The periodisation of training: some new thoughts and some old ideas

22 June 2015

In this article I am going to go into a little bit of the history behind structured training. I will also examine the modern thinking which underpins our training system algorithms behind our generated plans that give you more bang for buck with less hours on the bike.

Going right back in time to the early Tour riders one of the most common basis for their training was hours in the saddle. This is still the most common question asked of keen riders “how many hours have you done this week?”

We have all been there and undoubtedly succumbed to telling a few porky pies by casually spieling off “oh, about 25 hours this week mate”. We stand in awe of the local hard man that can ride 20+ hours a week and fit in a job, work and home life with the kids. Truth is, when we really think about it we know it is not a possibility – at least for the long haul.

The old school methods championed “just get another 10,000 km in and you will be better, fitter and stronger”. 1,000 km training weeks certainly differentiated those that could handle the volume and load and those that would crumble and fall. The very strongest riders came through; those with the strongest immune systems and powers of recovery, but did it find the fastest and potentially strongest riders? 

Their training would have consisted of long days in the saddle in blocks without any structured recovery or lower volume periods. Most would have been overreached or overtrained, with chronic fatigue a real problem. Tudor Bompa revolutionised training by introducing periodisation and the process of a varying training stress to develop optimal performance. Originally used in the structure of weights and lifting programs Tudor used to great effect these methods in various disciplines such as track and field and they were later adopted by the cycling fraternity.

Periodisation basically splits the season into different periods that allow for the load and intensity of the program to change and fluctuate according to the specific objectives and goals of the athlete. This is still the basis by which all coaches work today, some follow the process in a very similar protocol to the ideas put forward by Dr Bompa while others have evolved to meet the demands of more specific events. 

Periodisation the basic rationale

Most modern programs are constructed using 3 to 6 periods or blocks that addresses different energy systems and build upon one another in developing the overall condition of the rider/athlete towards his or her goal. These periods can be broken down into the following phases, these are by no means definitive and as we will discuss later there are many different approaches and ideas that can be followed to obtain the same outcome.

The Base Period 

The base period develops an overall base of condition with which to build upon later in the season. This base period might follow a foundation period that would cover a more general conditioning program that may look at bio-mechanical issues, weaknesses etc and be more generic in design incorporating weights, running or other forms of exercise that develop overall general body condition.

Developing a base is and can be very different for many riders and many coaches. The general process would remain the same and not every shoe will fit every rider, by this I mean a base period of gradually increasing distance/time at or around endurance pace might work for some, whilst others might do better developing a base constructed of more tempo and sub threshold shorter efforts. My general belief is to try and develop a program for riders that push the comfort zone as most riders default to riding longer and easier if left to their own devices. I would come in with a more focused tempo and sub threshold based base program that really kick starts their body and starts the adaptation process happening again, usually after a long period of stagnation and a plateau in performance.

The base period can be as little as 6 – 8 weeks or up to 14 weeks in some cases, this depends upon the starting condition and the previous history of the athlete.

The Build Period 

The build period is a continuation in the process in that it gradually ramps up the intensity while maintaining a good level of volume. This is a very hard period for the self training athlete as by increasing the intensity the body is under a greater physiological load and therefore cannot handle as much volume.

The self trained athlete tries to do both, hit intensity and volume and often burns out, gets sick or loses motivation.  The build period remember builds upon the foundation of the base period and thus a quality aerobic level of condition has already been established and this period is really about giving the body another kick start after potentially getting more used to the training stimulus in the base period. These sessions are usually at or above threshold and might target the VO2 energy system. This might be achieved with a 2 – 3 week intro with one VO2 session a week followed by 2 x VO2 in the next 2 – 3 weeks.

During this phase it is very important to monitor all the signs of overdoing it, sleeplessness, irritability, lack of motivation. For some this period can be a short as 4 – 6 weeks for others 6 – 8 weeks is better, everyone is different and trial and error is the key to finding what and how you respond during this phase. It is still important to try and maintain a good amount of volume during this phase so as not to lose too much of your hard to come by base condition and this is the art of training and periodisation in your programming. 

The Race Period 

The race period is exactly as it says; the period when all your training comes together to bring you to your goal race in the best condition you can possibly be in. The race period becomes very specific and focuses on the types of effort that will be demanded of your body in the target race or races. The standard philosophy will focus on higher intensity intervals targeting the anaerobic energy system. These can be included into race specific sessions that might mimic the demands of a specific course or trail that will be ridden.

More often than not the overall volume of the program will be dropped considerably to allow for the recovery from these very high intensity efforts and races. Again this is often where the self coached athlete falls down by trying to race and train hard at the same time. Fitness once developed must be given away and freshness and form allowed to flow back into the body. This is the period when all that base and build period is used up and depending upon the duration of the base period we can often follow a reduced race period for 6 – 8 weeks, using up all the fitness base we developed while doing just race specific efforts, racing and recovering. This is the Holy Grail and getting this right is what it is all about, this is when athletes produce personal bests and break records. 

Some new spin on the old ideas

Now, while this might be the standard philosophy and structure that most riders and coaches follow is it really specific to the demands of the marathon or ultra rider? This method of periodisation works well when the races that the rider is targeting are shorter races where the limiting factors are explosive power and repeatability of many intervals, it makes sense doesn’t it. What if, however, your target event is a 100 km race lasting 6 hours or a 12 hour Enduro? What is the limiting factor in this format of race and if specificity of exercise is used as a model for constructing the training program does it not stand to reason that this process could be shuffled around a little?

Reverse Periodisation

The idea or concept of reverse periodisation is actually a very good method for the time crunched athlete wanting to compete in longer endurance and ultra races. The basic premise is that the structure of the periodisation is changed somewhat to allow for a small volume block closer to the target race. This volume block will focus on riding at the specific intensity that the target event will be raced at and over similar terrain if possible. Specificity is the key here and replicating the type and duration of the race in a small and manageable training block. For most riders a volume block can be programmed into any schedule and a little time taken off work to accommodate it if necessary. 

I hope this article helps explain the methodology we’ve built into the Today’s Plan training system and how it generates your personalised training plan.

See you all soon on a trail near you,

Coach Fenz

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Tempo is considered the default setting of riding hard for most riders. If left to find a natural pace most riders will tap along at this intensity and feel that they are riding with purpose and quite fast. Tempo could be considered about 4 – 6 out of 10 in terms of overall effort and will correlate to about 80 – 90% of a riders current threshold heart rate (THR). Breathing would be starting to get deeper and rhythmic, but, well under control, you would be able to hold a conversation, but, it would be short with gaps to catch breath.

Sweet Spot Training (SST) is a step up in intensity from Tempo, SST is considered to be the intensity that a rider could complete a fair amount of work at, e.g. 40 – 90 minutes and it is just below true threshold. This intensity will correlate to about 88 – 92% of the riders current THR and about 5 – 7 out of 10 in terms of overall effort. Our breathing would be deep and rhythmic, but, well under control, you would struggle , however, to hold a conversation. This pace and intensity creates great adaptations as a rider can sustain a relatively long time at or around this intensity compared to riding at or very close to actual threshold.

Threshold is again slightly harder than SST and is closely correlated with a number of physiological parameters such as, Lactate Threshold, Ventilatory Threshold and Sustainable Power often referred to as Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or maximum 60 minute power output. At Threshold a rider is pushing very hard while still utilising oxygen and aerobic respiration as the primary mechanism for producing fuel for muscular contractions. This means that any lactate produced is processed and CO2 exhaled. At threshold the body is trying to balance these processes and if you push just a little too hard more lactate and CO2 will be produced as the body struggles to meet the energy demands via the aerobic energy system and starts to rely more on the anaerobic energy system. When this happens we produce more lactate than we can process and we come to a grinding halt with very sore legs. By training at or close to threshold, we train the body’s ability to deal with these processes and over time increase the power needed to reach threshold and thus become faster and fitter. While at or close to threshold we will pushing very hard and this would equate to about 7 – 9 out of 10 in terms of effort. Our breathing would be very deep, but still rhythmic (if you push too hard it would become ragged) you would not be able to hold a conversation and you would need to concentrate hard to maintain effort. The intensity would correlate to between 95 – 104% THR.