What is periodization?

“It pays to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built his ark”. -original author unknown

Periodization is a way to divide your training into phases with each phase having it’s own purpose in developing your skills & fitness according to your primarily sport or goal. Training progresses logically throughout the season by changing the total volume, intensity and specific skills that the athlete focuses upon. Rugby coach Fredick Claro stated it nicely:

Each of these phases is interacting with the other ones like the links of a chain, making the final result an optimally prepared athlete or group of athletes, physically, technically, tactically and psychologically ready for the toughness of competition.

Most endurance athletes who do their own reading and research will be familiar with the periodization method adapted by Joe Friel in his popular “Training Bible” series of books. While Joe’s model will bring success to many who plan their season according to it, many athletes would be even more prepared for their competitive race season by following other methods of periodization. If you want to reach your maximum potential as an amateur or recreational endurance athlete, keep reading for some new ideas that could give you even better results this race season.

The History of Periodization

In the 1950s, a Russian social scientist named Matveyev surveyed Soviet track & field athletes in their preparation for the Helsinki Olympics. He recorded and published this information as the basis of his training theory. He summarized that there must be extensive preparation, including a fundamental period which “focuses on the necessary pre-requisites for top performance.” He also noted that there was a reciprocal relationship between intensity and volume and that when one goes up, the other must come down.

The current implementation of this traditional view of periodization is that a long period of “base” training consists of solely low intensity, long “steady” or long “slow” endurance training. While this information was published and reached western (english speaking) audiences, German and Soviet sports scientists were pursing an entirely different pathway. Sadly, their ideas were not communicated to the Western audiences as thoroughly as Matveyev’s theories were.

Scientists such as Peter Tschiene (German), Mellenberg and Verkhoshansky focused on the fundamental biological changes that take place while training, rather than relying on an empirical model of periodization. They observed that most high level athletes continued to train year round, and that they not only trained frequently, but trained hard as well. They encouraged training blocks that focused on improving oxidative (ie fat burning) capacity of the muscles, improving contractile properties (increasing power), improving pumping output of the heart (increases in stroke volume) as some of the fundamental building blocks of early training.

A focus overall velocity (ie. race intensity) as being the primary target outcome of training allowed for the acceptance of the ideas of athletes training both hard and long, often at the same time period, without requiring extensive periods of general (non-sport specific) training as encouraged by Matveyev & Bompa.

The New Realities of Periodization

The single biggest predictor of performance for triathletes, runners & cyclists is their velocity or power output at their “threshold” capacity. Despite the many different definitions of threshold you may have heard of, the underlying physiology is the same. Whoever has the highest velocity for their body’s limits of oxidative (aerobic) capacity is going to have the best performance in the race.

Studies that show varies modes high intensity interval training improve endurance performance are not new. If you’ve heard of “HIIT” or “Tabata’s” then you’re hearing about methods that trade intensity for duration in the development of endurance abilities. Since an athletes overall ability to go fast at their threshold is fundamental for performance and success, it stands to reason that much of the athletes time should be devoted to either maintaining or improving this aspect of fitness – in other words, raising their threshold.

This then becomes the “general preparation” phase of a periodized training plan. I refer to it as the “global power” phase after Dr. Skiba’s peridization method. Along with workouts that improve or maintain threshold performance, there will also be abilities that support and improve athletic performance such as core strength, flexibility, technique, skill etc. that can fit nicely into this period.

Race Specific Periodization Phase

In the traditional peridization scheme as popularized by the “Training Bible” series, Specific preparation phases are referred to as a “Build” phase. Typically, not until the “Build” does the athlete do any significant training above the endurance pace. As you can imagine, the overall peridization scheme of an ironman athlete and a criterium racer will look very, very different. However in both cases, having a high functional threshold is key to performance. Developing threshold therefore becomes a “general preparation” activity, rather than something done in the weeks leading up to your race (the Build)

As the athlete gets closer to their competitive season, more training time needs to be devoted to race specific intensity, duration and skills. If you are a long course athlete (half ironman, ironman, marathon mountain bike races, 12 hour/24 hour mountain bike racer) your race specific intensity will be much lower than a short course athlete such as a 5k or 10k runner, a 20k or 40k time trialist, or a sprint/olympic distance triathlete. Furthermore, your race specific duration will be much longer.

For an Ironman athlete, the general period of preparation will be made up of shorter workouts (1-3 hours) focused on raising threshold as high as possible during that phase (12 weeks for example). The specific period of preparation would then consist of extending the efforts to race specific distances while lowering the intensity. The result is that the athlete will begin their endurance training with a higher threshold, and higher average velocity than they would have if doing only “LSD” training in the base period.

Similarly, various bicycle racing disciplines require racing specific abilities such as sprint, lead out, breakaway, bridging, hill climbing, etc. As you approach your peak races, your peridization plan will focus more on these anaerobic abilities specific to your style of racing and your strengths amongst your teammates.

For example, a road racer’s “base” or general preparation period would consist of rides and workouts that raise threshold, while the race specific preparation would consist of preparing the rider for specific terrain, distances and short harder efforts pertinent to their racing strategy. The role for long aerobic rides serves as a way to build fatigue resistance, but hardly constitutes the foundation of training during the general preparation phase.

Putting it all Together – Planning a Season

The overall picture of your periodized training plan requires a long term view…at least a year/competitive season. I like to start training with athletes at least six months prior to their race season so that we can fit in several months focused on threshold building efforts while allowing ample time for recovery and rest. The first few weeks of traiing generally include effort based sessions with short excursions into hard efforts, such as 4 x 5 minute “hard” intervals with a few minutes of recovery in between. With each week, the interval length can go up and the rest intervals can go down.

At the same time, I’ll have athletes do building efforts of both “tempo” and “vo2 max” work, starting with 10 minutes of tempo work at a time and as little as thirty seconds of VO2 work at a time.

Each of these three types of workouts are blended in a gradual fashion so that by the end of a 12 week block, there will be about 40-60 minutes per week of threshold work, 2-4 hours of tempo work and a max of 30-40 minutes of Vo2 work. If we are still far from the competitive season, the VO2 work immediately comes down to a maintenance level of about 12 minutes per week until it is time to peak for a race. The threshold & tempo work can stay and even increase gradually as overall training stress may continue to climb.

Rest Days & Rest Weeks – Are they still needed?

One saying about training is that whoever recovers the fastest will reap the most benefit from training. “fast” recovery is dependant on a number of things, some in the athletes control and others out of the athlete’s control. Everyone’s needs are different, but typically most will benefit from 1-3 rest days per week depending on their level of fitness & performance. Some high level athletes can go for 10-14 days without a day off, but they are few and far between.

Rest weeks on the other hand are a little more controversial. The “traditional” model of 3 weeks on, 1 week off is reported to stem from children living at training camps for 3 weeks at a time, then going home to their parents for a week. Coaches worked them hard for the 3 weeks they were there because the week off was going to have a big impact in their fitness.

Some newer ideas, discussed extensively among the Wattage folks, are to simply observe a gradual “ramp rate” in your overall training stress. Rather than train hard, get tired, sometimes really tired, then try to recover…the thought is to find a gradually increasing rate of training stress that you can continuously recovery from on a daily & weekly basis.

Every athletes needs are different, so you’ll have to experiment and find out what planning methods work best for you.

References (actual sources to be included soon)

Phil Skiba, MD

Frederick Claro

Peter Tschiene