Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 52

Everything you always wanted to know about training with power but were afraid to ask, and the second part in our periodization series. It’s microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles, today on Tri Talk.


Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. A surge in new listeners since episode 51 from Las Vegas, NV and London, England. In Las Vegas, I hope you race well at the upcoming Silverman full and half Ironman distance event on November 11. That is certainly one of the toughest Ironman-distance courses in the world. In London, perhaps just a few outdoor events left this year, but maybe you’ll be finishing your season at the upcoming DB Max Chilly Duathlon. Best of luck. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk episode 52.

Today on Tri Talk we continue the pattern of covering glaring topic omissions on Tri Talk. It took 50 episodes to interview Joe Friel, it took 51 episodes before I covered periodization, and now in episode 52 we finally tackle training with power. Sometimes when I come up with topics for the show, I truly forget to see the forest for the trees, and focus on the training details and not the fundamentals of training, which certainly includes training with periodzation and power. I’m fortunate to have Coach Peter Cummings, an expert on training with power, on the show today to help us understand this important training technique. In the second part of periodization coverage, we’ll also be covering transitioning and recovery as part of your strategy for your annual periodization training plan. Even if you think you already recovery, I hope to add some information that you can add to your decision around your training plans. Critical, critical stuff.

Now that we have introduction to episode 52, I have a very important correction to make. Back in episode 51, I incorrectly reported on Rutger Beke at the Ironman world championships. I did him a double disservice by first placing him in the German contingent of the pros at Ironman, and second, reporting that he dropped out. Beke is in fact one of the stellar triathletes from Belgium, and did not drop out of the race despite his poor condition going into the run, finishing with a solid 11-hour day. My astute Belgian listeners also pointed out to me that the relatively small country of Belgium had 2 athletes in the male top 10. My apologies to Rutger and to Belgium, this was simply sloppy and hasty reporting on my part.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! When I say periodization, what comes to your mind? Perhaps base periods, build periods, frequency and volume. Maybe after episode 51 the term “overcompensation” is now embedded in your periodization vocabulary. But how about recovery? When you sit down to plan your training plan year or week, do you spend as much time planning recovery as you plan your workouts? Actually, I bet many of you do. One of the signs of a veteran athlete is the athlete who does consciously factor in recovery into their training. So how important is recovery in your periodization plan? Last week I introduced you to the man considered the father of periodization, Dr. Tudor Bompa and his work which introduced periodization to the West, Theory and Methodology of Training. In that book, Dr. Bopma states this about recovery, “Recovery should be so well understood and actively enhanced that it becomes a determinant component in training”.

A determinant component in training. Not an after-thought, not a secondary consideration, but a primary component. You might also remember my interview with Joe Friel in episode 50, I asked him what training concept had not changed in all his years of endurance coaching. His responded by saying:

“You can’t go too easy. It’s always go to be extremely easy on the easy days… The easy day really is what makes for the hard days. And most athletes don’t give themselves enough rest or enough easy days. That’s the biggest challenge most self-coached athletes face.”

Have I beat you over the head with the importance of recovery? All right, let’s say that you are convinced. How do you then work recovery properly into your training plan. Let’s look at recovery from 3 levels. First, recovery as part of planning an individual workout. Second, recovery as part of what is referred to as a macro cycle. And third, recovery built in as part of your overall annual training plan. This is essentially a low-level, medium, and high-level view of recovery. It is this third high-level view of recovery as part of your big picture as you switch from year to year that I believe is the most neglected aspect of recovery, but we will start with the individual workout.

One of the keys of any successful self-coached athlete, is to look at each workout with a purpose. What is the purpose of this workout? Is it just to maintain fitness, perhaps such as during a taper? Is it to focus on skills or technique and not on fitness at all that day? Is it to specifically increase anaerobic fitness or just base endurance? Or, is it for active recovery. Let’s suppose that you were about to schedule an anaerobic threshold bike workout for a Saturday morning, but noted that you will be finishing a strength training set the evening before. You have about 16 hours of recovery from the time you end the weight session until you perform the anaerobic workout. Are you going to be able to recover fast enough to fulfill the purpose of that anaerobic workout? Can you really perform that level of intensity coming off of a strength training session the night before? Not according to researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They found that in healthy male athletes who regularly engaged in strength training needed 36 hours after a strength session to fully recover for the next session.

In this example, if the purpose of your cycling workout is to increase fitness by pushing your body to new stresses while cycling, it would be very difficult to accomplish this on weak legs coming off a strength session. If your legs can’t keep up, your cardio-vascular system won’t be pushed to new limits.


This is not to suggest that you put 36 hours in-between each workout. Intense strength training is certainly can be very stressful to the muscles and demands significant recovery time. But even in fit athletes, for moderately intense workouts, 24-48 hours is often just enough to recover sufficiently to do the next quality workout.

The takeaway point is that breakthrough workouts, or workouts that are designed to significantly stress the body and then result in increased fitness, those workouts need to be schedule around sufficient recovery. Does this mean you have to completely rest for two days after a 40K time trial? Not at all. Active recovery like swimming and spinning need to be viewed not as unimportant lazy days, but as critical components to recover for the next workout in order to put the body into a position to stress it again to stimulate the overcompensation process.

This is one of the reasons I am skeptical of the long week-end brick, which is particularly common for Ironman training. Putting a 4+ hour ride the day before a 2+ hour run does not meet the spirit of recovery. Again, let’s go back to purpose, and looking at the purpose of a workout. If your purpose is to prepare and condition the body to run after cycling 100 miles, then I believe that you would be better off to add a 1 hour run immediately after your ride in order to fulfill that purpose. If your purpose of a 2 hours run is a quality run that increased your endurance base and possibly even a bit of intensity, performing that the day after a century ride does not support that workout purpose. Placing your 2-hour run several days after the long ride allows for a quality long run, while adding 30 minutes to an hour immediately after your long ride meets the needs of preparing the body to run long after a long bike.

I should point out, however, that there is also evidence that 2 days of intense workouts or high volume can be interpreted as one long workout day by your body. Doing back-2-back breakthrough workouts followed by an even bigger increase in recovery of 2 or more days, can also yield good results, but the risks are high. I think that experienced athletes can manage this kind of load within a 30-hour period. I am also concerned when athletes use any kind of active recovery run. Running is a load bearing exercise. While swimming and cycling make for excellent active recovery, and can be done with very little increased breakdown in the muscle tissue, it is very difficult to perform any kind of run that will help speed recovery. Run workouts should be reserved to maintain or build fitness, not to recover.

So, in summary, as you schedule any individual workout, ask yourself if you have allowed for sufficient recovery to achieve the purpose of that workout. Again, as Dr. Bopma said, recovery should be a determinant factor in your training plan.

By the way, we have discussed the importance of recovery in terms of improving the quality and purpose of each workout. We haven’t even touched on the subject of the risk of increased injury when performing intense workout without sufficient recoveries.

The next aspect of recovery is at a slightly broader picture and is not nearly as complex. Built into periodization theory is the concept of cycles including microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles. You might be more familiar with the terms “training week,” “training phase,” and “annual training plan”. We just discussed the microcycle and how to plan a day or week. The mesocycle is how to group all of these microcycles together. You are probably aware of the terms that we put on these mesocycles such as prep phase, base phase, build phase or race phase. How do you plan recovery into your mesocycle? This is the easy part of planning your training. It is simply placing an easy microcycle, or easy week, into your mesocycle. Or, in English, an easy week out of every 3-5 weeks where volume and intensity are reduced. This concept is so widely recognized and implemented into athletes plans that it is hardly worth discussing, except for the fact that it demonstrates that recovery is more than just a one or two-day event. It is something to be considered on a broader timeline, which sets me up for the next piece of recovery, planning it into your macrocycle, or annual training plan.

Too many athletes simply go from one training year to the next without a break in-between. True periodization calls for a significant break in training at the end of one macrocycle to the next, anywhere from 4-8 weeks. Many athletes are scared to death to drastically reduce their training at the end of the year for fear they will lose fitness. And they are right. They will lose fitness. Reducing training for 1-2 months will result in a loss in fitness. But the trade off is improved fitness the following year.

Note that I am not saying taking 1-2 months off. I am saying drastically reducing your training for 1-2 months. Although I would recommend taking off at least a week completely, maybe more, the remainder of what is known as that transition phase can be filled with activity.

To help you feel better about reducing volume at the end of the training year, let’s cover some facts about what you can safely reduce in the transition phase without significant loss of fitness.

Under certain conditions, training volume has been shown to be reduced by 70-80% for 4 weeks in an off-season without significant loss in fitness. You can cut your volume from 10 hours to 2 hours a week, for example. However, this has only shown to be effective if frequency and intensity remain. Frequency can only be reduced by 20-30%. Even though your total training hours might go down to just a few hours a week, your frequency needs to stay relatively high, perhaps from 6 days of training a week to 4 days per week in order to minimize fitness loss. In fact, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that cyclists who reduced training to just 3 days a week for 3 weeks reduced their VO2max from 59.7 to 58.8, a drop of just ½%. However, intensity can only be cut by 10-20% as a fraction of your total volume to mitigate fitness loses. There has to be some intensity maintained even in that transition phase in order to mitigate those fitness losses. Most experts also agree that in order to only drop intensity by 10-20%, volume can’t drop a full 80% in order to fit in enough time for intensity, and that 60% is a better drop in volume in order to have time to fit in some intensity.

My plea to you as an athlete, is to consider taking at least 4-6 weeks of drastically reduced volume this off-season. I know that for many of you, taking November and December off each year does not require much prodding. In fact, many look forward to that break. My message is aimed at the athlete who is terrified of ever pulling back in training. You have multiple athletes, coaches and researchers to back up your decision to take it easy. After a year of disciplined training, frankly you deserve the break.

Moving on. There comes a time as I prepare each Tri Talk episode when I have to decide if the topic is something I either understand already and want to share, or something I don’t know and want to research and then put it on the show when I feel I fully understand it. Training with power certainly falls in the latter category. It seemed that each time I was about to put it on the show, I felt unsettled and somewhat dishonest in presenting it, not sure that I could sincerely say I understood all the options and concepts. That is, until, I spoke to Peter Cummings, and expert in cycling training. Let’s take some time and remove the last fears and reservations you have about training with power. This interview runs a little long at just over 20 minutes, but I hope it will help you understand power and what options you have.

(audio interview)

That’s all for Episode 52. I’ll be back in 2 weeks where we’ll cover the last in our series of periodization, and I’m off to cover the 70.3 championships. I couldn’t sneak my way in with media credentials to Hawaii, but I managed to get them for Clearwater and I’ll be bringing you some on-the-scene from the 70.3 championships! See you in a couple of weeks!