed seems to stay with me inspite of the longer more aerobic training. As Nick Grantham quite rightly points out, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be impractical to train outside in the winter months and I can certainly atest to it being much easier to do a short, sharp workout on a treadmill than to run for an hour or more indoors, even at a low intensity. The training plan I drew up for the Seville Marathon based largely on ideas from Brad Hudson's book seems to my mind very similar in spirit in that it starts off with short, high intensity intervals that gradually blur into longer threshold runs, which then become long runs with sections run at Marathon pace. It's always tempting when one sees a new, revolutionary idea (actually, this one is not so new) to say "Oh, I do that already" without taking the trouble to fully understand all the subtle differences and implications.

The way I see it is that this is basically the same debate I have had since I started to train properly, the two extremes being: train fast to race fast or high volume equals high performance. I think that the answer to this depends on several factors:

1) How many years you have been training for. If you have several years of interrupted, injury free, training in your legs then you can probably tollerate more high intensity training safely

2) The number of hours you need to / can train a week and the distance you are training for. If you can only train 5 hours a week, it can hardly be considered "high volume" and you can probably condition your body (and mind) to be able to do much of that at a relatively high intensity. On the other hand, if you plan to train more than 20 hours a week at the peak, you may find it difficult to sustain all year round and you will probably need to build up slowly every season.

3) Your physiology. Mark Allen and Chrissie Wellington have both been repeat Ironman World Champions and yet their approaches were complete opposites: Mark did most of his training at very low, controlled heart rates and Chrissie always went out hard. Do what works for you!

No comments:

Post a Comment