Knowledge Level: Advanced
In the late 1940s, sports scientists in the former Soviet Union discovered that athletic performance improved by varying the training stress throughout the year rather than maintaining a constant training focus as had been previously popular. This led to the development of planned training methods that varied the stresses of training – duration, intensity, and frequency – over both long and short periods of time.
The East Germans and Romanians further refined this concept by establishing goals for the various periods. Thus the system of periodisation was born. Romanian sport scientist Tudor Bompa, PhD so refined the concept in the 1960s that he is often referred to as the “father of periodisation.” His seminal book, Theory and Methodology of Training, introduced Western athletes to this training system. It is still in print and has been updated.
In the 1970s European and American athletes and coaches began “Westernising” periodisation. This was largely done through trial and error. The scientific literature then as now offers little in the way of direction as to a long-term training approach for endurance athletes.
The basic premise of all sound periodisation programs is that training stress should progress from general to specific. In other words, in periodised training the workouts early in the training year may be quite unlike the key races for which the athlete is training. But as training progresses over time the workouts become increasingly racelike. While there is no scientific evidence to support such a pattern of training, logic does support it. In fact, most of the world’s top athletes adhere to this principle.
Of course, periodisation means more than simply training more specifically. It also involves arranging the workouts in such a way that the elements of fitness achieved in an earlier period of training are maintained while new ones are currently addressed and improved. This modular method of training means that by making small changes in workouts during two- to eight-week periods the body will gradually adapt and become race-ready.
Benefits and Pitfalls of Periodisation
The primary benefits of periodisation for the serious athlete result from having a detailed plan for the season. The plan is a product of the rider and coach agreeing on the shifting purposes, methods, and measurable objectives of training throughout the year. A well-conceived plan holds both the athlete and the coach accountable. It also provides a focus for the frequent assessment of progress.
Flexibility of training, or lack of it, may be the biggest obstacle facing a cyclist using periodisation. Once a plan is in hand there is often a reluctance to vary from it. Reasons for variance could be illness, injury, and unusual lifestyle activities. Successful periodisation requires flexibility. An annual training plan should never be viewed as “final.” Both the rider and coach must assume from the outset that there will be changes due to unforeseen and unavoidable complications.
There are many different types of periodisation. The most common is called “classic” which is described below. Other common versions are undulating, conjugate sequential, and block periodisation.
The first step in creating a periodised training plan is deciding when to achieve the first peak of the season. What is a peak? Bompa defines a peak as "a temporary training state in which physical and psychological efficiencies are maximised and the levels of technical and tactical preparation are optimal." In short, peaking is the production of optimal race readiness – fitness and form – on the days of the most important races.
The training plan is a single document that outlines what the athlete will do in training over the course of a season to achieve this peak. Usually, the season is broken down into seven-day “microcycles” on a training plan, but other combinations, such as 10-day “weeks,” are possible. Some pros train on other than seven-day microcycles since they have few other responsibilities tying them to the standard week.
The athlete’s training plan is further divided into five, longer periods known as “mesocycles.” A mesocycle is typically two to twelve weeks long. Each has a specific purpose. Some of these purposes are based on what the athlete’s weaknesses are relative to the events he or she is keying on. Here are the standard periods in such a system.
General Preparation Period.
This mesocycle typically lasts eight to twelve weeks. For some, especially novices, this could be the entire season. Most athletes call this the “base” period.
There are four outcomes that are desired at the end of this period. They are, in their order of importance at this stage of training, 1) excellent aerobic endurance, 2) exceptional muscular force, 3) refined pedaling and bike-handling skills, and 4) improved muscular endurance.
The methods to bring about these changes include long endurance rides at a low to moderate intensity, weight-room training that eventually gives way to big gear and then hill work, pedalling and handling drills, and long intervals done just below the lactate/functional threshold.
Specific Preparation Period.
This is commonly called the “build” period and often lasts six to eight weeks. The name “specific preparation” comes from the type of training done at this point in the season – training that is specific to the event for which the athlete is training. Specificity means that the duration and intensity of the workouts become increasingly racelike. Other environmental factors must also be taken into consideration such as terrain and weather.
Common workouts for road racers in the specific preparation period are intervals, fast group rides, climbing sessions, anaerobic hill repeats, and time trials. But the key, as always, is to mimic the stresses expected in the targeted race. For advanced athletes the greatest gains in this period will come from the intensity of their training as opposed to the duration of workouts.
Most athletes call this the “peak” or “taper” period. It’s the last few weeks, usually one to four, that immediately precede the major race or races of the year. At this time the volume of training begins to decline considerably so that by the week of the race the miles or hours ridden are only a fraction of what has been typical. Intensity remains racelike.
During this period it is important that a race-effort workout be done every 72 to 96 hours. These should be shorter than the goal race, but just as fast. The workouts between these are short and easy to encourage full recovery by the next hard session. This strategy of combining extensive rest with race-like efforts will result in superior fitness after just a few days or weeks.
This is the week preceding an A-priority race. It’s the time when all of the preparatory work comes together producing a peak of fitness.
There should only be a few competition periods in a season as tapering causes a loss of fitness that, if repeated frequently, would result in diminishing performance as the season progresses. Thus, two or three competition periods in a season is common.
Immediately after each competition period take a break from training in order to rest and rejuvenate. This may only be a few days early in the season or a few weeks after the last race of the year. As you progress through the season, the transitions should become longer. It’s OK to stay active during a transition, just do something besides serious cycling. The key purpose is rest.
This is a time to mentally and physically shift gears before starting the build up to another A-priority race.
Did you know that you can use TrainingPeaks.com Premium Athlete Edition Software to design yourself a custom training plan based upon your unique schedule and the concepts of periodisation? British Cycling members enjoy up to 40% off on TrainingPeaks Premium.
Joe Friel is a coach, co-founder of TrainingPeaks.com and the author of several books on training including The Cyclist’s Training Bible.
© Joe Friel 2013