Preparing for your target event requires a balancing act between sufficient overload and adequate recovery, all while moving you toward the type of event-specific fitness needed to peak you for your event. So how does one put this all together?
One answer has been around since the middle of the twentieth century in an approach to training known as periodization. First used by the Soviets and refined by Romanian scientist Tudor Bompa, periodization involves breaking the year up into distinct training phases that build on one another to peak an athlete for the most important competitions at the end of the season.
Periodization is therefore different from doing the same type of training week-in and week-out. It is also different than randomly switching routines every month or so just for the sake of variation. Periodization systematically progresses you through successive stages over the course of the training year. Long-term progression is the goal so that you arrive at the major competitions of the year in peak form.
Periodized programs follow the principle of specificity, which states that training adaptations are specific to the system worked. This means the closer you are to your target event, the more specific your training needs to be for that particular event. You therefore want to progress from working the least specific physiology to most specific physiology for your racing activity and distance. The closer to the key race, the more specific the training should be to target the demands of the race. The farther from the key race, the more focus you can place on working other systems that support your overall fitness and long-term development.
Periodized programs also need to alternate between the application of training stress and recovery. When you train, you introduce a stimulus, or stress to your body — what Hans Selye, a Hungarian biologist who worked around the middle of the twentieth century, called eustress (“good stress”). This is followed by a response from the body which leads to a positive physiological adaptation. Selye called this stress-response-adaptation process the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). But too much stress without appropriate recovery leads to exhaustion — what athletes call overtraining — with long term decreases in performance. So the application of training stress must be balanced with appropriate recovery.
At the same time, once you’ve gained a particular adaptation, the overload principle states that any new training gain requires an appropriate training stimulus that is greater than the amount of training stress to which the body is currently adapted. So you need to apply a training stimulus appropriate to your current fitness level (punctuated by appropriate recovery) to continue to ratchet up your fitness incrementally. A runner training for a marathon wouldn’t start at the beginning of their training plan with a 26.2-mile all-out time trial; there would obviously be a progression that incrementally builds the volume and intensity so their body can handle the rigors of that distance come race day — a periodized training plan.
So, periodization comes into play in two ways when designing a training plan:
- Your training plan will move you through a series of phases where each phase focuses on developing a particular aspect of your physiology, moving from least specific to most specific.
- Your training plan alternates the application of training stress and recovery along the way to gradually increase your fitness.
A periodized training plan starts with your training year or season (“macrocycle”). Your training year or season may be more or less than a standard calendar year; it just represents a large chunk of time that revolves around your major goals — one or a handful of target races or events, either stacked together at the end of the season or spread apart by several months.
Your training year moves through a progression of training phases, or blocks (“mesocycles”) where each phase focuses on developing one or more physiological adaptations. These training phases consist of about three to twelve training weeks (“microcycles”). Training weeks typically revolve around a standard calendar week (e.g., Monday through Sunday). Although it is possible to use training “weeks” of, say, 10 days instead of the seven-day week, most athletes find it easier to schedule around the standard calendar week.
There are different ways to structure a periodization program within a training phase. One way is to gradually increase training volume or intensity over a period of 2-3 weeks followed by a recovery week, repeating either a 3-up/1-down schedule (three weeks of higher intensity or volume followed by a recovery week) or 2-up/1-down schedule (two weeks of higher intensity or volume followed by a recovery week). If your training phase is 8 weeks long; then you would move through two 3-up/1-down cycles. The recovery weeks build extra time into the schedule to allow you to absorb the previous weeks’ training. Note that a “recovery week” is not a week off from training, but merely a week (or partial week) with reduced volume and intensity to give your body a chance to rebuild stronger than before.
Another approach is to place the hardest workouts at the beginning of the training block and decrease the volume or intensity as the training block progresses toward a recovery week. This allows you to do the harder workouts when you are the freshest, gradually backing off as you accumulate more fatigue in subsequent weeks. After your scheduled recovery week, you then repeat that pattern.
Do you need to schedule an entire recovery week every three or four weeks? Maybe not. Advanced athletes and younger athletes may be able to schedule a few extra recovery days (rather than a full week). Assess your own background and consider how you respond to the training to determine how to schedule your recovery cycles. The key to implementing any training program is monitoring your state of fatigue on an ongoing basis to determine when to back off so you don’t dig yourself into an overtraining hole — this is especially important for advanced endurance athletes who often push the envelope on their training volume and intensity.
Training programs vary in how they put together these pieces to create a periodization plan. To customize a plan for your needs, you will take in account how far away your target event is, its distance, your prior background as an endurance athlete, and your current state of fitness.
Before detailing the main training phases that form the building blocks of your training plan, the next lesson outlines the Alp Fitness training zones used in workouts during those training phases. For more on how to set your training zones, see the “Guide to Using Training Zones.”