Athletes of all ability levels often hit a performance plateau. One reason for this is that we all tend to get into training and racing routines and become hesitant to change. We do the same workouts day after day and keep the same schedule all year. A very effective way to break through a performance plateau is to implement training cycles or phases, what coaches and exercise physiologists refer to as periodization, into your schedule.
It's taken me years to incorporate this approach into training. Many high-level athletes know about periodization, yet they go back to their same-old training routine. Athletes in Austin, especially triathletes and runners, seem to be some of the worst offenders. Don't worry; I'm not here to criticize but to hopefully open your eyes to a way of breaking through performance plateaus. I myself have fallen into that same trap, but the more I implement periodization into my training, the bigger gains I make.
The idea behind phasing is that training doesn't stay the same throughout the year. You don't train the same in the winter as you do in the summer. You change your approach depending on where you are in the calendar. At the end of a racing season, you scale back workout time, incorporate easy training, build a base or foundation, work on strength, and then start different types of tempo, threshold, or VO2 max speed work depending your important races.
I feel that athletes in Austin struggle with this concept because the climate is so friendly to training throughout the seasons; nature doesn’t force a change. Triathletes train hard all summer and race; in the late autumn, they switch gears to focus on the many winter running races in central Texas. Afterwards they switch back into triathlon mode and get ready for race season all over again.
Another aspect of Austin's exercise culture that makes proper phasing a challenge is that there are so many training opportunities. It's too easy to fall into a routine of long run and long ride with your group on the weekend; there are master’s swim practices every week. It’s the same tempo or bomb run, with hills on Tuesday, track on Thursday.
Speed work, tempo sets, endurance, muscular endurance, and strength are all critical to your performance, but many people make one of two mistakes: Trying to do all in every sport every week, or doing workouts that touch on these areas in a hodge-podge fashion. These are all great workouts—and you'll get very fit—but, at some point, you'll plateau.
How do you get past this trap? By building yourself up one step at a time. An organized approach to focused fitness areas at different times of the year can help catapult your racing to the next level.
This winter I started working with a great new coach, the longtime Danish national triathlon team coach, Michael Krüger. He's trained many Olympians, Ironman champions, long-distance triathlon world champions, and top Kona finishers. He's opened my eyes to phasing, and I'm just now seeing the results of this approach.
The first and toughest part is to give yourself down time in your sport's offseason, a period of time away from training followed by a period of very little exercise. I took a month; I did no exercise at all for the first two weeks. I then spent another couple of weeks with only 30–60 minutes of very easy exercise each day.
Many people may say they're taking time off, yet they still go on easy runs and swims. Time off is time off. Your body and mind need to heal from the stress and damage you've done in training over the year. It’s hard for many athletes to take down time, get out of shape, and gain a few pounds.
After my month of down time, I had some three weeks to ease back into training. This is where most people err; they jump back into their routine of group rides, runs, and swims. Fitness is back in a few weeks, and they keep their training the same for the rest of the year. I, however, have learned to accept that I'll be out of shape. I’ve also accepted that, during this time, people who normally don’t drop me in workouts will. I don't mind if people pass me on Lady Bird Lake Trail, or if I'm in a slower lane at swim practice. If you struggle with this, I say let go of your ego. The only day that I have an ego is race day. Remember: You have to get slower to get faster.
I've just now finished about six weeks of strength work. While I'm back to the same number of swim, bike, and runs, those workouts focused mostly on functional strength and were shorter. Over the last months, I've spent more time working in the gym, bounding up hills, pushing big gears, doing squat jumps, swimming with a band around my ankles, and performing other strength-specific sessions than I ever have. I haven't yet done any true speed, threshold, or much tempo work—that's to come later. When it does, I know I'll have the functional strength foundation on which to build sucess.
As you look at your training and racing, can you divorce yourself from the same routine and workouts you've done every year? Can you take a step back? Can you focus on different aspects of your fitness to build the fastest and fittest you?