Coach Tip Tuesday: What Are Training Phases?

Posted On:
Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Updated On:
Thursday, October 5, 2023
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A bunch of multicolored blocks stacked on top of each other.

You have a goal that is important to you.  You have a race where you want to try to achieve that goal.  But how do you get from where you are to where you want to be?  The process of planning out the training (from the overall arc of your training plan to the actual workouts themselves) to achieve that goal can be overwhelming.  This is because there are so many considerations when planning out endurance sports training that it’s often hard to know where to begin.  

Looking at the overall scope of a training plan or timeframe leading up to a race or a goal, it’s best to systematically break down that longer time period.  This larger time period (a season or a year) is known as a macrocycle.  A macrocycle can be broken down into mesocycles (months or 4-6 week periods of time), which are further broken down into microcycles (which are usually a week in length).  Mesocycles are also known as Training Phases (or Training Blocks).  In my work with athletes, I use the following types of Training Phases:

Assuming that we’re working with a 7-day (weeklong) microcycle, periods of 2-3 “up” weeks of “work” are followed by a “down” week of recovery (where training volume and intensity are slightly lower than they are during “up” weeks) are contained within these Training Phases to help facilitate adaptation and progress over the course of each mesocycle, which in turn helps facilitate adaptation and progress over a macrocycle.


Base Phase

Base Phase is effectively the foundation of your training.  This is the phase that sets up your ability to complete more specific training down the line.  Aerobic system development (building your endurance so you can exercise for longer periods of time) is one of the main objectives during this phase.  For newer athletes (or athletes coming off of an injury or a period of inactivity), establishing a habit of consistency is also a main objective.  Without Consistent Consistency in this phase, it is unsafe to progress fully into subsequent phases.

This phase of training can last a long time, but most commonly, it lasts anywhere from 12-20 weeks.  In addition to building endurance and establishing consistency, this is a time to start to lay down foundational keystone habits such as:


Build Phase

During Build Phase, key training sessions start to include specific race day actions, and how training is planned is specific to the type of A-Race being targeted.  Furthermore, training is planned based on the limiters that a given athlete has; an athlete’s limiters generates some of the specificity that is needed on race day for a given athlete.  This being said, we do not neglect strengths of the athlete during this time; we actually work to leverage those so they stay maintained to help offset any limiters.

If there isn’t a race on the calendar, this is a phase when athletes can work on specific skills and objectives that are good all-around skills.  Volume can increase during this time, but it can also be maintained/stay the same.  Often, the main objectives of this phase are to build additional tissue resilience, muscular strength, and mental strength.  Like Base Phase, Build Phase can be long, but most often lasts anywhere from 8-14 weeks.


Competition Phase

Competition Phase is a training phase that is implemented in the lead-in to an A-Race.  I don’t plan for Competition Phase all the time; I most commonly use it for athletes who are targeting long-course races such as a marathon, IRONMAN 70.3, or IRONMAN.  Competition Phase has an even greater emphasis on race-specific intensity than Build Phase.  It also has a greater emphasis on race day tactics such as pacing and nutrition (for triathletes, on-bike nutrition and Transitions are emphasized during Competition Phase as well).  Volume is generally a bit higher than it was in Build Phase, and intensity is also generally a bit higher as well.

This phase is on the shorter side, lasting anywhere from 2-4 weeks.  Along with Peak Phase, Competition Phase is a critically important phase; mistakes here or missing training here will (not might, will) have a direct impact on how race day goes.


Peak Phase

Peak Phase is seen by many to be the “final” phase of training in a training plan, as this phase “caps off” all of the work that was done in the phases that came before it.  Nothing new should be being tried now; this is effectively the final dress rehearsal for race day.  Speaking very frankly, if you’re trying new things now, you didn’t try them early or long enough.  Peak Phase is critical; mistakes made during this phase or missed training will (not might, will) have a direct impact on how race day goes.

This phase is the phase with the highest volume, and it is also generally the highest intensity as well.  Most age-group athletes cannot tolerate more than 14 days in Peak Phase, though it can actually be shorter (7-10 days).  Due to the high volume and intensity, it is also a very grumpy phase for many athletes.  They are tired from all of the training that came before Peak Phase as well as from the work they are doing in Peak Phase.


Taper Phase

Taper Phase, glorious Taper Phase.  Athletes are often excited when Taper Phase begins because overall training volume is reduced compared to the Training Phases that came before it.  Over the course of this phase, intensity is also reduced, but overall frequency stays the same.

The main purpose of Taper Phase is to help athletes feel fresh and prepared exactly on race day.  Because it takes ten days for the mitochondria in our DNA to adapt to training stimulus, 10 days out from race day is the last possible day a workout can cause adaptations and/or fitness grains that will be in play for race day.  This is very important to accept and embrace as true: Nothing you do starting 10 days out from race day will make you more prepared fitness-wise for your race.  However, doing too much (in either the form of volume or intensity) within this window absolutely can negatively impact your race.

How long Taper Phase lasts depends on a variety of factors (such as the distance of the event, the priority of the event, and the athlete’s fitness level), but it will always be at least 10 days long, and may be up to 21 days long.


Maintenance Phase

Maintenance Phase is the last phase in a season.  It is used as a break from the other training cycles and as a way to resensitize the body to the volume and intensity that is required to make gains during the main season.  Maintenance Phase lasts at least six weeks, but often ends up being 8-10 weeks long.

Regressions in fitness and changes in body composition are expected during this time; it is impossible to maintain peak fitness and body composition all the time.  This is distressing to many athletes, who want to “keep” the gains they made over the course of their season.  However much you may want this to be different, it’s not.  Stress + Rest  = Growth.  In the scope of a macrocycle/season, Maintenance Phase represents the “Rest” variable of this growth equation.  When properly managed, the regressions that are made in Maintenance Phase do not reset the athlete back to where they started; over the course of several consecutive years/macrocycles, the athlete’s baseline fitness does trend upward.

Activities do not need to be (and should not be) as specific as they are in the other training cycles.  One of the most important tenets of this season is to keep moving (just at a lower volume, intensity, and with less specificity than during the main season).

It can be tempting to consider taking a complete break from training, but doing this can cause too much regression.  More than anything, Maintenance Phase is about maintaining consistency of movement.  If you were not consistent in the main season, Maintenance Phase may need to be utilized to establish Consistent Consistency before Base Phase begins.  Base Phase follows Maintenance Phase, and this cycle of Training Phases begins again as you head into your next macrocycle, goals, and season of races.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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