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Why Periodization Is Key to Unlocking Your Athletic Potential

Posted: Oct 07 2015

Why Periodization Is Key to Unlocking Your Athletic Potential

The goal of any training program is to become “better” in your sport (that is, more competitive) or more healthy in general.  However many athletes that start out with the idea of training for a specific sport season/competition often do not know where to begin, and often in fact make little to no improvement in their performance.  They often even experience a decrease in their performance or adverse effects on their health. Why do some of these athletes acquire get injured more frequently, and get sick more often>

The answer is something called periodization — or, more accurately, the failure to incorporate this principle into one’s training regimen.  Periodization is the process of breaking your training into specific cycles or phases in order to control the volume and intensity depending on where you are with respect to your competitive or fitness goals.  By setting up your training to vary in phases, you have more control over your ability to achieve peak athletic performance or better fitness at particular points in time.

Variability in one’s fitness endeavours is one of the most overlooked ways of training. Try thinking of it this way.   Your body adapts to a specific training program (or more generally, training stresses) generally within 4 to 6 weeks. Therefore, you need to vary your training to avoid performance plateaus. It’s not uncommon for average athletes to train without any sense of what they need or want to accomplish. As we mentioned in our last post, setting up a custom training program with time-specific fitness goals is the key.  When you set athletic performance goals to actually achieve, it makes it more likely that you will achieve them.  Doing this consistently enables one to experience a greater training adaptation, and most importantly, get better. Getting better is why you’re training in the first place, isn’t it?!

It is crucial that you begin the formulating your training plan by looking at a calendar,  and determining which events (races, tournaments, etc.) will be the focal points of your coming season. If you are not a budding competitive athlete, then you can and should plan to set specific dates for achieving specific goals (such as a loss in weight, loss in percentage of fat, the ability to run a certain distance, press a certain amount of weight, etc.). Once your target dates are set, then the fun part of planning your training begins.

Remember, the goal of training for your purposes is to be “better” by a specific amount (relative to whatever fitness aim you are trying to achieve) after a specific amount of time. Plan in reverse , starting from your goal dates moving backwards, assigning specific training phases to your program relative to where you want to be. 

With that in mind, let’s examine the various phases of a periodized fitness/sports-specific training program.

1)  Offseason/General Preparation/Base Building Phase (12 - 24 weeks): This phase of training is arguably the most important aspect of any successful annual training plan. This phase forms the foundation upon which all subsequent training is built.

In the world of competitive sports, this phase is also called the “train-to-train” phase because it is the work performed during the base phase that will allow the harder work to be done during spring training or mini-camps. The base phase is the time to focus on improving your overall physical capabilities and your skill efficiency. Training for efficiency means working on developing your skills at very low intensity levels. The other major aspect of this phase is the overall volume of training. The base phase will consist of the largest total amount of volume for the entire training year. This means you will do very low-intensity work; however, you will do many sets, reps, miles, hours, etc. In cycling terms, these are the long, slow days in the saddle.

2) PreSeason/Pre-Competition Phase (4 - 12 weeks): This is the phase where you work on increasing your intensity. You will begin to do some interval training, tempo training, some short explosive training and maybe some actual speed work.  As an athlete, you may actually be competing during this phase, but the training emphasis is still primarily on long-term development. This can be akin to spring training time in baseball, or mini-camps in football.  Remember, you still have specific key dates ahead (like opening day, playoffs, the main race of the season, etc.), so the goal here is to train with the aim of achieving peak performance around or preferably, on those dates. 

3) Adaptation Building Phase/In-Season Training (4 - 8 weeks): This is the time for focusing on a few (or just one) specific adaptations needed for your key races, or on focusing on maintaining your gains over the course of your sport season. An example would be focusing on climbing for cyclists. The same can go for physiological adaptations like jumping ability, power, speed, strength and muscular endurance.  Think of these few weeks as a time to work on that specific trait or measurable that you need to succeed in your competitive event, or that you need to focus on in order to get through the early phases of your competitive season.  If you are focusing on a sport such as track and field, with multiple off-seasons or where you are not competing, this is a great time to work on an alternate goal.

4) Peaking Phase (1 - 4 weeks): Usually the shortest, this phase immediately precedes your biggest and most important events. Realize of course that it is possible to peak two or three times a year. If this is what you need for your sport or competitive endeavors, it is of course important to allow for an appropriate amount of recovery time between peaks. Depending upon your sport, the peaking time will vary greatly. Some will do a very low volume of training with very high intensities (e.g., Olympic weight lifting). For those competing in long-course triathlons, the “peaking” phase is really a tapering phase, due to the very nature of training for an Ironman distance event, for example.

In summary, using a periodized approach to your training will not only help prevent training plateaus, but will also allow you to make quicker gains and time your conditioning levels with respect to the needs of your respective sport, or your targeted fitness goals.  Of course, it’s important to know how to set your training objective relative to your current fitness and conditioning levels, something where gap analysis is called upon.  We will focus on this next.

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