Sunday, November 30, 2008

What’s Wrong With Periodization

I apologize for the big gaps in posts recently. Travel, the US Thanksgiving holiday and life's many responsibilities keep getting i the way. And I'm afraid it's not going to get much better for at least a month since December is always a busy time. I'm sure you understand. OK, now back to business...

Someone sent me a note a couple of days ago mentioning an emailed newsletter she had received. In it the author noted that a recent presenter at a training conference had said there was no research showing that periodization is effective and therefore it shouldn’t be used. She wanted to know what I thought. In a way the presenter is right: There is no research that I have ever found that compares periodization with some other training model to find which is more effective. I just confirmed that by doing a PubMed ( search on “periodization training.” There were 41 results. Every one of them simply compared various types of periodization to see which worked better or mentioned periodization in the study’s design.

I also did a search on “breathing exercise.” There were 5,248 results. I looked through the first few pages and didn’t find a single one that showed breathing was superior to not breathing. So by the same logic that means you shouldn’t breathe while exercising.

I realize that I am being somewhat facetious here. I get this sort of thing all of the time. People, usually coaches trying to appear cutting edge, create periodization straw men and then attack them. The common straw complaints are that periodization is too regimented, too generalized, not customized, not unique, or does not take into account all aspects of competition. I think what they are actually describing is their lack of understanding of periodization.

I define periodization as the organization of an athlete’s training with respect to time. How one chooses to do that organization is an individual matter. I only know of one alternative to periodization and that is random training. Since there is no organization it isn’t periodized. (By the way, random training may be quite good for novices.)

Many have come to think of periodization as having rigid guidelines that must be followed: 7-day weeks, 4-week mesocycles, volume preceding intensity, specific workouts at specific times, no concern for the individual’s unique needs, and more. Periodization isn’t this at all. It’s actually quite free-flowing and creative. A coach or athlete can do anything with it they wish—so long as it works.

This later point is the key—so long as it works. In my Training Bible books I laid out very specific training protocols that the self-coached athlete can follow to simplify the process because they generally work at some level for everyone. But do you know how often I follow those same, exact protocols with the athletes I coach? Never. Why? Because I’ve been doing this long enough now that I am aware of lots of variations and how they might best be combined for a given athlete’s unique situation. I don’t expect the self-coached athlete with no background in sport science to understand or even see all of the alternatives any more than I would understand anything beyond basic accounting practices while my accountant could see multiple issues and solutions.

So, should you decide to scrap periodization and do something undefined but otherwise new and different? My bet is that whatever this unknown alternative may be it is just another version of periodization, but with a new name.


At November 30, 2008 11:06 PM , Anonymous Zen Turtle said...

Everything in nature follows a cycle and every part of the cycle is equally important to achieve the goal.

At December 1, 2008 8:50 AM , Blogger Alan Couzens said...

Hey Joe,

The best validation for periodization that I have come across has been a study by Morton (1991) on the quantitative aspects of periodization.

It's a bit of an indirect link but there is a good amount of empirical evidence on the validity of the fitness-fatigue model. Morton used this model with average fitness and fatigue constants to 'test' a bunch of different training structures. Rowbottom (2000) followed up on this and using the same model showed a 3-5% improvement by using a step progression in the mesocycle rather than constant loading.

Of course, these models assume that the net load for the cycle is equal in both cases. This is where I see a lot of folks go wrong. If your annual load for last year was 15hrs but the max training that you can fit into a week is 17hrs then obviously your periodization options will be limited. This will be the topic of my blog next week:

Thanks (as always) for the food for thought.

Happy Holidays!


At December 1, 2008 6:27 PM , Anonymous rjebas said...

I can't help to think how thankful I am to the individuals that created the calendar. Who would have thought they had triathlon in mind !! How convenient that the perfect frequency for a long run/ride/swim is 1x per week !! How many training plans are marketed to fit conveniently within a 7 day week, or a 4 week month ! I doubt our bodies care how long a week is.

At December 19, 2008 7:35 PM , Anonymous Peter said...

Great post Joe, I have had many conversations with friends and clients about the great starting point your books provide But also the importance of planning a training for the individual and their weaknesses.

Will make sure I keep this post on file :)

At December 30, 2008 5:50 AM , Anonymous John Martinez, MD said...


Great insight into a topic that most coaches simply repeat the standard dogmatic practices of 3 weeks on-1 week recovery without looking at the individual athlete's response to the training stimulus.

Nice comment about the comparison/contrast of periodization vs "randomness". I never thought of explaining it that way, but love the analogy.

As far as studies proving or disproving periodization or other forms of training that in a coach's experience, just seem to work, I'll leave you with this study on parachutes...

Parachute Study - Do they work?

Still one of my favorite. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

John Martinez, M.D.
Coastal Sports and Wellness Medical Center
San Diego, CA

At December 30, 2008 6:24 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

John--Your parachute 'research paper' link was very funny. Thanks!

At April 14, 2010 5:19 AM , Anonymous Research Papers said...

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