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Reverse periodization: an interesting approach to progress during the winter, by Karoly Spy

1. Introduction

The days are getting shorter, it is getting darker and earlier, the temperatures are cooler, these two elements make it difficult to carry out long training sessions during the winter. 

So how do you train during the winter to prepare for the next season and above all continue to progress? ?

Coaches have a habit of dividing the sports season into several training periods, this is commonly referred to as "training periodization". In endurance sports, mainly in cycling and triathlon, coaches are used to planning a so-called “land” (or base, depending on the terminology used) period, during the winter, within which they focus the training. training on long work at low intensity. This phase, which can last between 8 and 12 weeks, serves as an aerobic base, it is in principle designed to prepare the body for the following periods which will be more qualitative in terms of intensity. 

Is this approach interesting for athletes from the Northern Hemisphere? 

  • 1st problem

An athlete is asked to train long hours at low intensity when it is cold outside and the days are short. For an athlete who works, it is very complicated to include this kind of workout in his schedule. There is the Home-Trainer and the treadmill that can help him, but it is still not easy to spend 4 hours on a Home-Trainer or 2 hours on a low-intensity treadmill.

  • 2nd problem 

At the end of this basic period, the trainer will spend the "construction" period and gradually return to high intensity training. Suddenly we go from training exclusively at low intensity to training with high intensity. high intensity! This is when there may be a small problem! We will ask an organism that has spent long hours of low-intensity training to perform high-intensity work when it is not fully prepared to face it. This exposes the athlete to a higher risk of injury! 

  • 3nd problem 

By using traditional periodization, we will ask athletes who prepare long-lasting events (> 4 hours of effort) to do the most basic aerobic work during the winter to then integrate qualitative work and reduce the work of aerobic basis. You should know that to be efficient in long-term events (> 4h) you need constant work on the aerobic base (≈80% of training time) throughout the year but also in parallel high intensity work (≈20%). You will understand, I am talking here about the Polarized or Pyramid training approach.

2. What science tells us

Stephen Seiler, a Norwegian sports scientist specializing in training periodization and polarized training, has done some very interesting work on the Seiler's Hierarchy.

This training tool can help the coach direct training towards the most beneficial and effective approach to improving the performance of an endurance athlete. 

This hierarchy of endurance training needs ranks the eight fundamental training practices in order of impact proven by scientific studies.

Let's take a little tour of this hierarchy : 

  1. The most important basis of training would be to achieve a high volume of training. For Seiler, the most beneficial approach to improving endurance performance is to do a lot of low-intensity training. So that would mean that the "base period" at low intensity is an important base. ? Yes and no because we must not neglect the HIT work which is the second base of the pyramid.
  2. High intensity work is the second base of the pyramid. Indeed, the combination of low and high intensity work can maximize specific metabolic adaptations to improve endurance performance.
  3. Managing the weekly training intensity distribution (EID) is considered important. Depending on the approach used, 60 to 80% of your training should be devoted to working at low intensity and 15 to 40% at medium to high intensity. 
  4. Training periodization consists of dividing a sports season into several training periods. The effects of this approach would likely be overestimated. There is not just one approach to use (traditional periodization) but several periodization approaches can be just as effective. The most important thing is to reduce the monotony of training for athletes and to prevent injuries as much as possible.
  5. Micro-periosation such as the use of a cycle of 3 weeks of training + 1 week of recovery:  ⚠️⚠️ Be careful, this will break a myth! Providing 1 week of recovery every 3 or 4 weeks has only a very modest effect on improving endurance performance. The main thing is to manage the day-to-day training load by monitoring the balance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to obtain a positive response to training (progression) and reduce the phases of negative responses ( fatigue, ANS imbalance…).
  6. Among the marginal gains we can cite the use of training strategies (training in hypoxia, nutritional manipulation or training in heat) which makes it possible to strengthen the body's adaptation to training stress and improve performance. endurance. 
  7. Regular training at a specific race pace improves the performance of the body in order to be as efficient as possible on the target.
  8. When training is done well, an athlete's fitness level does not change dramatically in the last 2 weeks before a goal. On the other hand, too high a training load before a major goal can have a negative impact on performance. Sharpening is therefore the art of slightly modifying training in terms of volume and intensity to place the athlete in the best physiological conditions that will allow him to improve his performance by 1 to 3% for a target. target.

3. Reverse periodization

The traditional approach to training periodization has been questioned in recent years in favor of reverse periodization. This approach, more suited to endurance athletes living in the Northern Hemisphere, is gaining more and more popularity, whether in professional cycling teams or among triathlon coaches.


  • What is reverse periodization (PI)?

The reverse periodization concentrates a large work at high intensity during the winter period then one gradually superimposes longer low intensity training sessions as well as specific tempo work on the arrival of sunny days and at the approach of competitions. 

The IP allows you to take a real step forward during the winter period but also to have a less monotonous and more pleasant training. We train less but more qualitatively which is perfect for the cooler and shorter days. 

The aerobic base before high intensity!

Many coaches will say to themselves that we cannot do HIT sessions without having the aerobic base. Precisely, the polarized / pyramid training allows to have this aerobic base (≈80% of the work at low intensity) just like the pyramid training (≈70% at low intensity). In addition, it is not necessary to use too high intensities during the sessions at the risk of injuring the athletes. The main determinant for achieving endurance performance is not the only VO2max but also the energy cost. Training too fast is therefore not necessary to progress, it mainly exposes the athlete to an increased risk of injury. Ultra-endurance races (> 4h) are not speed competitions, you must first be able to push back your fatigue tolerance threshold (subject of a future article).

IP is not simply reversing the periods but above all it is having a continuous alliance of the work of the different intensities (low, medium and high intensity) by arranging the sessions differently to go from quantity to quality. Concretely what does that mean? 

We can use different approaches during the IP, for my part I like to make the HIT sessions easy at the beginning by using an effort-recovery ratio of 1: 1 (duration of the effort = the duration of the counter effort) to accustom the body to this intensity. Then gradually we will keep the same intensity and reduce the length of the recovery period. 

For example : 

  • At the start of the winter period: 6 * 4 '@ 106-110% critical intensity (CI) / r 4' @ 55-75% CI 
  • At the start of the summer period: 6 * 4 '@ @ 106-110% CI / r 2' @ 55-75% CI

3. Feedback

I have been using this approach to training for several years with the athletes I support. I was able to observe a constant progression whether during the winter or summer period with especially the achievement of the objectives. It is also important to see athletes having fun in a training process that is not monotonous. 

4. To conclude

The approach to training using scientific evidence with validation in the field makes it possible to set up different and innovative training programs. The main objective is to allow the athlete to be constantly on a positive phase of progression throughout the season by offering non-monotonous training. 

Be careful, traditional periodization is not bad, it can be beneficial depending on the profile of the athletes and the discipline being prepared. As they say there is not only one truth in training, it would be too easy.

Reversible periodization may be potentially more adequate for endurance athletes (triathlon, cycling, running…) during the winter period, especially with shorter days and cold temperatures.

This article was written by Karoly Spy, trainer specializing in endurance sports.
  • Founder of KS-Training in 2007 to support athletes in their performance project
  • Founder of the GUTAÏ Training application (2016-2021)
  • Coach trainer
  • Technical Advisor for the Franche Comté Triathlon League (2005-2007) and for the Provence Alpes de Triathlon League (2007-2012)
  • Coach in athletics club (Vitrolles, OM Athlé, SCO) and in Triathlon club

Find his website: 

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