What is periodization?
How does one organize their training plan? How does one go about planning out a season, a month, a week of training? I won’t lie, it’s both complex and also simple at the same time depending on how deeply you want to look at it. Periodization is not a novel concept and has been around for quite some time. If you are a coach, you have surely heard of this term and hopefully periodize your athletes programs in some form or fashion. If you are a self-coached athlete, you might not have heard of it but might naturally periodize your training plan anyways. So, what is periodization?
A periodized plan is essentially the opposite of an unplanned, unstructured, and random training plan with no rhyme or reason to it. A periodized plan will usually have things like recovery weeks, tapers, planned blocks of training focused on specific aspects of fitness, build phases leading up to races, etc. To define it, periodization is the planned and systematic manipulation of training variables to maximize long-term adaptation while minimizing the risk of overtraining. When it comes to training for endurance athletes, there are four training “variables” at our disposal for us to manipulate:
1. Training frequency (i.e., # of sessions per week)
2. Training volume (i.e., # of hours or miles/kilometers per week)
3. Training intensity (i.e., heart rate, power, pace, etc.)
4. Training mode/method (i.e., pool swimming, open water swimming, indoor cycling, outdoor road cycling, trail running, road running, etc.)
Periodization of a training plan aims to systematically organize these training variables throughout different phases in order to 1) achieve maximum long-term adaptation (i.e., improvement), 2) best prepare an athlete for their races, and 3) reduce the likelihood of injury, illness, or burnout. A periodized plan usually consists of the following three “cycles”, each with a specific focus:
1. Macrocycle (i.e., “the season”; 6-12-month plan)
2. Mesocycle (1-2-month focused blocks of training)
3. Microcycle (7-14-day blocks of training)
For example, a properly periodized plan for a beginner triathlete looking to complete their first Ironman in 12 months might look like this:
· Macrocycle – the 12-month plan focused on developing the fitness to complete an Ironman
· Mesocycles – 12 x 1-month blocks of training; starting with an emphasis on aerobic fitness development with very little intensity and working towards developing race-specific fitness with higher levels of intensity; every 4th week is a reduced volume (i.e., recovery) week to absorb the hard training; there will be a 2-week taper leading into race-day during the final training block
· Microcycles – 7-day blocks/cycles of training with frequency, intensity, and volume of training that works best with the athletes availability and energy they can devote towards training
This is obviously a gross oversimplification as there is much more to it in terms of the intricate details. However, periodization is also this simple as well. In its’ most basic form and without all the fancy terminology, periodization is any attempt to systematically organize training with a purpose in mind. Now, why periodize a plan you might ask? What are the benefits? Can’t random and unplanned training be just as effective?
What are the benefits of a periodized program compared to a non-periodized program?
Research tends to suggest a periodized training plan is more effective than a non-periodized training plan. For example, a recent study by Bradbury and colleagues in 2020 (1) placed 30 recreation runners into three groups of 10: 1) a linear periodization group, 2) a reverse linear periodization group, and 3) an unstructured control group. The study lasted for 14 weeks, and those in the linear periodization group performed two supervised treadmill run sessions and one unsupervised run session each week, with the volume being higher and the intensity being lower in the beginning, but progressing to lower volume and higher intensity. The reverse periodization group also performed two supervised treadmill run sessions and one unsupervised run session each week, but the volume was lower and the intensity was higher in the beginning, but gradually progressed towards higher volume and lower intensity. The control group was told to continue with their usual training (which tended to be unstructured and non-periodized in nature). At baseline, week seven, and week 14, participants completed measures assessing their maximal oxygen consumption, running economy at submaximal running speeds, and a 5,000-meter time trial.
What were the results? All groups saw some improvements in their maximal oxygen consumption and running economy, however, both of the periodized training groups improved their 5,000-meter time trial significantly when compared to the non-periodized control group. The effects seen on 5,000-meter time trial performance in the periodized groups were very large, whereas the control group didn’t really improve their 5,000-meter time trial performance at all. This highlights the superiority of periodized training compared to non-periodized training. This isn’t the only study that demonstrates the superiority of periodized training either. Other studies have demonstrated similar findings across other endurance sports (2). The key take-home message from the body of research surrounding periodization is this: a periodized training plan is suggested over a non-periodized training plan.
How does one properly periodize a training plan?
This is where things start to get more complex. Periodization is both an art and a science. There are multiple different types of periodization models, which I’ll discuss and outline very briefly below, and the approach that a coach or athlete takes may depend on training status, type of sport, experience level, and many other factors. Luckily, research tends to suggest that it doesn’t matter which type of periodization approach one takes when planning training, as fitness improvements are typically seen regardless of the periodization approach taken (1,2). However, the periodization model needs to work well with the athlete, their goals, and the sport they are training for. The table below outlines the five basic periodization models that we typically see in strength and conditioning or exercise science.
The most common types of periodization models utilized is the traditional periodization approach; however, like I mentioned before, the approach that an athlete or coach chooses needs to work with the athlete, their goals, and their sport. Therefore, the traditional periodization approach might not be the best option for every athlete.
It would be very difficult for me to inform readers on everything that they need to know about periodization herein so that they can do it themselves for their own training plan. Periodization, although simple from far away, is rather complex once one dives into periodizing their own training plan. Additionally, an understanding of exercise physiology usually helps big time. However, if you are brand new to periodization and want to know how to get started, here are some steps you can take to make sure you are covering some of the basics:
1. Start by planning your macrocycle, which is usually your yearly race season. Plan out your racing calendar, prioritize your races as “A”, “B”, or “C” races, and come up with a few major goals for the year. You will want to prioritize your races as the “A” races are the ones you build your season around. The “B” and “C” races don’t receive the same attention that “A” races should.
2. Plan your mesocycles. Mesocycles are usually 1-2-month blocks with a unique physiological focus. For example, endurance athletes will usually have an “off-season” lasting a few months in which the volume is lower and the focus might be on developing weaknesses or aspects of one’s fitness that are usually neglected during the racing season. Next, endurance athletes will usually have an “in-season” phase lasting a few months to maybe six or seven months in which the focus is on developing race-specific fitness for the “A” races. After the final “A” race of the year, endurance athletes will typically enter a “post-season” phase that lasts anywhere from 2-4 weeks and includes very unstructured training and time away from the sport if needed to facilitate recovery from the long season.
3. Finally, plan out your microcycles. Microcycles are usually the weekly, 7-day blocks of training that athlete cycle through. However, microcycles don’t have to be seven days long. Some professional athletes use nine or 10-day cycles when planning out their microcycles.
As long as your training is systematically planned with some rhyme or reason on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, then you are likely on the right track. A good coach will obviously be able to properly periodize a training program for you without you having to do it yourself, but for those that are self-coached, simply starting with the three steps above can get you going in the right direction. A planned approach to training is far, far better than simply doing completely random training, or doing the same exact thing week-in and week-out for months or years on end. For example, I know many athletes that get caught in a pattern of just doing the same sessions on their own and the same group sessions every single week for years on end. With this approach, while it will certainly develop some fitness initially, there is no systematic variation in training load or intensity. Fitness will plateau eventually and then the risk of burnout and overtraining will begin to rise. In order to see long-term improvements over years and years as an endurance athlete, training MUST be systematically planned and varied. This, again, is the definition of periodization.
I understand this is a complex topic, but I am more than happy to help answer any questions you might have. So, drop questions or comments down below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel like you want to chat more about this complex, but important topic.
1. Bradbury DG, Landers GJ, Benjanuvatra N, Goods PS. Comparison of Linear and Reverse Linear Periodized Programs With Equated Volume and Intensity for Endurance Running Performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2020 May 1;34(5):1345-53.
2. Sylta Ø, Tønnessen E, Hammarström D, Danielsen J, Skovereng K, Ravn T, Rønnestad B, Sandbakk Ø, Seiler S. The effect of different high-intensity periodization models on endurance adaptations.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS