Training Concepts Part 4 - Periodization (1a)

In this miniseries within the training concept one I will discuss periodization. On part 1 I’ll address what is it, its history and some of the 1st models, on part 2 I will touch about modern models and what is NOT periodization and on part 3 I’ll discuss examples as to how to apply it and why general schemes are not suitable for all athletes.

All training principles derived from physiology have the main goal to optimize the workload during training. The type of training chose for an individual should place a constant overload, produce a specific effect and always be based on the athlete’s specific needs, goals and limitations.

Continuing my training concepts series, this time around I’ll introduce the periodization concept, explain what it is, provide some history and then discuss some of the misconceptions about, some examples and on part 5, I’ll finish this series discussing the performance equation and discuss tapering.  If you missed Part 1 (Stress/Strain/Adaptation), part 2 (Training Load) and Part 3 (overload/specificity/reversibility), check them out!

What is Periodization?
In simple terms, it implies subdividing a training program into a periods of general and specific training (usually a year, though it can be based on a shorter or longer term) with the goal to perform an optimal load to achieve peak performance at some point into the future.

On Part 1, you learned about the effect of training and how with an optimal program, your body will constantly adapt and due to the type of training you do (training load mix) and its accumulation will result in specific physiological adaptations improving your fitness.

Considering that, if your goal is to maximize the fitness gains, then an adequate program with optimal training loads. To accomplish that you should consider:
1.       Set specific goals based on your needs
2.       Address your limitations (i.e. time availability, weaknesses, etc.)
3.       Vary the forms training load (duration + intensity)
4.       Constant monitoring of the performance equation (Fitness – Fatigue = Performance)

The difficulty most athletes face is to develop a program accomplishing the above, in particular since they can’t train everything at the same degree all time.  Understanding and using the periodization concept can “simplify” this process. Before getting into the details, let’s first do a quick review of the history behind it. This will help clarify some of the current misconceptions and misinformation commonly found in training books, websites, magazines, etc.

A History Lesson
The beginning of periodization can be tracked back to the second century AD to ancient Rome and Greece. An example was the famous Roman physician and philosopher Claudius Aelius Galenus proposed the categorization of exercises. He suggested a sequence of exercises focusing 1st on “speed apart from force”, then “strength apart from speed” and finally “combining strength and speed”.

Another example was the Greek scientist Philostratus who described on his “Gymnasticus” essay the Olympic preparation of athletes focusing on a 10 month training period followed by 1 month of “specialized” preparation; his essay included short and long term training cycles.

Contemporary theories of periodization were first proposed in the former USSR where coaches/scientists called for the division of a training program into separate periods. This separation allowed addressing different goals and target different adaptations over the course of a program.

Specifically, the main concept behind periodization evolved from these theories, in particular the need to structure these periods from general preparation to specific preparation (key focus used by most elite coaches nowadays).

The first known attempt at compiling scientific and empiric concepts was produced by Russian Lev P. Matveyev who analyzed the preparation of Russian athletes prior the Helsinki 1952 Olympic games. He asked athletes from different sports to complete a questionnaire regarding their training and this became the foundation of his thesis later known as the periodization model.

Matveyev stated that fitness behaves in cycles influenced by training and that it can be manipulated in order to advice peak performance for a particular competition. He also suggested, preparation should follow a progression from general to specific training (in my opinion his best contribution).

His model primarily proposed a structure in which the body should be stressed manipulating load and that there is a reverted relationship between volume and intensity. Based on this he proposed to make the focus of the first portion of the training (general) producing training effects via high volume/low intensity and then switch the focus for the second portion (specific) producing training effects via short periods of high intensity/low volume.

In his classic single model, Matveyev makes distinction between periods; one or two periods for preparation, one for competition and one for transition. He also suggested different focus in terms of general and specific conditioning through the different periods changing focus from condition, technique and competition specific training. He also added a double and triple periodization model to target 2-3 competitions through the year.

Still, the greatest limitation of this model is its simplistic approach considering training load; in spite of the specific characteristics of an athlete’s needs, limitations and goals (competition), the model largely suggest first a volume/low intensity approach and then a short focus on intensity/low volume previous to competition ignoring specific physiological, psychological and morphological adaptations. This can work well in untrained individuals but as fitness improves in the long term in can become insufficient.

As a side note; Matveyev is considered the father of periodization, and not Tudor Bompa. Bompa developed his theories based on some of the USSR thesis and later brought his interpretations into to Western Cultures through his books.

Interestingly enough, many of the periodization structures used today (particularly in triathlon) used by some coaches/athletes resemble Matveyev’s approach and more precisely, Bompa’s interpretation of it. Its popularity seemed to be the result of a popular triathlon book (with the word bible in it). However, while schemes based on this can be successful under ‘certain’ circumstances, as you will learn reading this series, its use is certainly not applicable to all athletes and/or distances.

Over the years Matveyev’s model wasn’t supported by many scientists/coaches and in fact was heavily criticized because it wasn’t developed based on physiological processes and instead derived from anecdotal evidence from athletes competing in various disciplines. In addition, the model was thought to be unsuitable for many athletes (in particular elites) as it ignored the specialization in competitions even within the same sport (i.e. 10K training vs Marathon training). Because of that other models emerged mainly opposing or questioning his model.

Scientist Peter Tschiene (German) was among them who focused on the fundamental biological changes that take place while training, rather than relying on an empirical model of periodization.  He argued Matveyev’s classic model was unsuitable especially for elite athletes. Tschiene constructed a model with different periods (preparation, competition and transition) but it included a mix of volume and intensity throughout the program (except for the transition period).

His focus was more specific to the physiological adaptations different training load incurs, though his model placed a greater demand on the athlete through a continue strain/stress/adaptation.  Tschiene greater contribution was the introduction of frequent load alternated with recovery forcing a constant adaptation for athletes. Still, due to the exceptionally heavy load this model might produce, it could only be applicable for athletes capable of handling the demands but also able to applied a wide variety of measures for adequate recovery.

Another critic of Matveyev’s model (as well as Teschiene’s one) is Russian sport scientist professor Yuri Verhoshansky. Same as Tschiene, Verhoshansky focused on the fundamental biological changes produced by different training loads. In his model he proposed a process of physical adaptation as the starting point. He designed a periodization model directed with different workloads targeting specific adaptations and discovered a phenomenon he called the “delayed effect of training”.

He realized there is an adaptive mechanism based on training load and the body’s ability to adapt to the training stimulus. A particular load will produce a particular stimulus producing certain adaptations, and even though this can lead for fatigue to accumulate resulting in a drop in performance in the short term, adaptations will remain and improve after a period of lower workload. By dividing the training load addressing specific adaptations through the periods, one can maximize gains and take advantage of the delayed effect of training or in simple words, the lingering achieved fitness.

Which one is better?
In my opinion, nowadays Matveyev’s model seems outdated and limited considering our understanding in physiology and how different training loads can lead to optimize specific adaptations. Still, his model could be applicable to certain group of athletes and he set up the foundation of periodization identifying the progression from general to specific training.

Likewise, while Tscheine’s model can be demanding for many athletes or even impractical for others, his contribution to consider physiological adaptations and a mix training load enhanced modern periodization. Finally, Verhoshansky’s model limited the focus of training to specific adaptations; he enhanced modern periodization by identifying  how different workload enhance different adaptations and while initially this might lead to a drop in performance due to fatigue, as super compensation occurs  fitness will linger and performance will improve.

With that in mind, most elite coaches nowadays based periodization in a mix of these 3 models (mainly Tschiene and Verhoshansky) because it enables them to address modern athletes specific needs (including age groupers).  On part 2 I’ll discuss in detail modern periodization models and debunk periodization misconceptions. Stay tuned…

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