Periodization part 1: Concepts and Application

The modern concepts of periodization were developed in the 1960’s, and continue to evolve to accommodate the individual needs of a given sport. Without a doubt, sports science and technology have helped to drive training advances, including periodization, but the topic continues to create controversy and confusion within the training community. For example, many athletes continue to use a traditional, Tudor Bompa style periodization scheme, when another might fit their needs better. Therefore, my objectives for this post are to make sense of the various periodization terminology and models commonly described.

Periodization: Failing to plan, is planning to fail (A Lakein)

Periodization is the process of compartmentalizing long periods of training to optimally influence key performance parameters of an athlete; i.e., breaking down your training to target specific areas of performance needed for a given sport. At its most basic level, periodization simply is planned variation of training, but the plan you ultimately devise should train key aspects of a particular sport, and hopefully provide adequate recovery prior to a major competitive goal. In practice there are many ways to do this, however, certain models may be more suited to some sports than others.
At its heart, periodization has drawn upon Hans Selye’s Generalized adaption syndrome (GAS), which nicely reflects training adaptations (Fig 1) . This model has since been revised by sports scientists and coaches to reflect the ebb and flow of the training and recovery process which leads to an overall upward (i.e., linear) improvement over time. In his 2000 book, the Science of Winning, Jan Olbrecht presented an additional curve of the adaptive process that also fits into periodization nicely (Fig 2). Here, we see that most adaptive changes occur in the first 2 weeks of training, and generally plateau by week 6.
Anecdotal and empirical evidence support this premise, and also lends support to the overload principle; this “plateau” has been shown in VO2 max training studies and resistance training. It is not surprising then, that most periodization models use training blocks of 2-6 weeks. Thus, we now have the first piece of the puzzle in devising a periodization plan that is best for an athlete; determine how much training they can sustain and how quickly they adapt. Athletes and coaches sometimes choose models that simply do not allow the flexibility needed for optimal performance, or, as in my personal experience, actual training ends up taking on the appearance of another model entirely, typically the undulating model (Fig 3). Therefore, a good training log is essential in finding your best model; this will be covered in part 2.

Periodization Vocab: Know the lingo
One of the most confusing aspects of periodization is the verbiage used, which can seem archaic and uncommon. Each model has its own version of a “BASE” preparatory (general vs specific), competitive (pre-season vs in-season), and transition (post or off-season) phases. Here is an explanation of what you should know:
Macrocycle – this is the largest part of the plan and constitutes the entire period from the start of training until you goal. In practice, it generally lasts from 12 weeks to 12 months, depending on how many “peaks” the athlete wants to hit and the specific sport. Contrary to popular belief, an athlete can achieve several peaks in a year, but 3 or 4 tend to be the most practical in my experience.
Mesocycle – Medium-sized blocks making up a macrocycle where specific abilities/aspects are targeted and others are either ignored, or maintained. A typical mesocycle will last 2-6 weeks before a new set of abilities is targeted, or a taper is initiated prior to competition.
Microcycle – This is the working training unit of each mesocycle and most commonly lasts 4 – 10 days; for simplicity’s sake a 7 day week makes most sense, but 10 day Microcycles are effective for training camps. The easiest way to think of a microcycle is to consider it the period of training where the overall focus prior to a complete rest day, or days. Hence, a 7 day cycle makes sense for many individuals. Either way, microcycles allow you to tweak your training focus a bit throughout a mesocycle.
Traditional (Linear) – Defined as linear increase in load/volume over time. Anyone familiar with training recognize this model for its nice consistent, flowing increases in volume. Long held as the standard for training models, this traditional model has proven to be very difficult to adhere to in some sports, especially for athletes who lack ability to schedule their lives around sport. Additionally, it is generally a poor choice for athletes who compete frequently, like cyclists.
Non-linear (Undulating) – This model was developed and later refined for athletes involved in teams where weekly or multi-weekly competitions can interfere with training plans. Identified by its distinctive undulating wave pattern in volume, personal experience has shown that model can be ideal for competitive cyclists with heavy race schedules, and is often, after analysis what training looks like for many cyclists anyway (Fig 4)
Non-linear (Variable) – The non-linear alternating model, similar to the one presented by Zatsiorsky and Kraemer (2010) can be a good alternative for multisport athletes, and is one that I’ve found effective for triathletes with limited training time. The athlete can give one activity the most time, a second less time but perhaps more intensity, and a third is maintained. This type of schedule is alternated every 10-14 days (i.e., two microcycles).
Reverse Linear – Linear is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that volume starts low and intensity high, with the overall progression moving to low intensity and high volume training. In practice, this model more often capitalizes on the idea of including intensity year-round, but also focusing on a great deal of quality work in the winter, when daylight and weather are most compromised; for those living in cold climates, reverse periodization is often the norm.
Block – On of the least understood models is Issurin’s block periodization. Some coaches have discussed this model in abstract terms, however little specific insight has been offered on its application. It encompasses mesocycles lasting 2-12 weeks. The hallmark of this model of the focused training blocks where only 2 or 3 abilities are trained, while the others are maintained. On the surface, the block model appears ideal for endurance sports, allowing several peaks and shorter concentrated training periods. Indeed, for individual sports like running and cycling, it can be very effective, but for sports with many demands, the focused training blocks often make implementation difficult, and results mediocre.

In my next article, I will discuss how to find your best model. Until then, post your comments here or on Facebook.

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