A Transition Period is the first thing you should think about when considering an extended period of training. Dividing a longer training period into phases is called periodization. Each period has a purpose. And the purpose of the Transition Period is to prepare you for the harder training ahead.
When I program for a tactical athlete, I use three such periods, sometimes called mesocycles: the Transition Period (post-deployment), the Base Period (the majority of the training “year”), and the Tactical/Sport-Specific Period (the pre-deployment spin-up).
With this article, my goal is to give a broad overview of how I construct a Transition Period.
The Purpose of the Transition Phase
The Transition Period serves one primary purpose: to prepare your body for the training to come. For those new to training, it also serves as an introduction to a training program, perhaps with new exercises to learn and new strategies to explore. With veteran athletes it is a golden opportunity to assess and address any weaknesses that developed while outside of a controlled training environment. This is important with tactical athletes who come back after a deployment either banged up and exhausted or overtrained because all they did was work out in the gym. I want to help them reset their physical selves and get back to full health and strength.
With a new athlete, as a coach I see the Transition Period is a way of familiarizing myself with the athlete. This training block allows me to get a decent gauge of the athlete’s base fitness as well as the style of training he or she is familiar with.
For a veteran athlete, the Transition Phase serves as a sort of off-season or a revamping of training volume and intensity leading into the next pre-deployment cycle. In my experience working with tactical athletes, when left to their own devices (as on most deployments), they train way more than is necessary or even beneficial. I help them hit the reset button once back home in a controlled environment.
Transition Period Goals
The goal of the Transition Period is to build a broad base of both strength and endurance. If we think of the athlete’s development as a pyramid, this phase of training is what gives us our base. A wider, sturdier base allows us to build a taller pyramid and thus a deadlier athlete (tactically speaking). Specific training goals are as follows:
- Strength: Midrange strength development (5-rep range) across big, multi-joint barbell movements (squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift, power clean)
- Conditioning: Zone 2 capacity (endurance) as well as aerobically focused muscular endurance (e.g., long circuits)
- Structure: Core control and stability in a nonfatigued state as well as efficiency of movement across basic movement patterns (squat, hinge, press, etc.)
All three of these goals hold true whether I’m dealing with a seasoned veteran returning from his 10th deployment or a brand-new operator fresh out of the schoolhouse.
Building a Framework
Total Weekly Training Volume
When building any training mesocycle, my first step is to calculate weekly training volume. I often express this calculation in “minutes per week.” The athletes I work with are given 2 hours each day for PT. If we extrapolate that across five training days, we arrive at a total weekly volume calculation of 600 minutes (5 x 120 = 600). This is what I would consider the “maximal weekly training volume.” I usually start the first week of each Transition Phase at half that amount, or 300 minutes. (I stole that 50 percent trick from Training for the New Alpinism.)
Weekly Strength Training Volume
With our first week set at 300 minutes of total training volume (or 5 hours of training), the next step is to figure out how much of that number to dedicate to strength. I express this number in minutes per week as well. Broadly speaking this is more of a rough estimate than an actual prescription (please don’t start timing your back squat reps). I won’t dive down the rabbit hole of actual reps, sets, and movements in this article, but for now understand two primary principles:
- The goal of strength training during this phase is to keep it as simple as possible.
- For my athletes, I primarily utilize linear progression and limit sets per exercise to the 3–5 range.
Considering the above two points, I assign 60 minutes to each strength session during this phase. With the understanding that the actual sessions could realistically be slightly shorter or longer. Further, the majority of my athletes will encounter three strength-specific training sessions per week in this phase. This brings my total weekly strength training volume to 180 minutes.
Weekly Aerobic/Conditioning Training Volume
Unlike my strength prescriptions, when it comes to aerobic and/or conditioning pieces I try to program “to the minute.” A 15-minute piece of work is drastically different from a 2-minute piece of work. Subtracting our 180 minutes of strength training from our overall training volume of 300 minutes gives us 120 remaining minutes for conditioning volume. Those 2 hours will break down into endurance and work capacity sessions.
Building a Progression
Two-Week Training Blocks
In organizing the Transition Period, I create two week “chunks” as the athlete progresses through the cycle. I find that not only does the two-week mini-block provide enough time for me to implement a variety of stimuli. It also is usually the amount of time any given tactical operator is home station before taking off for a training trip or family vacation.
Within each two-week block (and specific to the Transition Phase), I like to hit the following pieces:
- 6x strength-specific sessions (3x/week)
- 1x ruck (10%–15% bodyweight—intentionally light)
- 1x aerobic interval day (long intervals, short rests)
- 1x structural recovery day
- 1x gym stamina day (long, sustained work capacity)
I’ll generally program an additional “active recovery” day on Saturday to promote my athletes getting outside and going on a hike, playing sports, getting in an additional run, etc. You know, weekend stuff.
The only time I deviate from this two-week block structure is at the beginning of the Transition Phase. Here I start off with a three-week block. That gives the athlete an additional week to either return from a deployment or get his or her feet wet at the new squadron.
Weekly Volume Progressions
Given that we already established week 1 as 50 percent of the previous year’s annual training volume, we know where the initial 300 minutes comes from. Let’s build from there:
- Weeks 1–3 hold constant at 300 minutes
- Week 4 sees a 15 percent increase over weeks 1–3
- Week 5 is the same volume as week 4
- Week 6 sees a 10 percent increase over weeks 4–5
- Week 7 is the same volume as week 6
- Week 8 sees a 5 percent increase over weeks 6–7
- Week 9 is the same volume as week 8
- Weeks 10–12 see a 5 percent increase over weeks 8–9
The theme here is a small progression followed by sustainment. Rinse and repeat. You’ll note that the progression starts at 15 percent and drops steadily to 5 percent. All of these numbers are based entirely off my own experiences and observations. I and the other coaches at Uphill Athlete have all found that greater than an average of 10 percent progression in volume leads to trouble in roughly eight weeks.
Linear progression is a wonderful way to fulfill the strength requirements in a Transition Phase. Generally speaking, I hold volume constant—around 3×5. And I have the athlete add 5 to 10 pounds to the bar each session. If you’re familiar with Starting Strength and Mark Rippetoe, you’ll recognize this approach. When necessary I’ll implement a de-load or back-off week. However, that is dependent upon the athlete, the team, or my intuition.
Aerobic Conditioning Progressions
For my conditioning pieces, volume is the primary driver of progression. With strength volume held constant at around 180 minutes per week and total volume increasing slightly from one week to the next, overall aerobic volume will increase. I alternate athletes between ruck/gym stamina weeks and interval/recovery weeks. Put together into two weeks of training, this alternating strategy works quite well. The first week is relatively high in volume. The second week ends up being slightly lower in volume due to the nature of the structural recovery workout.
How long is the Transition Period?
Although I’ve written out progressions through 12 weeks of a Transition Phase, seldom do my athletes/teams actually make it that far. Their ability to run out their linear strength progression (i.e., an inability to add weight each session) determines when it’s time to move on to a different stage of training. On average, this phase will usually last about eight weeks, give or take a week or two depending on how frequently they’re able to get into the gym.
Within this block of training, I usually hit the de-load button once or twice on the strength progressions by dropping intensity to 90 percent and then reapplying a linear progression. The need for a second de-load is usually my signal to move the team or athlete into the Base Phase of training.
If you remember nothing else, let it be this…
The purpose of the Transition Phase is to instill sound training fundamentals while establishing a base of strength and endurance. A phrase I frequently use with my athletes is: “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” Never is that truer than in the Transition Phase.
The exercise selections for both the strength pieces and the endurance pieces are intentionally limited. Time and again I see coaches and athletes create four-to-six-week training blocks without a real goal in mind that rely on wacky percentage variations, randomized exercise selection, and one peak (followed by an inevitable crash when the “training” phase is over).
The approach I’ve described here is much more deliberate and focused, with an eye toward long-term, continual improvement—through the Transition Period and beyond.
-by Drew Hammond, Uphill Athlete Director of Tactical Athletes