Periodization is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the sport and fitness world, but many don’t really know what it is or why it is important.
Periodization is the planned act of training in different ways at different times of the year in order to achieve peak performance at a predetermined time.
One of the biggest mistakes athletes make when planning their own training is adopting a “no pain, no gain” mentality, trending towards intense workouts at every occasion, year round. Another common mistake is doing the same types of training year round with little variation. Though these methods provides a consistent dose of endorphins, a planned, systematic, periodized training plan is widely accepted as a better route towards peak performance in the long term.
There are a number of reasons why periodization is effective. In a typical periodized yearly plan, training is organized into short and long-term cycles, with volume and intensity changing through different training phases. Improvements in strength and endurance are due to recovery from stress to the body due to training. However, the body is smart and adapts quickly to stimuli, which slows the rate of training gain - the dreaded “plateau”. This can be somewhat avoided by providing varying training stimuli at different times of the year.
In addition, it is impossible to train every physiological system relating to performance at the same time – VO2max, lactate threshold, power, strength, and mobility all require very different workouts, and often performing specific training for one parameter will temporarily impact adaptations for another. This can be mitigated by shifting focus areas through different training phases. Also, variety in training reduces the risk of burnout, injury, and overtraining which improves the likelihood of making it through a season or year fresh and healthy.
I think everyone can agree that workouts are uncomfortable and would ideally like to get maximum adaptation out of a session! Balancing volume and intensity when writing a yearly training program is the art of coaching and a proper program can encourage excellent performance gains.
So: How do WE periodize our training years?
Faye (Elite OCR racer)
My year is broken into a few phases. The first phase is “Recovery” which is 4-6 weeks long and begins after my last competition. During this phase I avoid structured training and just do activities I enjoy. Usually this consists of bouldering, yoga and going for easier paced runs with my sister and friends. In this phase, all sessions are “easy” and lots of rest days are taken.
When I feel refreshed and ready, I begin my “General Preparation” which is a period of low intensity running and basic foundational strength training -nothing fancy here, just the basics like squats deadlift, bench press, etc. with a goal of increasing general strength. This phase usually runs through the winter and lasts roughly 2 months.
During my next phase, “Specific Preparation ”, I start to add some intensity to my runs such as tempos, progression runs and fartleks while starting to do more “functional” strength training specific to running (single legs squats, lunges, step ups, etc. ). This phase usually ends before my first major competition.
The last phase is “Competitive Preparation” where I begin to add even more intensity to my runs such as hill repeats and track intervals and my strength training becoming very specific to OCR (heavy carries, sled work, grip strength, pulls ups, etc.).
As you can see, running is a year-round staple! The building block of any good OCR athlete is their aerobic system as you won't be able to recover well and handle a higher training load later in the season if this system is not robust. This is why building an aerobic base is the major focuses in the initial phases of my season. I prepare myself so that as I approach the competition season my aerobic system is strong and I have a built a solid strength base. At that point, it’s time to refine my speed through more intense anaerobic workouts and focus on obstacle skills so I can show up to my races sharp.
I suggest that before designing your yearly training program, you should sit down and think about what races mean the most to you (or have the most on the line). Decide what your “A” races are and begin periodizing around those races first and foremost. In many cases this means sacrificing feeling fresh at some “B” and “C” races (or skipping them altogether) to be most ready for “A” races. If you plan on racing weekend after weekend you can't properly taper for everything as you would never get a chance to train at the intensity which is required to take you to the next level.
Jess (elite 5000m runner, dabbles in cross country and road running)
I race year-round, but my most important season is Outdoor track which peaks in July and August when major championships like Worlds or Olympic typically occur. All of my decisions related to training and racing are made to best prepare me for this time.
A year’s training for me is broken into several distinct phases. My year starts in the Fall, where I do traditional “cross country” training – lots of hilly runs, long intervals in grassy parks, and long runs on trails. Here, I focus on gradually increasing my volume in order to build a big aerobic base. Through the winter, I do hard sessions on the indoor track. My indoor winter workouts are more intense than those I run during cross country, but I still do a lot of relatively long intervals like mile and 2km repeats. I normally spend the month of April in Flagstaff, AZ training at altitude, and then return home for the spring and summer when racing picks up. Here, I sharpen up my speed with shorter, more race-specific intervals and get ready for competition. During my competitive season, my training volume is much lower but intensity stays high. By taking advantage of the aerobic base I’ve built through the fall and winter and then completing more specific race-paced workouts and some speedwork, I’m ready to race well through the spring and summer. After my last competition, I always take a few weeks off of running in order to rest.
I should note that each of my seasons is filled with a variety of workouts, and my different training phases are more grey than black and white. I do mile repeats in the spring and summer, but more often in the winter. In the same way, I’ll do some speedy 400s from time to time in the winter, but quite often in the spring.
Throughout the year, I follow a seven day micro-cycle. This means that every week, I do two-three “hard” workouts, one long run, and three recovery days. I also intersperse weights and rehab exercises, taking care to plan my sessions so that they don’t interfere with each other.
Over the years, I’ve learned that periodization requires patience but is really essential to peak performance. I know that I won’t be sharp and ready to throw down the race of my life in February because at that time of the year it’s more important to grind out workouts that will pay dividends later. After I’ve done more specific race-pace training and speedwork combined with the aerobic base I’ve built through the winter, running fast is more natural and I feel fit and ready come June when stakes are higher and races are more important.
I only get so many “doses” of training in a year, and I trust my coach to plan what I need, when. He has collected a decade’s worth of training data from me and does a great job of making sure that my workouts are well-rounded and that my weaknesses are addressed regularly (which isn’t a walk in the park!).
There is no one “right” way to plan a racing schedule – do what is meaningful to you! With that in mind, a bit of intent and pre-meditated planning goes a long way😊
By Jessica O’Connell MSc, CSEP-CEP, OLY and Faye Stenning BKin.