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  • What Does a it Look Like to Periodize Training? (A Periodization Training Plan)

    The photo above is a glimpse into my personal training plan periodization. The chart comes from the Strava Fitness and Freshness graph. TrainingPeaks has a similar graph, but the Strava graph is more visual for my purposes in this column.

    The left side or y-axis of the graph in the photo tracks fitness as measured by Strava’s calculations. Though I think it underestimates mountain biking difficulty and therefore fitness and freshness, overall I think it does track pretty close to my performance. The x-axis of the graph is time, 2011 through 2016. It is pretty easy to see that I am in peak fitness each year around July/August and I carry low fitness in January and February. It is no surprise that my key races are in July and August.

    Briefly, a periodization plan manipulates exercise volumes and intensities over the course of weeks, months and years – with the goal of bringing the athlete to peak performance at the right time.

    A periodization plan for an Olympic athlete will span the course of several years. This type of plan is designed to have the athlete at peak fitness and speed for Games qualification, then again for the Olympic Games. No athlete, even an Olympic-caliber athlete, can maintain peak fitness year-round. True peak performances are planned and can occur about two or three times per year.

    You may not be capable of achieving the time marks of top professionals, but your training process should have similarities to elite athlete plans. The deeper we look into a training plan for an individual sport; we'll find further refinements of the training principles. For example, the details of the plan for an athlete doing his or her first sprint triathlon looks different than the details of the plan for an athlete trying to get faster at the same distance. The plan for a beginner mountain biker is different if the athlete has road cycling fitness or winter ski fitness, compared to the plan needed for a currently-hibernating athlete. Of course, the training plan for long distance racing is different than the plan for a short event.

    The old saying, "The devil is in the detail" holds true for training plans. When working with the devil in your training plan, keep in mind the following training principles:

    1. Individual and progressive overload must be applied to achieve physiological improvement and bring about a training change. A widely accepted rule of thumb is to increase annual training hours, or annual volume by 10-percent or less.

    2. Training volume can be defined as the combination of frequency and duration. When looking at your training plan, annual training volume is one piece of the puzzle. Broken down, the monthly, weekly and daily training volumes are as important as annual volume. Establishing your personal training volume based on what "the pros do" is faulty logic. Your personal training volume, to bring about physiological improvement for you, should be based on your personal profile, past training volume, current lifestyle, goals, the number of weeks you have to train before your key event, and your response to training.

    3. The duration of your longest workout may or may not be the length of your goal race. Generally, the shorter the event and the more time you have to train before the event, the greater likelihood that you will complete the event distance sometime within your training.

    4. Depending on each individual's current fitness, race goals, the sport and training time available, the frequency of workouts scheduled will vary. Some athletes will workout only once per day while others workout twice or more per day. Frequency also applies to the number of workouts per week. Not only is workout frequency important, but so is frequency of rest.

    5. Individual response to training does vary. Given the same race goal and training plan, different individuals using that plan can make improvements at different rates and can have varying gains in overall fitness.

    6. The duration and frequency of workouts vary with each particular training block and within those workouts, the intensity varies depending on the goal of the workout. Intensity can be measured as heart rate, pace per 100 yards, pace per mile, miles per hour, power output and rating of perceived exertion to name a few. The appropriate intensity in training minimizes the risk of injury while stressing the body enough to achieve training and racing goals.

    7. The mode of training becomes more important, as race day approaches. For athletes utilizing a year-round approach to training, aerobic cross-training in the early training blocks is appropriate. For example, northern latitude triathletes often use cross-country skiing workouts to bolster endurance for triathlon, running and cycling. As the athletes approach their key event, training that is specific to the sport becomes more important than generalized training. In other words, the specificity of training becomes more important.

    8. Goal-oriented triathletes must consider rest and recovery as critical training components. Performance gains are made when the body has a chance to repair and absorb the training workload.

    Training within each phase changes. I use five different phases of training.

    Recovery – This phase is specifically to recover from the rigors of training and racing. Generally there is no specific training plan and usually just guidelines to maintain some fitness. The most common guidelines I use are:

    • Take at least one to two days off of “training” each week

    • All training intensity is aerobic in nature

    • All training sessions are two hours or less This phase is often one to four weeks in length for the highly competitive athlete.

    General Preparation – Many athletes crosstrain during this phase of training, with the goal of building or maintaining cardiovascular fitness. There can be several blocks within this phase such as General Preparation 1, 2 and 3. Intensity during this phase tends to be mostly aerobic, though I do like to include Miracle Intervals™ (short segments of speed followed by generous recovery.) Both General Preparation and Specific Preparation are sometimes called base training.

    Specific Preparation – The goal of this phase is to move toward sport-specific training, reducing or eliminating crosstraining. There is more race-paced training added in this phase, but the race-paced work segments tend to be short with ample recovery at the beginning of the phase. The intention is to build neuromuscular movement patterns. As this phase continues, a greater percentage of the training resembles race pace. There can be several blocks within this phase such as Specific Preparation 1, 2 and 3.

    Pre-Competitive Preparation – The goal of this phase is to prepare the athlete for his or her specific race requirements. These requirements, race time and intensity, are quite different for a sprint-distance triathlon than for an ironman distance triathlon and vary between individual athletes. Someone racing criteriums will prepare differently than the athlete doing 100-mile mountain bike races. An athlete that has minimal conditioning has different requirements than an athlete that is highly conditioned. There can be several blocks within this phase such as Pre-Competitive 1, 2 and 3. This phase can also include low-priority races, used as training events.

    Competitive – This phase may include a series of races over the course of six to eight weeks or it may be a period of sharpening workouts or blocks of workouts (like a week-long training camp) tapering to a single race.

    All good training plans intentionally stress the body with increasing volume or intensity, then allow it to rest, so the fitness level after the rest is greater than before the stressful workout. This concept is called “overcompensation” or “supercompensation.”

    Supercompensation, however, is a fine line. Too much stress and the body will break down, resulting in illness or injury. Too little stress and no progress is made. For the self-coached athlete, getting yourself into peak condition will require science and art. Science comes from laboratory studies. Art is knowing when to follow a plan exactly and when to make deviations.

    If you need some help figuring out how to lay out your own training plan, you can find ready-to-use plans for cycling and triathlon in my books, Training Plans for Cyclists, Training Plans for Multisport Athletes, Bicycling for Women and Triathlon Training Basics. Each book has a variety of training plans for different race distances and different levels of beginning fitness. The first two books have off-season plans as well.

    If you prefer to have your training plan delivered electronically, I have many plans available through my site and even more on the TrainingPeaks site.

    Whether you use one of my plans to help you succeed or design your own plan, pay attention to how you feel during training. You may have to make small adjustments along the way as you deal with work and family stress, illness, vacations and other things that come up.

    Most of all, have fun in the process of becoming fit and fast.

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