What if intensity and not volume is really the key for unlocking your endurance potential?

What if intensity and not volume is really the key for unlocking your endurance potential?

The conventional approach for endurance athletes seeking new personal bests is to build an aerobic base using large volumes of low intensity training, then to sharpen up to build speed and competition fitness. It doesn’t have to be this way because there’s an alternative known as reverse periodization.

What is endurance? Endurance is simply the ability to resist fatigue, and fatigue in its simplest terms is the inability to sustain a given power output or speed. When the demand for energy from the working muscles is greater than the supply, you will either have to stop, or reduce the workload (ie slow down). The body has four ways to generate energy for the muscles so they can perform exercise.

However, you never use exclusively one of the four systems. All exercise uses a combination, but the contribution from each system varies according to the intensity level of the exercise and the body’s fuel supply.

reverse period figure 1

Tradition dictates that to be successful in endurance-based sports you need to complete high volumes of training. The traditional approach is to move from high volume/low-intensity work to low volume/high-intensity work. Basic periodisation also moves from general to more specific work as the competition approaches. This is a popular method and is heavily featured in the classic book by Tudor Bompa (Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training).

reverse period fig 2

Changing paradigms – Reverse Paradigm

‘The “reverse” approach is based on maintaining intensity closer to that which the competition demands (recognising that initially, the athlete’s capacity to perform this intensity will be low) then to increase the volume progressively, without sacrificing the intensity. In summary, the goal is for the athlete to learn how to cycle fast over a distance that they are capable of cycling  fast over, then to increase that distance. The difference in approaches of these two models is essentially this: the traditional model commences with capacity (volume) and shifts towards power (intensity). The alternative model, as the name suggests, reverses this approach, commencing with power then shifting toward capacity.’

Key to this approach is the rationale concept that speed endurance must be developed at the appropriate pace.

reverse period fig 3

Athletes using this method bypass the ‘aerobic base’ work of the traditional model (see figure 1)and start by training specific endurance and speed/power training before moving on to threshold work and then tapering (see figure 2).

At no point are they moving slowly for long durations.

The demands placed upon the musculoskeletal system at slow speeds are totally different to the demands placed upon it when working at higher intensities. It’s a lot therefore to expect an athlete to spend months plodding around building an aerobic base, and then to suddenly crank up the speed and start working at higher intensities as the competition season approaches. This is because you are essentially asking the musculoskeletal system to re-programme itself to cope with the increase in training intensity, yet the development of endurance goes hand-in-hand with the functional specialisation of the skeletal muscles.

The reverse periodisation theory says that if you want to compete at a certain intensity, why not start at that intensity and then build the volume; not only will you get central adaptations that will go a long way to developing a great heart and lungs, you will also develop the inter- and intra-muscular coordination required to compete at the appropriate intensity.

‘ It’s a lot to expect an athlete to spend months plodding around building an aerobic base, and then to suddenly crank up the speed and start working at higher intensities as the competition season approaches’

Experienced endurance athletes with a good existing aerobic base may gain performance advantages with a reverse periodisation approach, particularly where speed is also required.

Reverse periodisation is less suitable for novice or very de-conditioned athletes and should therefore be used with caution.