Solving the Periodisation Puzzle
I have had a few riders reach out recently and ask for a blog about periodisation, as they would like to know more. So here it is. In this blog I’ll briefly define key terms, address the argument that periodisation is a void construct, and discuss why it is important to complete your training as prescribed as part of a periodised plan in order to reach your goals.
Periodisation refers to the construction of a training plan based on the macro view with pre planned training phases targeting specific physiological adaptations across a set period of time. The goal here is to achieve optimal performance at a given predetermined time point. Put simply, it is the macromanagement of an athlete's training.
The annual plan is as simple as it sounds. It is a training year. Periodisation strategies often look to work from an annual plan and allocate certain time points to general fitness, specific fitness and a performance peak as well as a recovery period.
A macrocycle refers to a period of training that can last anywhere from 4 to 12 months i.e. an annual plan can contain 1 to 3 macrocycles. Macrocycles often build to a target competition followed by a short recovery period. Importantly, a macrocycle is rarely prescribed as an independent entity, but is more often prescribed in sequence to subsequent macrocycles all building towards a key competition period or single competition peak.
A mesocycle is a number of training phases within a macrocycle that generally last from 3 to 6 weeks. There are many ways to construct a mesocycle, but the most simple is an increasing workload for 2 to 4 weeks, followed by a 1 to 2 week recovery period. There are usually 3 to 4 mesocycles in one macrocycle. An example of this would be 6 weeks general endurance, 4 weeks specific race intensity, 8 to 12 days taper and peaking, a key race and then a 2 week (active) recovery period or “transition”. (Note: The above example fits a block periodisation model. There are many models of periodisation).
The microcycle is essentially the training week (although they can last up to 10 days in rare circumstances). The microcycle should include days of high load, and days of reduced load and recovery, so as to ensure the rider is recovered enough to complete training as prescribed. If you’re coached by me you would have heard me labor the point about not cramming in missed training rides on recovery days - this is why. There are generally 3 to 6 microcycles within a mesocycle. Microcycles are where we start to see programming come into effect.
Often confused with periodisation, programming refers to the specific training session(s). Programming is more flexible than periodisation, but should still follow the periodisation design in order to achieve the micro, meso and macrocycle goals. It is the micromanagement of an athlete's training.
Let’s say that your periodised mesocycle goal is power at V02max development. There are many ways to develop your V02max and the programming design will likely be determined by the other goals for that period. For example, if short effort:recovery work is specific to your goals (such as Criteriums, CX racing or Omniums on the track) we could develop your V02max by giving you short HIIT workouts such as 30:30sec work:rest ratio at 120% of your lactate threshold. Alternatively, if your goals involve a short to moderate steady state effort (such as Individual Pursuits or Individual Time Trialing) then 3 to 5 minute intervals at 110% of your lactate threshold may be employed. Both these training modalities develop your power at V02max, but are very different in programming prescription. There are many other factors that may influence this training prescription (such as cadence manipulations, aerobic vs anaerobic work, interset recovery intensity and time, etc), but these go well beyond the scope of this blog.
“Periodisation is dead”
There is a growing trend in the sports science community of people challenging the validity of periodisation in the modern sports landscape. Although challenging scientific principles is an important part of progressing knowledge, the challenges to periodisation as yet have been proven to be baseless. One such challenge is that periodisation is “too rigid” and therefore isn’t flexible to the athletes changing lifestyle factors. This notion seems to stem from a misunderstanding between periodisation and programming. While periodisation is rigid, programming is dynamic and can be altered to meet the athlete where they are at that moment, while still working towards the periodised goals of that training cycle.
An example of this would be if a rider has strength endurance planned for a given mesocycle, but it’s snowing outside. The coach may then change their training at a programming level so that the rider can complete their strength endurance session walking up a flight of stairs at 60 steps per minute taking two steps at a time.
Missed training and not completing prerequisites
A scientific and well developed periodisation structure will provide a rider with every chance to achieve a high performance outcome in most circumstances. However there is one flaw in a well designed periodised plan. That is, IF THE RIDER DOESN’T DO THE TRAINING. Illness, injury and other life factors are sometimes unavoidable, and if severe enough, will require the coach to redesign the annual plan. However when a person misses rides for no apparent reason, we end up with what is called “cascading interventions”.
As we progress through a periodised plan, there are certain prerequisites that a rider must meet in order to best achieve the subsequent training stimulus in the next phase. When a rider misses training, we attempt to make up for this by careful manipulation at a programming level, while still adhering to the principles of daily loading structures to avoid excessive fatigue. However the capacity for this programming manipulation is limited, and if a rider misses too much training we end up with a situation whereby we have to pull the pin on the entire plan and start again, or risk the cascading interventions. Think of the little old lady who swallowed a fly, and you start to get the picture.
Another analogy would be climbing a staircase. You place each foot on the next step up. Now let’s say someone was to remove every second step. You’d have to start climbing at two steps to make up for it - which will no doubt make you tired. Because you’re tired, you stop climbing for a minute to rest, but now two out of every three steps have been removed. So you must now jump three steps at a time in order to progress. At this point your chances of reaching the top are unlikely, and you will likely have to stop entirely, turn around and start again. This is what is meant by cascading interventions. We have the scope to maneuver around the odd step, but skip too many steps and it becomes impossible.
Periodisation is the macromanagement of the annual training plan based on delivering an athlete to an ultimate peak in performance at a predetermined time point. It has many sub-components that cover 4 to 12 month periods (macrocycle), 3 to 6 week periods (mesocycle) and 5 to 10 day periods (microcycle). Once constructed, periodisation is generally a fixed plan, whereas programming - which focuses on the day to day training within a microcycle - is more dynamic. The argument that “periodisation is dead” is fundamentally flawed and often confuses programming with periodisation. Furthermore, the periodisation structure only works so long as the rider completes as close to 100% of their training as possible unless illness or injury prevents them, otherwise we end up with cascading interventions.
I hope this provides you a better understanding of the concepts of periodisation, and why it is the scientific best practice to help you achieve high performance success.