Click here to grab our newsletter jam-packed with free triathlon training tips and tricks!

Weight Training & Nutrition Periodization For Triathletes

by Ben Greenfield, coach at Rock Star Triathlete Academy

By now, most folks have heard of the term “periodization”, which is the scientific term for splitting a triathlon training year into periods and focusing on a specific performance or fitness goal for each specific period. Most triathlon programs that you find in books, magazines and the internet already use some form of periodization, but there are two sorely neglected components of a periodized model that do not receive adequate attention in triathlon programs: nutrition periodization and weight training periodization.

Since this article is being released in what for most folks is the off-season, now is a perfect time to briefly put a discussion of swimming, cycling and running on the back-burner, and instead focus on understanding how to properly structure weight training (for enhancing muscle recruitment, power and injury prevention) and nutrition (for enhancing weight loss, health and adequate energy).

Although there are a multitude of variations on the concept, a triathlon season is generally split into four periods: off-season, base training, build training and race peak/taper. If you use the same weight training volume and intensity, the same weight and the same number of repetitions all year long, you’ll experience burnout and subpar weight training benefits. So just as you should make slight alterations or major changes to your swimming, cycling, and running routine, you should also modify (or “periodize”) your weight training routine as the time of year changes. If you properly decrease sets, increase power, and incorporate more explosiveness as your high priority races draw near, you can allow your weight trained muscles to achieve peak performance on race day.

The same concept holds true for nutrition. Fueling your body for triathlon is not as simple as fueling a car. With a car, you simply put fuel in the gas tank when you’re running low or when you’re preparing for a long trip. But your body is different, since is has several different physiological systems, or “engines”, that you’re fueling, and also three different types of fuel: fat, protein, and carbs. The key to nutrition periodization is to match the amount and timing of these three fuel types with the volume and intensity of your training and the seasonal time of year.

If this sounds complicated, then keep reading, because you can use the rules below to help guide you in properly periodizing both weight training and nutrition.

Off-Season Period:

Weight Training Periodization: If your goal is to develop muscle mass, tone muscle in a specific body area or part, or build significantly greater strength, this is the time to do it. Traditionally, the off-season is a time of year when there are few or no triathlons, and a triathlete is often engaged in other cross-training activities that go beyond swimming, cycling or running. Off-season weight training workouts should be performed in a set and repetition range designed for strength and muscular growth (hypertrophy), two crucial keys to injury prevention and foundation building. Because swimming, cycling and running are de-emphasized in the off-season, it is not as important during weight training to reduce overly fatiguing a muscle or producing soreness – instead, these effects are often necessary to achieve significant growth in muscle mass or strength. In the off-season, most weight training should include 3-6 sets of 10-15 reps, with the goal of completing 2-3 weight training sessions each week.

Nutrition Periodization: For most athletes, the off-season takes place during the winter. Not only does total training volume and intensity typically decrease during this time, but there is also increased prevalence of fatty foods, feasts and caloric excess. For cold weather athletes, there is also a completely natural propensity to gain body fat for insulation. Finally, most athletes who stay lean year-round have increased injury propensity and lower energy levels as they move forward into more focused training later in the season. Therefore, it is acceptable for the off-season nutrition period to allow slightly higher fat and total calorie intake (preferably from healthy, plant-based or non-processed fat sources), moderate protein intake, and relatively low carbohydrate intake. During the off-season period, carbohydrate/protein/fat percentage ratio should be approximately 30-40% carbs, 30-40% protein, and 30-40% fat.

Base Period:

Weight Training Periodizaton: A triathlete’s weight training goal during the base season should be to develop strength and muscular coordination, while considering the added focus that will be placed on triathlon specific training, and the need for decreased soreness. Most triathlon training programs incorporate high amounts of swimming, cycling and running volume during base training (there are some exceptions to this rule, in which case, you may need to intelligently re-arrange the order of periods in this article), so the number of weight training workouts should decrease. Plyometrics, an explosive form of weight training, should not yet be introduced, as this method of training does increase risk of injury. Most workouts should include 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, with a heaver weight than used in the off-season, and the goal of completing 1-2 weight training sessions each week.

Nutrition Periodization: This is traditionally the time of the season when you should be laying down the groundwork of aerobic conditioning (again, there are exceptions to this model, and the information in this article can be modified accordingly). Workouts are typically long and intensity fairly low, meaning that you’re using quite a bit of fat for fuel, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates. The lower the intensity of your exercise, the more fat is used as a fuel for your “low-intensity engine”, and the harder you work, the more you turn to carbs as a fuel for your “high-intensity engine”. Aside from weight training, not a significant amount of speed and force work is taking place during base training, so since there is decreased muscle damage and repair demand, protein needs are slightly lower. Compared to the off-season, however, the amount of fat should also be lowered as carbohydrate energy needs are increasing. Therefore, during base training, carbohydrate/protein/fat percentage ratio should be approximately 50% carbs, 20-30% protein, and 20-30% fat.

Build Period:

Weight Training Periodization: The build period of a triathlon training season typically increases in both the intensity and the volume of swimming, cycling and running. While it may seem logical to simultaneously increase intensity and volume of weight training, this can detract from triathlon sessions and increase risk of overtraining. Instead, like base training, weight training frequency should be maintained at 1-2 sessions each week, but with the flexibility to lift as infrequently as once per week. Most workouts should include 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps, with a heavier weight than used in base training, and should also begin to include a plyometric, explosive component – either performed separately or at the same time as the weight training session.

Nutrition Periodization: Your longer, harder triathlon training efforts are increasing in frequency, and you are spending a greater period of time at lactate threshold, at which the body’s engine is engaged near peak carbohydrate utilization. As a result, fat needs will decrease, muscle recovery and protein needs will increase, and total caloric and carbohydrate needs will peak during the build phase. At this point in the triathlon season, carbohydrate/protein/fat percentage ratio should be approximately 55-65% carbs, 20-25% protein, and 15-20% fat.

Peak and Taper Period:

Weight Training Periodization: While strength and increased recruitment of muscle motor units can be built and maintained during off-season, build and base weight training periods, the goal during the peak and taper period prior to a race is simply to maintain neuromuscular coordination and peak power. During this period, when weight training sessions are performed properly, there should be little to no soreness or muscle failure, but a high amount of muscle fiber stimulation. All exercises should be performed explosively, with a lighter weight than used in previous periods. Most workouts should include 1-3 sets of 4-6 reps, with a continued plyometric component and a weight training frequency of 1-2 sessions each week.

Nutrition Periodization: Similar to build training, a continued need for higher carbohydrate intake will be present, with carbohydrate loading in the final days prior to the race bringing the triathlete close to maximum carbohydrate intake. In a traditional carbohydrate loading model, several days prior to the race, a higher fat and protein diet pre-dominate, followed by a gradual build in carbohydrate intake as the race draws near, so there can be a great deal of fluctuation in actual percentages during this period of the triathlon season. Therefore, 7-14 days from the race, carbohydrate/protein/fat percentage ratio should be approximately 30-40% carbs, 30-40% protein, and 30-40% fat, and gradually build to 75-80% carbohydrate, 10-15% protein and 10-15% fat 1-6 days from the race.

To summarize, weight training periodization for the triathlete should involve building a strength and injury prevention foundation, progress to a focus on strength and power, and finish with explosiveness and maintenance of maximum muscle recruitment. Nutrition periodization should involve increasing carbohydrate intake as energy needs increase, increasing protein intake as muscle damage increases, and gradually decreasing fat and protein intake as a race draws near.