• Mark Turnbull

Reverse periodisation: turn training on its head

If the idea of long, slow, and torturous base miles in the cold doesn’t appeal to you, there may be another way. Reverse periodisation turns traditional base training on its head by swapping out the volume for intensity. With countless online platforms offering customised approaches to training, the smart trainer may well be the platform of choice when it comes to mixing it up.


Training methods come and go. But when Tour de France winners like Chris Froome are winning their first races in February before triumphing on the Champs-Élysées come July, everyone wants in on the secret.

The traditional approach for those seeking to hit top form for their A-race is a tried and tested solution. It consists of high volumes of low-intensity training that slowly builds an aerobic base before sharpening form with some intensity in the lead up to competition. Reverse periodisation, as its name suggests, inverts this approach and brings in the intensity early on over the long and steady miles.


Rather than the long endurance workouts of traditional periodisation, reverse periodisation involves shorter, more intense, above-threshold workouts during the traditional base phase. As the target race approaches, athletes will then begin to incorporate increased volume that reflects the demands of their event.

It all sounds very counter-intuitive, but there’s a method to the seeming madness. A reverse periodisation approach means that athletes don’t have to put in the long slow rides when daylight is limited and weather conditions are poor. And whether you’re on a smart trainer or the open road, it’s these long slow rides that riders often have difficulty committing to in the off-season.

Those training on a smart trainer have a myriad of training plans from which to choose. The lure of Zwift racing and the structured training plans with high-intensity intervals from the Tacx App, mean that indoor high-intensity work can be fun and motivating while also forming part of a standardised training program.

From a lifestyle perspective, it makes perfect sense for many. But does it lead to superior results and fitness gains?


Limited science exists on the benefits of different periodisation models. But one study, published by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2016, placed 69 subjects into three training groups, where each used a different 12-week periodisation program.

Group one began with low-intensity intervals for one month, then increased intensity for the second, before completing the final month with the highest-intensity intervals.

Group two did the opposite to group one, i.e. reverse periodisation.

Group three trained at all three intensities right the way through

Researchers found that performance increased most with increasing intensity, but only slightly. They concluded that the results weren’t significant and that the interval order had little effect on adaptation.

Results suggest that, in addition to a lifestyle choice, one of the defining factors in opting for a reverse-periodised plan is the nature of the event you’re training for. But what type of event lends itself most to reverse periodisation?


Reverse periodisation is ideally suited to disciplines like ultra-endurance riding where events last for several hours. In such events, athletes spend considerable time below threshold, but between race-winning moves and hilly terrain, they often exceed threshold and enter the anaerobic zones.

For a reverse periodisation plan to work in such instances, the high-intensity work can’t be negated entirely as the event approaches. After all, the gains from high-intensity training come quickly, and you’ll lose them just as fast once you swap volume for intensity.

The secret of reverse periodisation is to allow the body to adapt to increasing volume at a similar intensity as the event approaches. But athletes should always modulate both volume and intensity so as not to exceed the ability of their body to adapt.


A reverse periodisation training plan looks something like an inverted pyramid, and the general progression is as follows:

Start with lower volume training but maintain a focus on the quality of the training.

Zone 7 training with a strong focus on neuromuscular gains and muscular endurance.

VO2 max work. Include some high-intensity workouts to raise the VO2 max ceiling.

Begin to increase volume as the target event approaches, but maintain higher intensity workouts in zones 6 and 7. Peak just before the race with higher intensity and less volume. Enter a transition period and tailor training depending on goals.


If you feel like you’re stuck on a plateau with stagnant performances, then reverse periodisation may be for you. While it works well for those with little time in the winter months, it’s also an ideal way to gain maximum benefit from your smart trainer. With the many exciting technological advancements that allow cyclists to compete in short and challenging virtual races all year round, the high-intensity work in the off-season is now only a mouse click away!

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