The Art of Periodization
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. 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. Though this method provides a healthy 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 chances 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?
Jess (5000m track and field athlete):
I race year-round, but my most important season is Outdoor track, which peaks in August. 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 and get ready for competition. 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 occasionally in the spring, but more often in the winter. In the same way, I’ll do some speedy 400s from time to time indoors, but quite often in the spring.
Throughout the year, I follow a seven day micro-cycle. This means that every week, I do 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!).
Faye (Elite OCR racer): My year is broken into a few phases. The first phase is “Recovery” which is 4-6 weeks and begins after my last competition. During this phase I do no structured training and just do activities I enjoy. Usually this consists of bouldering, yoga and going for easier paced runs with my sister. In this phase all sessions are aerobic and lots of rest days are taken. Then I begin my “General Preparation” a period of low intensity running (or LSD=long slow distance) and basic foundational strength training (nothing fancy here just the basics, squats deadlift, bench press, etc). This phase usually runs through the winter lastly roughly 2 months. During the 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.). The building block of any good OCR athlete is their aerobic system, you won't be able to recover well and handle a higher training load later in the season if this system is not strong. This is why building an aerobic base is the major focuses in the initial phases of my season. As I approach the competitions phase my aerobic system is strong and I have a built a solid strength base; now 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.
My focus is on the NBC Spartan Championship Series which runs from April to October. I break my races into “A” races “B” races and “C’ races to help me periodize over the 7 month of cut throat competition. An example of an “A” race would be all the Spartan Races in the NBC Championship Series and especially Spartan World Championships. These races require the most training attention but also have the longest and heaviest tapers. “B” races would be other Spartan Races not in the series that I need to be relatively sharp for to snag a spot on the podium. Finally “C” races would be local road or trail race which act more as a “training race” or just a really intense workout that serve as a tune up for the bigger races. I suggest that before you design 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) and decided 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 to leave it all out there at those “A” races. The concept is simple, if you plan on racing weekend after weekend you can't taper for all those races as you would never get a chance to train at the intensity which is required to take you to the next level. Once this is understood you begin to train through some races and fully rest for the most important racing allowing you to perform your best.