Thursday, April 10, 2008

Real World Periodization III: The Specific Prep Phase

As the snow thaws and spring approaches, I thought that it might be timely if I threw out a blog entry on the Specific Preparatory phase of training. For most folks who are targeting a late Summer race, they will probably be getting ready to enter this very important phase of training.

Many of you will be familiar with a chart similar to the one below that describes the general process of periodization, as outlined by Tudor Bompa in his landmark book, “Theory and methodology of training”.

As you can see, during the specific prep phase of training, the general trend is an increase in training intensity while volume of training is slightly increased or maintained. It is important to note, that for endurance athletes, it is not until the very end of the specific prep phase and the transition to the race prep phase that volume begins to take a ‘back seat’ to intensity. For ultra-endurance athletes, this is even more pronounced and for novice to intermediate ultra-endurance athletes it may never be appropriate to sacrifice your progressive volume development in order to emphasize intensity.

The training methods:
* More emphasis on overload through training intensity (for endurance athletes, this means more intensive endurance work – esp. moderately hard work in and around VT1)
* Maintenance or slight increase of training volume.

Here is where a lot of folks go wrong with the specific prep portion of their training year.

Too many “A” races.
I was fortunate to grow up in the world of elite swimming, where ‘shaving down’ for a race differentiated it big time from your regular weekly mid-season meets. This difference in focus often equated to a 5-7% difference in performance in the swimmer’s C event vs. their A event. Why do they do it this way? So that they don’t sacrifice training volume or intensity in the name of unimportant races. What does this mean for you? If you don’t have the kahunas to handle your training buddy Bill beating you by 10 minutes in a mid-season race, then you’re probably best not to race until it matters.

Too much intensity.
In my experience, the norm for most athletes from the snowy states is diminished volume during the winter due to weather constraints, followed by a period of sun-induced insanity when the weather clears that is characterized by long, hard group training rides with your training buddies and/or the obligatory functional threshold intervals to ‘get you ready’ for your over ambitious race schedule. In other words, many athletes go straight from a transition/off season phase to a pre-competitive phase and skip the 2 phases that are most essential to your long term development as an athlete: The general and specific preparation phases.

It is very easy for athletes in this pattern to develop a rationalization that they are time limited and therefore need to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ by focusing on intensity vs. volume. For some this is indeed the case. Most, however, when we really get down to it are energy limited, not time limited. And when a big withdrawal is made from the energy bank account with a long, intense weekend ride, it is very easy to rationalize skipping the Monday workout by finding something ‘more important’ to do.

It never ceases to amaze me how much training successful age group athletes manage to fit around their very successful working and family lives. However, a progressively growing bank of energy is a pre-requisite for this.

So, what is an appropriate volume and intensity for the specific prep phase of training for most AG athletes?

A simple rule of thumb is, don’t sacrifice volume for intensity until you are 10-12 weeks from a very important A-RACE. This means if you try and up the ante on one of your key sessions but wind up dropping volume from the week, the session was too hard. No rationales, no excuses, no “if I could have slept an extra hour I think I could handle it”, no “I think I felt a cold coming on this week, on a normal week I could handle it”. If you truly care about your long term development as an athlete, be very cautious and deliberate as to the times you choose to drop volume for intensity. For myself, these are the situations that I am willing to do that:

If my training data indicates I have a shot at a Kona slot
“ “ “ “ I have a shot at an AG podium at a major race
“ “ “ “ I have a shot at getting my elite card.
“ “ “ “ I have a shot at an elite podium.

That’s it. Other than that, it’s onward and upward. The “peak him here, peak him there, peak him everywhere” approach is no way to achieve your full potential in the sport.

To be fair, there is one other situation in which it may be appropriate to drop volume and increase intensity and that is when aerobic performance plateaus. I am reluctant to include this exception for two reasons:

Most athletes that I have worked with significantly underestimate how long they can improve from solely doing aerobic work. We are talking about a multi-year adaptation here. There is no need for speed until you are a very established athlete.

Most athletes simply don’t have the data to determine when a plateau is occurring. The “I feel flat so I think I need some speedwork” doesn’t cut it. Show me the numbers – a multi-month plateau in the aerobic numbers from your benchmark sets.

Other than that, keep doing more, keep doing it faster and you will become a better athlete. Simple as that.


FatDad said...

Great post! After about 20 weeks of prep getting ready to attempt a Boston qualifier at Seattle in November I have decided to change up my training protocols based on a pile of reading (Hadd, Maffetone, Lydiard) and testimony from athletes such as yourself. Thanks for giving me the mental ammunition to stay disciplined.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks for the kind words, fatdad. IMHO, the best (and maybe only) reason for changing up your protocol is that your old protocol stops working (or at the very least, improvements slows substantially). I think Maffetone does a really good job of putting this into a method that can be practically applied.

Best of luck for your Boston attempt. Sounds like you've done a great job of putting together a good foundation.

Best regards,


Douglas Kretzmann said...

I agree entirely. It took me six years to learn this, and it was mere serendipity that led me to it..

Trouble is, going hard feels good, consistent moderation isn't nearly as satisfying ;-)

lengthy thoughts over here,

dan said...

Great post. Does your post also refer to olympic-distance racing as well? Or just IM racing? Thanks!