A traditional periodization and build for a half marathon or marathon is 12-16 weeks, and upwards of 20-24 weeks for a 50-100 mile race. This normally follows a set progression including prep, base, build, peak, race, and recovery before you head back to the beginning and start all over again. While this progression is physiologically ideal for most endurance training, it may mean that your athletes can only peak on or two times in a calendar year.
The idea of a reverse periodization is all about doing higher-intensity intervals without as much build-up of other systems—essentially skipping the traditional “long slow” base period. There are two situations in which reverse periodization can be preferable to a standard progression: when your athlete’s off-season weather isn’t conducive to long slow distance, and when your athlete needs to peak again quickly after a big event. Below we’ll go into the rationale behind each.
Beating the Winter Blues
Living and training for endurance events in northern climates during the winter months is often a battle of boredom, layers upon layers of clothes, and fighting for a few precious hours of daylight to exercise in. For many runners, toughing it out in the cold just isn’t an option due to a lack of accessible roads and routes, ice, and snow, and any physiological benefits aren’t worth the mental toll of spending long hours training indoors.
A reverse periodization would be a perfect plan for athletes who find themselves in this position; integrating intervals and short high-intensity work also gives space for time in the gym to build durability and technique. It is absolutely possible to push long, aerobic base work into more manageable warmer months—and may even be the key to breakthrough success when sticking with a demanding training program.
Extending a Season
If your athlete tends to plan multiple big events, or finds time to squeeze in another race unexpectedly, reverse periodization may help extend their season. They’ll still need to recover after a major event, but instead of saddling up for extensive detraining and rebuild to fitness, this strategy will have them reentering some of the most intense, focused and specific training relatively soon in order to prepare for another season or event.
Just remember that while it can be extended, peak fitness is finite, so be very aware of your athlete’s fatigue levels as they return to high-intensity work. They may conversely feel very fit during the time and be tempted to push themselves—but skipping support work like strength training and easy aerobic runs can quickly ruin plans for a quick turnaround. Finding balance in recovery and strength work is key to keeping your athlete’s fitness progressing for a late-season surge.
Building out the Perfect Reverse Periodization Plan
Any time you implement a reverse periodization plan, you need to be aware of the potential for mental burnout caused by doing a lot of focused, high intensity training a long time before a goal event. While interval workouts are a quick way to build fitness, they can also cause a premature peak, which you want to help your athlete avoid. Instead, I suggest supplementing these workouts with plenty of technique work and strength training. Here is a useful way to re-imagine your periodization to plan for an appropriate peak.
Threshold Development/ Vo2
|Force and Power Development|
– Improve Power
– Muscular Strength/ Durability
– Running Form + Technique
4x 4 Weeks of 3 Weeks Build, 1 Week Recovery
|Buid Fitness/ NeuroMuscular Prep|
– Lower Weight/ higher reps
– Band Work
– Develop Base / Supportive Threshold Work
|Summer 1 – Build to ‘A’ Race||Specific Race Preparation|
– High Volume Aerobic Work
– Race Pace Efforts
– Vo2 and Threshold
– Maintenance Strength
3 Weeks Build, 1 Week Recovery
|Summer 2 – The After Party||Specific Race Work|
– Build towards Second Peak
– Races are equal length or less than ‘A’ Race in Summer 1
– Strength Maintenance
3 Weeks Build, 1 Week Recovery
2 Weeks Build, 1 Week Recovery
|Autumn – Rest and Recovery||Rest and Recovery |
– Maintenance Aerobic Runs
– Mental Recovery
Finding the Right Plan
There is no wrong approach to building out your season, but many successful athletes have benefited from using a reverse periodization. If your athlete is crunched for time between races or looking to make a change to their normally drab winter training regimen, consider writing them a reverse periodization program.