THE ART OF PERIODISATION

In my last blog, I discussed setting the goals and introduced the BHG (Big Hairy Goal) and my approach to pulling a plan together. In this blog, I want to expand upon the periodisation and planning part.

So I’m going to talk about periodisation, modes of training planning and the approach to planning.

Periodisation is the practice of breaking an annual training plan (macrocycle) into phases (mesocycles) where specific objectives are targeted within each phase. These are often 2 – 6 weeks in duration. These phases are then broken down further into microcycles, usually based around 1 week at a time.

Within a macrocycle, there might be 1 – 3 BHGs. Any more than that and most athletes are stretching themselves a bit thin. There might be other ‘nice to have’ goals or Little Hairy Goals (LHGs). These are often Outcome Goals (I want to win etc.), or Performance Goals (run a time etc.).

Within the macrocycle, there will be a series of objectives or sub-goals that will enable the athlete to achieve their BHG, such as:

  • Improve swim technique,
  • Increase FTP by 15w
  • Improve fatigue resistance
  • Refine transition practice
  • Practice race nutrition

These are usually (but not always) process goals and are continually being updated, evolved, or new ones created. I covered much of this in my previous blog.

“Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” – Tom Landry, NFL Coach

WHY DO WE DO THIS?

Not everyone does! Some coaches, and successful ones, make it up as they go, with short term plans. However, this is very challenging and requires athletes to be very flexible.

Others might not be as clear about what they are doing within written, planned programmes, but they still apply the principles in the background.

I tend to find that many athletes want to know what they are doing and how their plans fit together. I like athletes to be part of the process, which requires them to understand what they are doing and why. With many of the athletes I coach being remote, not based as part of a squad I see daily, that this planning makes training much more effective. When I coached the elite squad at Loughborough, I would see each athlete daily in multiple sessions, and as such, the approach was different.

As a process, I personally find it very difficult to put a comprehensive and consider plan together if I don’t know where we are going, and what the time constraints are.

In my last blog, I also talked about the process of identifying what needs to be worked on, where the limitations are and what the strengths or opportunities are. So I’m not going to cover that part here; in the follow up to this blog, I will introduce some of the tools and metrics we use for profiling, but for now, we are going to look at the structure of an ATP (macrocycle).

THE STRUCTURE OF TRAINING

A critical aspect of a plan is that it is always written with a literal or metaphorical pencil.

Most plans need to be adapted at some point. I certainly don’t have a crystal ball that will tell me exactly what will happen and when. We might plan a mesocycle of 12 weeks of a particular type of training, 8 weeks of another. A camp here, some testing there etc. Always with a mind that we might change it when we get there. There are lots of reasons why this might be so:

• Injuries/illness
• Training progressing better/worse than expected
• Goals have changed
• Circumstances change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

I find it really helps to have the mesocycles outlined when planning the microcycles as it keeps my mind on what we want to achieve, but this is tempered with where we are at the time.

I establish whether we are on track by session analysis, testing, and athlete feedback. If we feel/see that a particular mesocycle is going really well then we may extend it, or shorten it and move on to the next one. It all depends upon what the goals are and how everything fits together. This is more art than science, more experience than textbook. However, it’s all based on the principle of having a plan or hypothesis about what a training block will achieve and then testing that to see whether that is true.

When it comes down to microcycles, I am a big believer in not making it too complicated. I have found that repeating sessions is more powerful than changing them every week for something similar. Fundamentally if you are doing a specific type of session there is only so many ways you can change things.

EXAMPLE (SIMPLIFIED)

ATP (Macro Cycle) – BHG in 40-weeks
Need to improve this, that and the other

Meso 1 – Base Endurance – 12-weeks
Aim: to increase cardiovascular fitness, build a ‘base’

Meso 2 – Threshold Development – 6 weeks including a rest week
Aim: increase LT2

Meso 3 – Aerobic Endurance – 4 weeks
Aim: build fatigue resistance

Meso 4 – you get the idea.

One of the current trends on training platforms is to make interesting sessions, that hit all sorts of intensities in the same session. To me, that’s called Zwift racing. That can be a powerful training stimulus when used properly, but if you are doing SST, FTP, FRC and sprint training all in the same session all the time then you are not really training anything properly. You will likely progress in the short term by better dealing with the consequences of that training, but it won’t necessarily progress any one area particularly well, or in the way, you might like. It also not that relevant to triathlon where you are generally aiming to maintain a steady state.

TYPES OF PERIODISATION (MODALITY AND APPROACH)

There are several types of periodisation model. However, many of the models are specific to certain types of sport, for instance, power sports or team sports. I’m only really interested in triathlon or endurance sports and many of those models are not really practical.

Structure of training or modality within Macros.

*Note: for the purposes of this article we are using a 3 zone model of training intensity:
1. Below LT1
2. LT1 – LT2
3. Above LT2 (LT2 = FTP)

There are many ways to structure phases of training, and some are more suited to certain types of training than others. The modality of training structure will depend upon the aims of the Macro/Mesocycle.

For example, in what would classically be a BASE phase, you are really describing an HVLIT (High Volume Low Intensity) phase. The structure of the training is going to be dominated by volume in Zone 1 with a little in Zone 2 and not a lot in Zone 3

VO2max training is much more suited to Polarised modality with a high proportion in Zone 1, not a lot in Zone 2 and a fair bit in Zone 3

This shows a simple representation of the various models. I’m sure there are more.

Other models I commonly use are:

  • Pyramid – where there is a lot of training in Zone 1, a fair bit in Zone 2 and less in Zone 3
  • Threshold – a little in Zone 1, a lot in Zone 2 and a little In Zone 3
  • HIT – not a lot in Zone 1, a little in Zone 2 and a lot in Zone 3

Each of these modalities has its purpose, and the last two would only be employed for short durations (2 – 4 weeks maximum).

Coaches call their Mesocycles a variety of things, usually to try and help an athlete (or themselves) understand what they are trying to achieve in the cycle, i.e Base Phase, Threshold Development etc). The modality is not always as obvious.

A 10-week Base macrocycle may be broken into two macrocycles with a transition week at some point. Let’s call them Base 1 and Base 2. The idea in these phases is to develop base endurance/aerobic endurance – whatever you want to define it as. Within these phases, the programme is then broken into 1-week microcycles. It doesn’t have to be 1 week, but practically and logistically this often makes programmes much more practical and achievable.

I have experimented in the past with microcycles that are not multiples of 7, and whilst in theory, it makes sense, it proves to be very challenging to work. Your body doesn’t know it’s on a 7-day cycle, but often facilities and training groups can’t work on anything other than a 7-day cycle. I.e the swim club has a session on Mon/Wed/Fri etc.

Let’s take our Macrocycle from above and add a little more info:
Meso 1 – Base Endurance – 10-weeks
Mode – HVLIT
Aim: to increase cardiovascular fitness, build a ‘base’
Base 1 = 4 weeks
Recovery = 1 week
Base 2 = 4 weeks
Recovery = 1 week

Meso 2 – Threshold Development – 8 weeks
Mode – Polarised
Aim: increase LT2
Threshold 1 = 3 weeks
Recovery = 1 Week
Threshold 2 = 3 weeks
Recovery = 1 Week

Meso 3 – Aerobic Endurance – 4-weeks
Mode: Threshold
Aim: build fatigue resistance

Remember though this is written with a pencil!

The objective is to IMPROVE PERFORMANCE, so you and the athlete need to be prepared to adapt to this.

The aim of a meso/microcycle is to IMPROVE PERFORMANCE not to make all sessions on Training Peaks go green! This is achieved by providing a training stimulus that overloads the athlete just enough to create an adaptation or adaptations, which occur most effectively whilst an athlete is in Regeneration phase, I.e low load for a few days.

How many? That’s your job as a coach to work out. Some athletes recover quicker than others; this could be due to age, job, history, genetics.

Look, listen and learn about the athlete. Read the signs, how they feel, how they perform in training.

PERIODISATION

When it comes to putting these modalities into the programme, there are really two main approaches to Periodisation:
• Classical
• Reverse

Classic Periodisation starts with a base endurance phase (HVLIT) and will progressively introduce more intense blocks as the plan progresses (Polarised, Pyramid and Threshold modes). This method is more commonly used with more intense endurance sports. As you get closer to the event you are training more specifically to the intensity at which you will compete.

In a long endurance sport such as road cycling (racing) when an athlete needs to hit a lot of different intensities, the crucial ones are usually the harder/higher intensity areas. Making a break on a hill, winning sprints etc. The fundamental aerobic endurance is of course required, but that doesn’t win races, it just stops you from losing them. So again classic periodisation makes sense here.

Reverse Periodisation is the opposite (in some ways). With Reverse Periodisation we start (after a short initial preparation phase) with some high-intensity work aiming to develop VO2max and the ‘ceiling’ of performance (often Polarised Modality). As Meso cycles progress the focus shifts from very high intensity to longer slightly less intense effort then to more SST and fatigue resistance sessions as the BHG comes around (Pyramid or Threshold modes). A taper phase from this can be 2 – 5weeks and may be HIT or it could be Polarised or a lower load format of HVLIT.

This Reversed approach is more suited to ultra-endurance events, middle distance triathlon and longer, marathons for an amateur (a marathon is not really ‘long’ for an elite), long cycling sportive etc.

HOW TO DECIDE WHAT MODEL OR PLAN TO TAKE?

This depends upon a lot of factors, including

• Athlete’s profile
• Time to BHG
• Experience
• Individual discipline requirements.

With athletes who show a very high capacity or better VO2max than their relative FTP or endurance, I would tend to work on a classic approach, at least for a while. Their profile shows they don’t need to improve capacity; they need to become better endurance athletes.

With athletes who show a very high FTP relative to VO2max then I will be more likely to use a more polarised approach to begin with, before consolidating the targeted increase in capacity with more race-specific endurance work closer to the BHG.

I don’t have a set model that I apply to any athlete, there are principles and process to go through before deciding the right approach (in my opinion), but the outcome is always unique to the athlete.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE CHANGE THE PLAN?

Plans can change, particularly in this current time, when events are cancelled or moved a lot, so the programme needs to be flexible to facilitate this. For me that’s why the plan is so important. As a coach I need to know what I am trying to do. Having the plan clear and simple enables me to adapt them, so we can change training stimulus, or introduce more technique, or S&C etc. The BHG sets the agenda and then the rest of it is trying to meet the objectives.

“Just because you made a good plan, doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen.” Taylor Swift

Towards the end of mesocycles I start to look in more detail at the load the athlete is under, the feedback they are providing and begin making decisions about whether we have overloaded them enough, too much or just right. There could be many reasons why the athlete is more fatigued than anticipated, and it might be appropriate to stop the phase early, to prevent overdoing it. Or it might be they have managed everything well and we can still get another few more days in before we hit that point. There is no point sticking to the plan if it is no longer relevant or hitting the objective.

DOES THE PLAN LOOK THE SAME YEAR AFTER YEAR?

With athletes I have worked with for many years, we can see a progression to the Periodisation. We learn lessons as we go and apply them to future years, but as most of the athletes I coach are developing then so are their programmes. Each year we go through a similar process

  • Review where are we at.
  • Where have we been?
  • What are we going to do now?
  • What needs to stay the same?
  • What needs to change?

Then we can go through the process of planning the new ATP (Macrocycle).

SUMMARY

So to summarise:

We have phases of training:

  • Macrocycles (ATP)
  • Mezocyles (multi week)
  • Microcycles (1 week)

We have modalities of training model:

  • HVLIT
  • Polarised (and reversed)
  • Pyramid (and reversed)
  • HIT
  • Threshold

We have training periodisation:

  • Classic
  • Reversed

And lastly which we haven’t touched on this time we have sessions and sessions types.

  • VO2max
  • Base
  • FTP
  • Sweetspot
  • CSS etc……..

Combine these with your goals and shake it all up and hey presto……..a training programme.

FINAL RANT

Polarised training is a big buzz word/topic at the moment. To me this is just plain daft in an ultra-endurance sport. Or any other sport for that matter. Polarised training is a method that fits into a big picture plan, it’s not the whole plan!

I coached an athlete a while ago, who said he wanted to give polarised training a real go. He moved to another coach who exclusively coached with a polarised approach. All through the winter, he was hitting powers and performances that were as good if not better than he had hit before. Long story short, his race season was rubbish. He massively underperformed in races. He was unable to hold previously comfortable race powers, yet he could knock out a very good 10m TT. Fundamentally the approach missed a key ingredient – SPECIFICITY. Non-drafting triathlon requires long periods at sub-threshold power. So, although his ceiling had been lifted, he had done no work to back this up.

This was a few years ago now, and the first time I saw the potential of polarising training, but only for specific periods, it’s just a part of a proper training plan, not the whole solution.

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