Monday, September 8, 2008

Real World Periodization IV: The Need For Speed

“I feel the need, the need for speed”
- Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Top Gun)

It’s been a while since my last post on one of my favourite topics – periodization and long term planning. So, first, a recap on the story so far:

I am a big advocate of long term periodization, however, I firmly believe that for all but elite athletes that the progression through the typical phases is a multi-year rather than a multi-month progression. This runs counter to most of the popular literature on the topic, including that of folks like Joe Friel and Gale Bernhardt.

That said, I do like the general phase delineations advocated by Friel and I find them more definitive and practically applicable than those proposed by the periodization ‘forefathers’ – Bompa and Matveyev.

In a nutshell, the progression is as follows:

Base 1 (General Prep):

An emphasis on progressively habituating the athlete to achieving and then consistently hitting their ‘basic week’. At all times during this phase intensity is completely incidental and falls way down the list of priorities when compared to volume and consistency. Throughout this phase, constraints are minimal. So long as the athlete is able to get the heart rate above 60% of their max/AeT-10 (with a cap of 80% max/VT1), I’m a happy coach.

Base 2 (Specific Prep I):

So, the athlete is hitting their basic week on at least 3 of every 4 weeks. Next step is to begin observing and then pushing the aerobic quality of the training. This means that I start to ‘tighten the screws’ and move from my “whatever Brah” coaching methodology closer to my goose-stepping Nazi persona that my athletes will be familiar with when they reach Base 3 and beyond. In practice, this means we introduce the following concepts:
- Training on measured courses (less important for my athletes who use Power)
- Observing and improving average training speed over said courses
- Adding back-end loaded steady state main sets to each of the longer days.

Base 3 (Specific Prep II):

When we reach a point that the athlete is achieving a majority of training in their steady zone, I will begin to add more challenging mod-hard (and in some cases, hard) main sets to the shorter days, so long as (and this is important) the quantity and average speed of training are not compromised with the addition of this intensity. The amount of mod-hard that each athlete can tolerate is incredibly variable and is related to such factors as gender, size, muscle fiber composition and general constitution and can range from 10-30% of the athlete’s basic week.

So, that’s the story so far.

Now, as we go along, after we have established some measured courses that we perform regularly from phase 2 on, I become more and more aware of what a ‘good time’ is for each of the sessions/courses. It is only after a multi-month plateau on said courses that I will even think about introducing a dedicated speed phase.

The exception to this would be if an athlete has targeted a short distance race as an “A race” for this season. However, I strongly advise developing athletes against doing this. In the long run, what you give up for the 3-5% of extra speed that you may gain by specifically preparing for your short distance ‘A Race’ is quite simply not worth it and, IMHO, the emphasis on regular (short course) racing is the primary reason that we have seen a significant stalling in the times of World Championship events from Ironman to National Track Racing over the past 20+ years. E.g. Peter Snell’s 800m time from 1962 would still place him 2nd at the 2008 US National Championships (in an Olympic year)!! Mark Allen’s winning Ironman time from 1989 would place him 1st at the 2007 Ironman (and has only been beaten by one athlete in the 18 years since)!!

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you are one of those athletes who:

a) Has hit your target volume for 40/52 weeks for the past year.
b) Is doing the bulk of their training at or above their AeT
c) Has incorporated mod-hard to hard training within their basic week to the limits of their individual tolerance without compromising training volume.
d) Has witnessed a plateau in the aerobic main set times from his key weekly sessions.

What’s the next step?

I feel the need….. the need for speed.


The primary purpose of speed-work is (arguably) to improve central
(cardio-pulmonary) adaptations by providing added
stimulus to increase blood volume and consequently increase stroke
volume and VO2max (Seiler, 1991). By improving these factors,
greater oxygen is made available to the muscles for aerobic energy
production at all submaximal (aerobic) intensities. These adaptations
are the opposite of those peripheral adaptations sought with long, slow
distance training.

Phase Length:

Numerous studies have shown that the desired adaptations plateau
after a period of 10-14 weeks (e.g. Fox, 1975, Cunningham, 1979).
This duration of speed training has been confirmed in the field by
coaches such as Lydiard (running) and Carlile (swimming).


Intensity of training is a key component and should range from
90-100% of VO2max (3K-10K pace).


3-4 sessions per week are required to elicit improvement in well
Trained athletes (VO2max greater than 50 ml/kg/min). 2 times per week is
Sufficient for athletes with VO2max less than 40ml/kg/min.


For well trained athletes, total training time at 90-100% VO2max
should tally 30-45mins per session. Time trumps intensity and even
if the athlete cannot maintain 90% VO2max for 30-45mins, the session
duration should remain (Wegner and Bell, 1986).

During this phase of training, overall volume is reduced as necessary to accommodate intensity. Total volume of 66-80% of max volume is sufficient to maintain long term peripheral adaptations. Reductions greater than this should be avoided due to the time it takes to re-gain peripheral vs. central adaptations (Mujika et al. 1996).

If a speed phase is warranted/used within the annual plan, I would still recommend a return to a high volume Base 3 cycle (with 2 maintenance speed sessions each week) prior to tapering for an Ironman race.

I’ll chat through my thoughts on the taper in my next instalment on Real World Periodization.


Gordo Byrn said...


Good stuff. You should use labels to sort your stuff via category (I spent the week adding on my blog). It will make it a lot easier for folks to track back.

You have a lot of valuable info in your site. Seeing as I don't write a lot of e. phys. stuff I used a general category but you might want to hone that down a bit -- lactate, fat oxidation... etc...


Alan Couzens said...

Thanks G.

Good tip. I will do that. It's only when I go back to look over the previous months that I realize just how quickly the posts add up.

A few words each week ultimately becomes a good sized library. Sounds like there's a blog-worthy parable in there somewhere :-)



krelli said...

Hi Alan,

good blog (as always :) However, I find it interesting that you mention "short-course concentration in training" as reason for stagnating IM times. I think that the next big improvements in IM can only be made by "speed". In my humble opinion, MASSIVE amounts of aerobic training lead to the ability to "last longer" but not necessarily to faster times. In comparison to ultra competitions lasting several days, Ironman is still a speed race. What do you think?



Alan Couzens said...


Plenty of "fast" folks have tried the IM game and not touched the times of the Maffetone disciples of the 80's.

Even at the elite level, IM athletes aren't that 'fast' from a single sport perspective. There are high school athletes around the country on a training run at the moment at 6:00 pace. Maybe 10% of them could even keep that pace up at the end of a 2 and a half hour training day. But how many could do that 8hrs into a training day?

That's what Allen and the crew trained for.

Thanks for the kind words on the blog.


freshtadeath said...

hey alan,

I've been reading your blog for a while and find a ton of useful info, so thanks! I have a question though. I am a cyclist racing for penn state university and was wondering if the difference in altitude between where I live at home over the summer (basically sea level) and the altitude at school (1500 ft) would make much of a difference in my training. I know 1500 feet is not considered "altitude" relatively speaking but could a 1500 ft difference between where I train at home and where I train at school have much of an effect on my fitness, all else equal? Thanks!

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Freshtadeth,

Individual response to altitude is considerably more variable than the popular literature suggests. Depending on your own physiology, for a 3hr event, you may notice anything from 0% difference vs. your sea level perfromance up to 5%if you are a poor responder at the altitudes that you mentioned.

Ironically, the more that the altitude affects you, the better from a training perspective. In order to receive the red blood cell adaptations that are sought with altitude, some destauration must occur.

In summary you may:
a) Not notice any difference in performance or altitude training effect

b) Notice a slight decrement in performance but also get some hypoxic stimulus that could help you in the long run.

Hope this helps.


mat jude said...

Hi Alan another cracking post! With the quality of information you publish you could write a book!

Few q's I've been wondering about for a while and was hoping you could shed some light for me.

All these questions are in relation to me as the self coached athlete, I am in the general prep phase atm, so here goes....,

Q.1 What is better when trying to build run milage,straight easy running 145hr/5:30 per km or run/walk protocol 10min:1min that gordo uses?

If using run/walk when should I switch to straight running?

*currently doing continous running 3x30min per week at above parameters.

Q.2 If attempting a strength program when is best to do it, before or after aerobic work or on alternate days?

Should I go to the gym, or do body weight exercises ie lunge 1 leg squat etc?

Does the need for the strength training overide aerobic volume till you have reached a certain level of strength? If so how much?

*currenty doing core work, 1 leg squat, lunges etc 1 set of 20 reps before running, at the point where this no longer affects my run.

Q.3 Aerobic brick Vs single sessions, what is the cut off point regarding duration for seperating sessions?

*currently doing 30min bike+ 30min run x 2 per week all easy

My basic week (once up and running)
mon-- easy 02 brick 30min/30min
tue-- easy swim + drills 30min
wed-- same as mon
thu-- same as tue
fri-- AM core/strength + 30min run PM easy swim as mon
sat-- long ride 2hrs
sun-- long flat walk 2hrs

Open to suggestions regarding basic week structure, any ideas?

What kid of volume must I attain before I even hink about any mod to mod hard work, I need something to aim at here or else I get bored!

I understand it takes a long time to get good and I am commited to doing the work.

Would really appreciate any tips or thoughts you have regarding my program.

I thank you for your time as I can only imagine how many people must e-mail requests such as mine.

Many thanks


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Mat,

Thanks for the kind words on the blog.

Some answers to your questions below:

1. Run vs. Run/Walk:
There are two situations that IMHO run/walk trumps run only:

- When starting a running program run/walk enables you to lengthen the sessions and accrue more work without slowing down.

- When doing long runs, most folks will find that sharing the load between running and walking muscles actually improves performance.

Keep in mind that every athlete is an experiment of one and in that light, when a question like this comes up, experiment. Try some long runs with each protocol for yourself and see which one elicits better speed:heart rate. Keep in mind also that walk:run breaks often allow you to take more calories/fluids than run alone so this may come into play.

Functional vs. Traditional Strength: The answer is BOTH :-)
Each have their advantages and are required for the well-rounded triathlete.

Strength vs. Aerobic Work: The weight given to each comes down to individual strengths/weaknesses but both are needed as part of your program.

In the case of functional strength and running, I would favor doing the run first. Running on tired stabilizers is a recipe for injury.

Brick vs Single Sessions: Again, I feel both are needed in a well-rounded program. Your personal cut off point will be related to your own level of fitness. I think +5% decoupling is a good starting point.

The most important question to ask regarding the effectiveness of your basic week is "How often are you able to complete it". The format looks good.

Don't be afraid to include a small amount of (maintenance) mod-hard in your week. The key is not to make it a focus until you are ready to use it in your race, i.e. you are an elite athlete!!

Thanks again for the kind words on the blog.

Keep it rolling.