Periodization part 2: Finding what’s right for you!

This article was originally published in Nov of 2013. What follows is an updated version. You may also wish to listen to Tipcast’s 147 and 148 on this topic.

In part 1 of Periodization: Concepts and Application, I reviewed the major models often mentioned and how the historical linear model as it is often depicted may represent real world application, and is often difficult to apply when training constraints exist. Other models, like Block or Non-linear periodization are not necessarily a major shift in planning, but rather options to allow the existing plans greater flexibility. Likewise, reverse periodization should not be considered an actual dichotomy of traditional; the overall focus is on building a plan around high intensity work, while increasing volume over time. The best model for an athlete is one that optimizes the balance between training stress with recovery as they fit within everyday life.

Finding your ideal periodization model

With so many models, it’s no wonder why many athletes default to the traditional model. But, in practice, many athletes often blend difference models together, either purposefully or out of necessity; consider Fig 1, that shows a uniform build up early in the season and an undulating model during the race season. The following are some general findings I’ve had with the major models:

  • Traditional periodization plans are all but worthless for athletes who have unpredictable lives and/or small variations in training volume (i.e., most age groupers or masters racers). The hallmark of this model is the build up, but if you’re like me, I have 5 – 8 hrs each week to train (occassionally less or more), that leaves little room for volume changes, but still lots of room for training flexibility.
  • Block peridization sounds cool, and can be highly effective for single sport athletes (Ronnestad 2012) , particularly those with 3 or more goals/peaks each year. However, I’ve had little success implementing this scheme for triathlon. The very nature of this model, with its focus on a small number of abilities makes it only suited to less complex training (i.e., one sport).In fact, Koprivica made a similar criticism of Block training in a recent paper. The very nature of this model, with its focus on a small number of abilities makes it only suited to less complex training (i.e., one sport).
  • Many athletes, including cyclists have likely been using undulating and reverse periodization models for decades, particularly those in colder climates. Interestingly, I recall a former National TT championing arguing why flying to Tuscon to train for months was unnecessary, drawing out what was essentially a reverse periodization model; that was 1996. Also of interest is a reexamination of Greg Lemond’s book a few years back made me realize that much of his training plan was actually describing an undulating, non-linear model, focused on many aspects through out the season.
  • Finally, noting Fig 2 and 3, which depict my average training volume (yes, I only avg 8 hrs/week) for this past season, along with the PMC of the season show that even with a very undulating training volume, overall performance trends upward over time. This also highlights a flaw with the PMC, which shows that chronic training load as it is calculated is driven by volume. In other words, the only way to continue to progress upward is to train more, which is neither realistic or necessarily true.

Taking all of the above into account, where does that leave you? One simple method I’ve devised to help athletes decide is a simple quiz. This allows you to make some quick assessments on what NOT to choose. To find a model that best fits your life, answer the following questions, scoring each answer, in order, as 1, 2, or 3:

  1. How much time can you devote on average?

(1) < 6 hrs

(2) 7-10 hrs

(3) >10 hrs

  1. What impact does your life have on day to day training?

(1) Frequent disruptions, or large infrequent disruptions

(2) Occasional disruptions are more the norm

(3) Nothing gets in your way (minus illness or injury)

  1. Using a score of 1-3, are your workouts usually of similar duration/volume, or do you have a more variable training availability?
  1. How many sports/activities do you do for training?

(1) Multisport athlete

(2) Single sport, with off-season sport or variable cross training

(3) Single sport (ie, runner, cyclist) with minimal cross-over to other sports

  1. Do you live in a region that is conducive to year round training, like southern California, or is your training impacted by weather/daylight at least 1/3 to ½ the year? For multisport athletes, like TRI, also consider access to swim facilities, and when in doubt, score lower.

(1) Weather/climate play a large role in my training flexibility

(2) Weather forces occasional adjustments to training

(3) Weather rarely if ever influences my training

  1. Do you like planning a full year of events and general training, or does the thought of planning your season turn your stomach?

(1) I just want to train, and often change things by feel

(2) I enjoy planning the season ahead, and following that plan

(3) Planning is ½ my success, without a solid plan I’m lost

  •  If you scored 15+, training rules your life and you can easily use any model.
  • If you scored 10-14, you’re training plan is restricted to some extent, making a flexible non-linear or block plan a good option.
  • If you scored 9 or less, you’re life gets in the way of training more than training rules your life and you need a more flexible plan broken up into smaller blocks to better manage your time and disruptions. In this case, single sport athletes might try block, non-linear or reverse periodization schemes, while triathletes would do well to use the variable non-linear plan.

Once you’ve narrowed your focus, think about which one you would like to use, particularly, one that is easy to follow and design; don’t fall into the Tradiational trap which is super easy to design, but difficult execute as I’ve already rescribed. The bottom line with periodization is that any planned variation is better than none at all; this has been shown in a number of research studies and in practice (Fleck and Kraemer). The aim of this post was to help you decide which model might work best for an individual athlete, however, experience has shown that one’s training availability and flexibility ultimately determine which method can be used, as traditional periodization schemes are typically untenable for sub-elite athletes with limited training time or flexibility. Ultimately the best periodization model may incorporate aspects of two or models, and athletes and coaches should keep this in mind when developing their plans.

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What about Reverse Periodization?

While a brief overview of reverse periodization can be found in article 1 of this series, reverse periodization in practice can be a challenging using true linear periodization. Applied to other approaches, it can provide a useful option at various times of the year, including during the winter, when training accessibility and durations are reduced. When properly programmed with adequate periods of recovery and high volume training, early blocks of high intensity training can help jump start long-term gains, or build fast fitness, when needed.

As discussed on Tipcast 148, Reverse Periodization can provide an excellent short-term platform to achieve large gains in fitness under specific conditions. For example, you may want to target a couple very early season races that require substantial high-intensity component, but then prepare for longer races later in the season. Alternately, perhaps you’re coming back from a long layoff and simply don’t have the capacity to train long hours. In this case, placing greater emphasis on interval training early allows you to build key aspects of your fitness, like VO2 Max or maximum anaerobic capacity (vLaMax), when you’re least capable of training with high volume. In this respect, you can dive into training build a lot of areas that will ultimately prove essential to long-term performance.

Have thoughts? Comment or email me.

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2 Comments to “Periodization part 2: Finding what’s right for you!”

  1. Timo says:

    Hey, I am really enjoying your podcast! I am a cat 3 road cyclist and have been useing std 3 week build 1 week rest periodization for about 7-8 years. Block training looks interesting, where can I read more on how to construct such a plan? Thanks and keep up the good work!


    • Tradewind says:

      Hi Timo,

      Great question. The simple answer is no. Friel has written a bit on Block, but it was a bit vague. Issurin has done most of work (and “sales”) on Block. I’ll try to post up that paper. If you’re current method is generally effective, I would mix and match more than try something totally new. I still believe the undulating non linear approach is best during the season, but here’s some tips for block modeling

      1) remember that you’re training for a goal/s, so after 2-4 wks of top form you’ll probably want a recovery/restoration/transition phase. The hardest part is quitting while you’re ahead.

      2) the accumulation phase is the first part and lasts 2-6 weeks where training loads are high; you could do two 10 day periods with 2-3 days rest between, but I like a 2 or 3 on, 1 off. Bottom line, you build a lot in this phase focusing on just 2 main abilities.

      3) Recover, then do a 2-4 week transmutation phase where volume is low(lower) but you do a lot of specific work/intensity.

      4) realization is your taper. 2 weeks then you peak. The more overall training you have, ie, more blocks, the longer you can hold that peak form.

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