Periodization For Triathletes

“Periodization” is a term used by tri-athletes which means splitting a triathlon training year into several periods, and in each period a specific performance or fitness goal has to be achieved.  The majority of triathlon programs published in books, magazines and in several websites are already using a form or two of periodization, but there are two very important components of the periodization model that do not get enough attention.  These are the nutrition periodization, and the weight training periodization.

Due to the fact that this article is being published off season, now is the right time to briefly halt in-depth discussions on swimming, running, and cycling. Instead, pay more attention on the following aspects: understanding the process of properly structured weight training, which will help enhance muscle development while preventing injury; and, appropriate diet in order to achieve weight loss, better overall health, and increased energy.

There may be several versions of the concept, but a triathlon season is divided into four periods, which include the following: off-season, base training, build training, and race peak/taper. You are prone to experiencing burn out and poor quality weight training benefits if you use the same weight training program all year long. If you make adjustments in your training program for swimming, cycling, and running routine, the same should be done with your weight training routine as the year goes by. You will enable your weight training muscles to perform perfectly on race day if you are able to appropriately reduce sets, increase power, and add explosiveness to your weight training routine.

The same principle can be applied to nutrition. The simplicity of fuelling your body for a triathlon is not comparable to fuelling a vehicle. In the case of fuelling a vehicle all you have to do is to pump fuel into the gas tank whenever you need to refuel, but in the case of your body it is not as simple as that. Since the body has more than one engine to fuel, you will have to make use of more than one type of fuel such as carbs, fat and protein. The secret to nutrition periodization is matching the amount and timing of these fuel types in relation to the amount and intensity of your training during that particular time of year.

Off-Season Period

Weight Training Periodization:

This is the perfect time to get develop muscles mass, tone your muscles in specific areas, and build more strength. Conventionally, during the off-season the tri-athlete engages in different cross-training activities excluding swimming, cycling, and running because during this season there are few, if any, triathlon events. Weight training workouts during off-season must be conducted in sets, and the repetitions should be geared to achieving muscular growth and strength, preventing injuries, and building foundation. Swimming, cycling, and running should be de-prioritized during the off season, and should not be as important during weight training, in order to prevent unnecessary muscle fatigue or soreness. However these effects are needed in order to achieve an increase in muscle mass or strength. The following should be included in off-season weight training: 3-6 sets with 10-15 reps and a goal of 2-3 weight training sessions a week.

Nutrition Periodization:

It is during winter that off-season takes place for majority of the athletes. It is during this time when fatty and high caloric foods are most abundant together with the reduction of overall training volume and intensity. Gaining body fat for insulation is nothing new for winter athletes. However, athletes who maintain their ideal body weight throughout the year are more prone to injury, and reduced energy levels when they get started on their training later in the year. Thus, during off-season a little increase in fat and calorie intake from healthy fat sources, a moderate increase in protein intake, and reduction in carbohydrate intake is acceptable. The ratio for carbohydrate, protein, fat should be around 30-40% carbs, 30-40% protein, and 30-40% fat during off-season.



Winter is usually the off-season. Relax and spend time with loved ones, but remember to undertake an off-season exercise program.


Base Period

Weight Training Periodization:

To develop strength and muscular coordination, focus on triathlon specific training, and reduced soreness should all be part in a tri-athlete’s objectives for weight training during the base season. Typically, high amounts of swimming, cycling, and running are incorporated during base training (there are times when modifications are carried out), which then results in a decrease in the volume of weight training workouts. It is recommended not to introduce plyometrics, an explosive kind of weight training, because this type of weight training increases the risk of injury. A heavier weight than what was used during off-season should be used; it should consist of 3-4 sets with 8-10 reps, and with an aim of completing 1-2 weight-training sessions every week.

Nutrition Periodization:

This is the typical time of the year when you should start laying the foundations for your aerobic conditioning (once again, modifications can be made to this model accordingly). Workouts tend to be long with low intensity, which means that you are using a small amount of fat for fuel together with moderate amounts of carbohydrates. Low-intensity engine burns more fat for fuel while you perform a low intensity exercise and on the other hand, your high-intensity engine burns more carbs as you workout harder. There is a reduction in muscle damage and repair during base training because there is no significant amount of speed and force workout taking place thus reducing the demand for protein. In comparison to the off season nutritional requirements, the amount of fat should be reduced since there is an increasing demand for carbohydrates. Therefore, the ratio of carbohydrate/protein/fat during base training should be as follows: 50% carbs, 20-30% protein, and 20-30% fat.


A good weight training program will bring huge benefits when it comes to the triathlon season.


Build Period

Weight Training Periodization:

During the build period of the triathlon-training season, the training intensity and volume in swimming, cycling, and running increases. It may seem reasonable to increase the intensity and volume of weight training simultaneously, but this also increases the risk for overtraining. Rather, similar to base training, the frequency of weigh training should be kept at 1-2 sessions weekly, while enabling one to only lift once weekly. There should be 2-3 sets with 6-8 repetitions per workout paired with a heavier weight than what was used in base training. The addition of plyometric to the program is also deemed ideal at this point and this component can be done together with the program, or separately.

Nutrition Periodization:

At this point your now training longer, harder and more frequently while you are also spending alot of time at the lactate threshold, which is the point where your body is at the peak of utilizing carbohydrates. All this can then lead to the decrease in fat requirements, an increase in muscle recovery and protein needs, and an increase in the total caloric and carbohydrate needs as well. During this period in the triathlon season, the following percentage ratio for carbohydrate/protein/fat should be followed: 55-65% carbs, 20-25% protein, and 15-20% fat.


Plyometrics - these exercises are an excellent form of preparation, and can be exhausting when done correctly!


Peak and Taper Period

Weight Training Periodization:

Although it is possible to build and maintain strength while increasing recruitment of muscle motor units during the off-season and build and base weigh training periods, the maintenance of neuromuscular coordination and peak power prior to a race can only take place during the peak and taper period. At this point, if weight training sessions are carried out appropriately, the occurrence of soreness or muscle failure should be limited while there should be a high amount of muscle fiber stimulation. This is the point where all exercises should be done explosively using weights that are lighter than the ones used in previous periods. Workout programs should include 1-3 sets with 4-6 repetitions along with a constant plyometric component and a frequency of 1-2 sessions weekly.

Nutrition Periodization:

There is still a need for higher carbohydrate intake, which is the same requirement during build training while a loading amount of carbohydrate during the final days before the race will help bring the tri-athlete closer to the maximum amount of carbohydrate intake. A traditional carbohydrate loading model will include the following: a higher fat and protein intake several days before the race, a gradual increase in the carbohydrate intake as the race date nears, thus a fluctuation in the percentage ratio can be noted during the triathlon season. In other words, the percentage ratio for carbohydrate/protein/fat 7-14 days before the race should be 30-40% carbs, 30-40% protein, and 30-40% fat, with a gradual increase to 75-80% carbohydrate, a reduction to 10-15% protein, and 10-15% fat 1-6 days before the race.

In summary, the following should be included in the weight training periodization for a tri-athlete: building strength and injury prevention foundation, shifting focus to strength and power, and then finish with explosiveness and maintenance of maximum muscle recruitment. In the nutrition periodization, the following should be done: an increase in carbohydrate intake with the increase of energy needs, an increase in protein intake as muscle damage increases, and reducing fat and protein intake when the race is nearing.

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