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Finding the Best Approach for Multisport Training

By Sergio Borges

Since I started to coach athletes over 18 years ago, I have always contested the traditional method of training available at the time. The traditional periodization implication that an athlete can ideally only peak for an event 1-2 times per year made no sense to me, based on what I had experienced and started teaching others. As an athlete myself, I wanted to do well in most races of the season; not only in one or two.

trainingIn addition, I noticed the strong lack of development of proper motor skills, technique and strength during the "base phase" that so many training partners religiously applied to their training. In fact, most of them started the "base phase" faster than when they finished, and faster than their season races! Obviously it made no sense adding volume in training when the basic foundation of skills was not yet developed! 

Today I see many athletes with poor motor pattern development increasing their chances of injury and poorer performance due to the unsuitable volume they do during the base phase of the traditional "periodization" training approach. I guess for many, the fear of "not conquering the distance" is responsible for most of the over-distance training done out there — and many of the mistakes.

Not satisfied with the information I was getting from coaches and books to explain the reasoning behind using a traditional periodization theory for multisport training, I began to develop an alternative way of training that culminated in an article about inverted training periodization, which focuses on developing technique, strength and speed first, and endurance closer to your event(s).

A few of years ago I stumbled across a different training method that actually closed the gaps I had in my philosophy. This method corroborated what I had seen in my own training and in the training of my athletes, and focused on other important variables including:

  • Balancing hormone levels (Effects) in training
  • Developing motor skills
  • Cyclic training (instead of periodization) that allows athletes to achieve multiple peaks during the season
  • Qualitative instead of quantitative training
  • Balance Energy Systems

An increasing number of coaches and sports scientists are contesting the traditional periodization of training. The basis of training periodization was founded several decades ago when scientific knowledge was far from complete. Athletes' workloads, results, and demands were much lower than they are currently. At that time, traditional training periodization as a division of the whole seasonal program into smaller periods and training units was proposed — and generally accepted without much challenge. Recently further progress in sport science has reinforced the extreme contradictions between traditional periodization and the successful experiences of prominent coaches and athletes.

In triathlon especially, it has become clear that athletes guided solely by heart rate monitors and power meters, or those who follow a pre-determined training cycle using the principles of traditional periodization (one with a "base phase" complemented by the unchallenged, generic approach of training for 2-3 weeks followed by a recovery week) rarely reach their full potential. These athletes are often prone to injury, poor focus and a lack of self-awareness. Most athletes today are guided only by "numbers" and often lose their ability to interpret their bodies' responses to training.

Plus, it is becoming increasingly clear that triathlon is littered with the wreckage of athletes who have destroyed their body's immune function, endocrine balance and biomechanical health often permanently or for very long durations due to highly catabolic approaches to training. This means too much volume, too long "intense" sessions, little explosive speed or strength built into their training, and a general lack of emphasis on basic motor skill development.

As a result, the strong focus on aerobic "gains" without the corresponding balance of more anabolic training sessions leads to increasing breakdown. This is generally evident in increasingly poor performances, greater fatigue, lower sex drive, more injuries, inability to concentrate, "puffiness" and weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations and insulin resistance and a litany of other symptoms.

The negative consequences of traditional periodized training have begun to be outlined in sports science literature as a pattern of drawbacks and outright contradictions between traditional theory and desired outcomes, including: 

1) Inability to provide multi peak performances during the season (one-shot Charlie)

2) Drawbacks of long-lasting mixed training programs (an emphasis on "zone training" and aerobic capacity makes you slower)

3) Negative interactions between non-compatible workloads that induced conflicting training responses (too many catabolic effects and not enough anabolic ones) 

4) Insufficient training stimuli to help highly-qualified athletes progress, as a result of mixed training (too tired to train properly)

A proper training method should focus in a way that sequences specialized training cycles, where highly concentrated training workloads are focused on a limited number of motor and technical abilities. I advise to divide the training focus into five recognizable Systems (Strength, Neuromuscular, Speed, Lactate Threshold and Endurance) that should be focus on in each training plan.

However, unlike traditional periodization, which usually tries to develop many abilities simultaneously, you should apply training stimulation of carefully selected fitness components for a set block of time, an approach sometimes referred to as "Block Periodization."

This method emphasizes several of the systems in one training phase using sessions and structure designed to enable high consistency and rapid recovery — with a great deal of emphasis on repetition. We then shift emphasis to one or more other phases, based on the needs of the athlete, the race calendar and the previous and upcoming areas of focus. 

As our sport evolves, triathlon coaches and athletes need to acknowledge the increasing evidence of flaws in the general approach to training commonly used today. Consider the alternative to training that might better suit your needs as an athlete.

"Thinking outside of the box" should be the general rule for any athlete or coach looking to improve his or her abilities. If you feel that you have reached a plateau in your training, if you're constantly tired and have yet to reach your goals, maybe it's time for a change in your training method.

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