Periodization Basics: Base Training

The Base Training phase is a perfect time to focus on one's weaknesses within the sport of triathlon.

The Base Training phase is a perfect time to focus on one’s weaknesses within the sport of triathlon.

Periodization is generally broken into 4-5 phases or mesocycles: base building (general preparatory), strength, speed, racing & maintenance (competition phase) and recovery (off-season).

Base building is one of the most important phases of an athlete’s annual training plan because the base phase sets the stage for the year. The major goals of this phase are:

  • Build cardiovascular and muscular endurance
  • Improve VO2max
  • Build base mileage and distance of long workouts

Joe Friel once said “As much as 80% of race-day fitness comes from the base period.” (Ch 25; Triathlon Science)

The amount of time spent in the base phase can vary depending on the athlete’s goals and fitness, but generally lasts between 12 to 16 weeks in duration. The base phase is mainly about training for time and mileage to build cardiovascular fitness, but not for speed.

The first and most important step for any athlete in the base phase is to assess their “limiting factors,” i.e. their weaknesses within the sport. Perhaps the triathlete is a weak swimmer or lacks power on the bike. What ever the athlete’s weakness may be, the base phase is the perfect time to focus on those weaknesses.

Once weaknesses are determined and goals are set, the coach and/or triathlete must determine how much time in the athlete’s life can reasonably be devoted to training.


Most triathletes tend to be weakest at swimming because swimming is very technical. For athletes looking to improve in swimming, frequency of swimming becomes arguably the most important aspect of training. Usually a minimum of three 60-minute sessions per week is recommended for skilled swimmers. Novice swimmers might need shorter and more frequent sessions to see improvements.

The energy systems that the coach and/athlete choose to focus on during the base phase are unique to the individual needs of the athlete. However, they generally include improving the aerobic capacity, developing anaerobic power, maintaining aerobic and anaerobic endurance, and improving stroke technique and mechanics.


The intensity and duration for a large majority of base phase training can be described as relatively low intensity with increasing duration. It is important early in the base training phase to determine proper intensity through field or laboratory-based testing. Field testing is most often utilized for the everyday athlete. Athletes who train with a power meter should undergo a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test to determine proper power zones while athletes training with a Heart Rate (HR) monitor should undergo a HR test to determine proper HR zones.

During the base training phase, triathletes should spend about 50% of their total weekly training volume (hours) on the bike. This normally translates to about 3-5 workouts per week. One to two workouts will be steady-state endurance, one workout will address power and/or neuromuscular development, and then one or two workouts will focus on race-specific demands.

Steady-State Training – Generally longer rides performed nearly exclusively at the aerobic base intensity that is defined as 55-75% of FTP (power-based training) or 60-70% of maximum HR (HR-based training)

Neuromuscular Development – This type of development is generally achieved through either sprinting or big-gear work. Neuromuscular training in cycling is all about recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibers to produce peak force and power.

Race-Specific Demands – Each race an athlete competes in has certain features that make it unique, such as big hills, long windy flats, etc. Athletes should focus on training for these conditions. Also, distance is important, such as Ironman vs. sprint distance.


The classic base training protocol for running is to perform low intensity, high mileage; however, exercise physiology research is still debating if this method is best for athletic performance. Some newer research has suggested that athletes should spend 80% of their training at or below aerobic threshold and 20% of their training at higher intensity. Most triathletes train using HR for running. A widely accepted training concept for run base training is designed around running in the aerobic endurance zone, which is generally defined as 60-70% of maximum HR. Phil Maffetone, a legendary endurance sport coach, suggests subtracting your age from 180 and using that number as your maximum HR during base training. For example, if you are 40, your maximum aerobic HR would be 140bpm. Over time, your running speed will increase at the same HR because your cardiovascular fitness has improved. Another age old training protocol is increasing training load (volume – either time or mileage) by no more than 10% each week. Science has yet to support this concept, but incorporating rest or recovery weeks is key to a good periodized training plan to reduce injury potential.


  • Builds cardiovascular and endurance fitness
  • Improves VO2max
  • Intensity is generally performed at low intensity (55-75% of FTP and/or 60-70% of  Max HR)
  • A good time to focus on weaknesses in each or one particular sport

~ Happy Training!

Periodization Basics

If you have a coach or are following a solid, structured training plan then you may be familiar with the term periodization. Not only is (and should) periodization be part of endurance training, but also strength training programs as well.

Periodization can be defined as training for specific physiological benefits, such as cardiovascular endurance, strength, speed, and power. Periodization began its roots with Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model, which describes the body’s biological response to stress. Leo Metveyev and Tudor Bompa are considered the modern-day fathers of periodization.

Periodization is divided into three cycles:

  1. Macrocycle – The overall phase of your training plan. This generally tends to be a 12-month time frame, but could be 3-5 years depending on an athlete’s goals, i.e. competing at the Olympics.
  2. Mesocycle – The mesocycle is the number of continuous weeks of specific training that emphasizes a type of physical adaptation, i.e. strength or speed.
  3. Microcycle – The microcycle is typically a one or two-week cycle that includes daily variations in your training plan.

In order to fully understand the concept of periodization, one must understand the six basic principles of exercise physiology:

  1. Stress – In order to build endurance, strength, speed, and/or power, you must stress each of these physiological systems in order to grow and adapt in these areas.
  2. Adaptation – Your body will adapt to physiological stress over time. This is how the body becomes fitter, stronger, and faster. Adaptation in a nutshell is the body’s response to physical stress.
  3. Progression – Over time the body will adapt to its current training and thus in order for your body to continue to improve, you must increase and change stresses.
  4. Specificity – Training should be specific. If you want to build more power on the bike, then you must train for power on the bike!
  5. Individualization – Every person is unique and responses differently to training stress. Training plans should be specific to an individual to maximize the outcome.
  6. Reversibility – Rest is critical, especially a few weeks of unstructured training at the end of the season. Training gains will reverse when extended breaks are taken, so try to be active throughout the year so you don’t lose too much fitness over time.

The body has several physiological  energy systems that it utilizes to produce energy for movement. Here is a brief overview of each:

  • ATP-PC system (phosphagen system) – This system is utilized first by the body because it requires no oxygen. However, it can only provide energy for about 8-10 seconds. This system is used most during short sprints and strength training.
  • Glycolysis – This system starts after the ATP-PC system ends. No oxygen is required to break down glucose or glycogen to pyruvic acid. It generally lasts for a couple minutes at most. Glycosis is often referred to as the anaerobic system.
  • Aerobic System – The aerobic system begins after about 2 minutes and requires oxygen to produce ATP (fuel source of the body). As long as your body has oxygen then the aerobic system will produce energy.

When a coach builds an athlete’s Annual Training Plan (ATP) or macrocycle training plan, they will break down the plan into mesocycles or blocks. An ATP usually breaks down into the following training blocks:

  • Base Building – A majority of athletes will spend most of their training cycle time in base building. Base building generally lasts between 12-16 weeks, depending on race schedule and goals. This block is focused on developing aerobic endurance and building mileage.
  • Strength Building – The focus of this block is building muscular strength. This block generally lasts between 6-8 weeks.
  • Speed Building – The focus of this block is on developing neuromuscular movement and building speed. This block generally lasts between 6-8 weeks.
  • Racing & Maintenance – This period focuses on racing and resting between races. This time period varies depending on the athlete’s season and goals.
  • Recovery – The focus of this block is to recover and rest from a long season. Training is generally unstructured and easy. This block lasts usually between 2-4 weeks.

The above information is just a basic introduction to periodization and training plans. As a coach I love creating training plans based on the periodization concept and the individual athlete. As an athlete, I am a strong believer that the concept works. Over the next few months I plan to provide a more in-depth overview of each training block or mesocycle to help you understand your own training plans. Stay tuned! 🙂

~ Happy Training!