By Paul Cadman, pro sports coach and manager, sports nutritionist and endurance athlete
When we think of training for an event, one of the first things we should consider is building a clear roadmap and structure to our training approach. Part of this process should include how we divide our training into clear cycles that are aligned with the races you plan to do. This practice is referred to as periodization.
There are plenty of theories and approaches to periodization. For the purposes of this post, I will talk about the more traditional approach popularized by Arthur Lydiard. He introduced the notion of working through distinct cycles of training, namely: Base Phase, Build Phase, and Peak and Taper Phase. Here, I’ll dive into each, explain them in detail, provide a few tips, and show the importance of each.
Provides the foundation
The Base Phase is the one that is furthest out from the race you are preparing for; we commonly refer to it as a preparation or foundation period. It’s about preparing our bodies to handle the rigors of the subsequent phases as we progress towards our race. It is the least specific to your event but probably the most important as it underpins your ability to handle the increased load to come. Joe Friel, one of the world’s most respected endurance sports experts, refers to the Base Phase as ‘training to train’.
Should be specific to you:
The Base Phase needs to be specific to your current level of fitness. If you possess a high level of underlying ‘fitness’, your Base Phase should take this into account. Equally, if you are starting from square one, the approach to your Base Phase should be focused on building the highest level of skill, endurance, and muscular strength before progressing to the next phase of your training. If you’re a newbie, your Base Phase will likely be a lot longer than a lifetime athlete; so don’t forget to build that into your thinking.
Is the time to set goals and recognize your limits
Clear goal-setting is important to help guide your training roadmap. The Base Phase will support the entire success of your season, so it is worth sitting down with your coach and discussing your season goals. Next, distill these down to ensure your Base Phase of training is meaningful and motivating. This is also a good opportunity to identify, discuss, and improve on your limits. An example could be that you have well-developed aerobic endurance but not so much technical ability. Because being technically proficient really does improve performance, it would make sense to set goals around improving your skill base.
The focus of your Base Phase training should be on these key elements:
Develop and/or improve aerobic endurance
This is important because the vast majority of events are aerobic in nature. To improve endurance, you should work all three energy systems. By this, we mean not focusing solely on going out and logging as many easy miles as possible. We should ensure a variety of exercise intensity at the right mix. The majority of your training (~80%) should be zone 1 and 2, with the remaining 20% being higher intensity. Don’t forget strength and conditioning as well.
Develop or improve muscular strength
Working on improving your muscular strength will help you to recruit more muscle fibers. This will make you physically stronger and more resistant to injury. The other benefit of regular strength work is improving your neuromuscular communication.
Embed habits to aid success
- Have structure and stick to it.
- Good quality sleep. Sleep is where the magic happens (recovery). Try and get to bed at roughly the same time every night, have no devices in the bedroom, and finish your evening meal 90 - 120mins before going to bed.
- Commitment to recovery is how you get stronger and fitter. Good sleep is a big part of this. You should also include rest days, stretching, yoga/Pilates, and massages.
- Work on your mental game: use visualization, and reflection.
- Include regular strength and conditioning sessions in your program. It sounds simple but this is commonly overlooked by many athlete age groups as they feel it’s not specific to their event. Do it regularly and the benefits will be significant.
- Set goals to help ensure structure and motivation in your training.
- Be consistent in everything you do. Consistency is the single biggest key to success.
- Learn from habits - don’t view them as a failure.
- Make sure you’re having fun; this will make your training more engaging and motivating.
A well-balanced, overall, unprocessed day-to-day diet with appropriate amounts of protein, healthy good fats, carbohydrates, and micro-nutrients will underpin your ability to train consistently. Use the Base Phase of your training as the opportunity to improve your diet if it needs working on.
Improve sport-specific skills and techniques to help improve efficiency
The Base Phase presents the best opportunity to improve your sport-specific skills and techniques. This is important because the more technically proficient you are, the more efficient your movement during training and racing will be. Building skill-work into your training need not be time-consuming or difficult. Simply devoting 15mins during your warm-ups will suffice. You can also consult experts for feedback. A good example of this could be a swim technique session with a designated swim coach.
Improvements can come quickly if you are new to endurance sport or just getting back into training. I’d suggest completing a test every 4 - 6 weeks to ensure your training zones are accurate and progression is still occurring. If you are plateauing, a change in training stimulus is more than likely required. An example of a commonly used run threshold test is below:
15mins warm-up. At the end of the warm-up, hit the lap button. This is the start of the test (it's 30mins). You need to run the test as hard as you can for the entire time. At 10 minutes, hit the lap button again and then hit the lap button at the end of the 30mins. The average heart rate and pace for the last 20mins of the 30 is your threshold. Another way to test progress is to simply keep track of your peak performances during races or hard training sessions. Improvement is a great indicator of progression and effective training.
The Base Phase of training provides the foundation to progress to the subsequent phases of training. The focus should be on building endurance, developing muscular strength, improving skill sets, embedding good habits, and optimizing your nutrition. Use regular testing to validate training zones and monitor progress.
Everything you do in the Base Phase prepares your body for the increase in load that comes during the Build Phase of training. The Base Phase is all about ‘training to train’ while the Build Phase is about ’training to race’.
Align your training
The principle of specificity becomes more important during the Build Phase. Training becomes more aligned to the race you are targeting. To construct a successful Build Phase, you must first identify the specific demands of your race and consider your performance goals. If you’re a newbie with very little training history and are still building your fitness, you may be better served if you carry on with your Base Phase structure. On the other hand, if you’re an experienced athlete who wants to get on the podium, your Build Phase should reflect that goal.
Monitor your exercise
Transitioning through the phases requires careful consideration. This is because the intensity and training load associated with the build period of training is more taxing. So, firstly, consider this: can you safely say that you have acquired the required level of fitness to transition to this next phase of training? If you can honestly answer yes to this question, then proceed. If the answer is no, you’ll be much better served if you carry on with your Base Phase preparation for a few more weeks so that you can successfully transition without exposing yourself to injury and illness. An accurate way to understand whether you are ready to move on from base building is to monitor your exercise efficiency. If you are not seeing continued improvement, you are ready to move on. You could also use intuition to make the decision. If you feel like you’re not making progress, it’s time to move on.
Adjust your intensity
Training during the build period is challenging. The greater your base fitness coming into this period of training, the more effective it will be. Remember, the purpose of the Build Phase is to prepare yourself specifically for your event. This phase should contain key sessions that are designed to prepare you for the demands of your race. These sessions should be aligned to the intensity at which you want to race.
Make nutritious choices
Focus on maintaining good nutritional habits during the Build Phase. You will need to introduce some changes, as the intensity of training means you’ll be burning more carbohydrates than in the Base Phase. Prioritize protein intake and nail your recovery nutrition. You can include high GI carbohydrates in your recovery nutrition as these will be absorbed quicker and replenish your glycogen stores more readily. Your diet should still be based on nutrient-dense unprocessed foods.
Strike a balance
As the build phase is physically demanding, most can only handle two cycles of training. This will end up being 6 - 8 weeks in length, depending on your base fitness and event level.
You need to build intensity into your program but remember that the majority should still be easy.
The volume of training increases in this phase and you need to ensure you are recovering well between sessions/days. Get plenty of sleep and supplement your training with a healthy diet.
The Build Phase is where you ‘train to race’. Your workouts should become more specific to the event you are training for, as should your performance goals. Generally, this phase of training shouldn’t be any longer than 6 - 8 weeks because it’s very demanding. If you have not built the necessary base to successfully transition to this more demanding phase of training, you should continue building your fitness.
Peak/taper and race phase
Ok you’ve done all the hard work. You’ve built a solid foundation, embedded good habits and routine. Your technical skills have been honed and you’ve spent time training at the intensity you expect to race at. What next? We now enter the phases immediately prior to your ‘A’ race that brings everything together.
Most commonly called Peak & Race, this phase will generally last for around 3 weeks. The goal is to build your ‘form’. It’s about fine-tuning the engine and producing race readiness so when you turn up to the start line you’re good to go. Training intensity generally remains higher, frequency is unchanged but overall volume declines relatively by reducing the duration of sessions. This allows you to soak up the months of load and ‘freshen’ up. This phase can be difficult to navigate, you may feel a little flat, don’t be alarmed, this is fairly common. Trust the process and the months of training time you have invested. Resist the urge to ‘test’ yourself, remember this phase is all about building form by prioritizing recovery not pilling on the fatigue.
It’s super important to maintain your good nutrition habits, now is not the time to be diving into the cookie jar. Remember your training load is decreasing therefore energy expenditure reduces meaning you should alter your intake in line with these changes. Less out means less in, don’t compromise the quality though!
Focus on recovery
Recovery takes priority during this phase. Recall that recovery is where the magic happens and the strength and resilience are built to perform at your peak during your chosen event. Massage and sleep should be at the top of your list when it comes to recovery.
Finally, spend the last couple of weeks honing your race plan and equipment. Make sure you understand all rules, race routes and on course fueling options etc.
The Peak/Taper & Race phase is where it all comes together. Overall load declines allowing you to freshen up and build form for your race. Don’t let your nutrition habits slip and make sure you get ample sleep to aid recovery.
Using MitoQ throughout your training will play a role in helping optimize the all-important performance aspect that is recovery. Anecdotally, athletes I speak to who have used MitoQ experience reduced muscle soreness, improved sleep, and more stable health.
MitoQ has helped me handle the rigors of daily training and supports my overall health.
Good luck hitting the start line!