The practical art of periodisation
By Silas Cullen
Periodisation in training is about changing the training load to get better results. If we do the same training over and over again and expect continued improvement we will be sadly disappointed. It is the variation within a session, within a week, within a month and throughout the year that allows us to improve our performance and peak for events.
The cycle of periodisation is Plan – Train – Test (Race) – Rest – Refine. This pattern determines when you peak and the training that makes up the pattern determines how high that peak is. Whether you are a current world champion or simply trying to finish your next event with a smile on your face, the same basic rules of periodisation apply.
Here are some ideas for you to think about when periodising training.
Overall load, the principle that everyone forgets
Unless you are a full time athlete, training is only a small part of the overall load you are under. Family, work, social life, study and so on all add up to the total load you are under at any one time. It is this total load that should be periodised, not just your training. For example, I have coached probably a dozen people that have written down “getting married” on their questionnaire alongside Cycling Nationals or Ironman or another big challenge. There is nothing wrong with this, but when I look back and compare their training logs, the wedding actually made them more tired than the training for their big event!
We can learn two things from this.
Firstly, anyone planning on getting married should first take on a major sporting event in preparation, so they know what they are getting into!
Secondly, if you have any big life changes – moving, changing jobs, getting married etc, factor this into your training. This exterior load can have as much effect on your ability to recover and perform as training itself.
How long is your fuse?
Think of the mental and physical energy you have for a particular build-up as a fuse. When this fuse runs out you reach the point of no return. This is the point where you go from being motivated and training well, to being less motivated and not training so well or even unmotivated and struggling to get out of bed. If this has happened to you (also known as peaking too early) what can you do to prevent it?
EASY you can do one of four things.
- You can get a longer fuse by reducing load in other areas or by quitting your job and training full time.
- You can make your build-up easier so you do not run out of fuse.
- You can make your build-up shorter so you do not run out of fuse.
- You can combine the above.
Option one is normally not an option for most people, outside of improving general organisation and time management.
Option two would be the first thing to look atFor a less experienced athlete: cut back on the intensity, but maintain the volume as much as possible.
For an experienced athlete aiming to qualify for the Worlds or to win a medal at the Nationals, option three is the way to go. Easier training will not stimulate a change in performance in an experienced athlete, so it has to be hard enough to make a difference. Also, to improve by the same amount, an experienced athlete does not need as much of each ‘type’ of training as they have done in the past. Therefore their blocks of training can be shorter, which also means they can be harder without overtraining.
Don’t run out of fuse!
In a typical training year where you are aiming at peaking for your most important event, each successive block of training will get progressively harder and more specific and therefore take more out of you generally. To peak at the right time, you might do a twelve week block followed by a ten week and finally an eight week block. Any more and you risk overtraining. Some will do better still on a ten – eight – six week plan with two weeks of active recovery in between.
As your experience grows and your training becomes harder, this is what you might need to change, allowing for some harder training without self-detonation along the way!
The hardest rule for an athlete to accept
Picture this… You are six weeks out from your peak event and you have just begun a key training week, the hardest week in your current phase. Your power numbers are well down and you feel generally drained. All the signs are that your fuse is running very low and you have a week to go.
What do you do?
Most athletes simply keep going and muscle through their training, slowly extinguishing any chance of peaking for their key event. Just about every experienced athlete I know has done this. Mentally it seems easier to push on than to step back. They then come to the event satisfied they have done all their training, but physically and mentally tired. They are the only people who can’t work out why they performed poorly after all that hard work. In this situation it is very hard to be objective!
Six weeks out is actually a great time to reduce the load! Not with a long break, but a low load period. Keep the volume moderately high, but reduce the intensity significantly.
Come race day, your body will perform relative to the peaks in your training – the most specific, highest quality and hardest sessions you managed to perform. If you perform many average sessions with medium quality, this is how you will race. To do the high quality training you must do the unthinkable, and rest! Any athlete can train when they’re tired, not many can rest at the right time!
Take these rules and apply them to your own circumstances. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies and life loads which tend to fluctuate, but the simple rules of periodisation apply to everyone in the same way:
- When planning, look at your overall load, not just your training load.
- Lengthen your fuse to prevent self-detonation.
- Rest at the right time.
Don’t hesitate to adjust your training load as things happen. It is much more important to come to your peak events fresh and ready than it is to complete every training session.
Remember: the harder you think the faster you go!