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.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coaching Opening

It’s that time of year—end of one season and the start of the next. It's time to start thinking about 2009. I have an opening to coach one more athlete—triathlete or road cyclist—for the coming season. I coach only 5 athletes a year and offer just one level of coaching—full service. That means customized and periodized training following the principles in my Training Bible books. I review your workouts daily through; analyze your power, pace and heart rate files; send you weekly charts illustrating fitness, fatigue, form and more along with my comments; talk with you weekly to refine your program and answer questions; assist with your nutrition and sports psychology needs; use the latest in scientific training methods for you; and a lot more. The bottom line is that I will help you achieve your goals.

I don't coach just anyone. There is a screening process. I know I work best with certain types of athletes and want to make sure that we are compatible. I also look for athletes who have set high goals for themselves, ones that are achievable but a good stretch. Age, ability and gender are not concerns.

A power meter and heart rate monitor are requirements, as is a speed and distance device for triathletes along with WKO+ software (I’ll teach you how to use them all). We would start with you spending a couple of days with me (in Scottsdale, Arizona) for VO2/metabolic testing, physical assessment, bike fit and skills refinement. This would be scheduled as soon as possible, but at your convenience.

The bottom line is that you will receive coaching service second to none.

My fee is US$1500 per month ($8000 if paying six months in advance). If you would like references, my current athlete-clients would be happy to answer your questions about my coaching. You can also learn more about my coaching at

If interested, please contact me by email at

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More on Volume

I thought this was a good question:

Q: What do you base the statements in the blog below on (Thoughts on Volume)? As far as I can see high volume low intensity training does not affect the bodily functions that you describe in a better way than does high-intensity training.

A: Thanks for your note. Good question. I’ll try to answer it.

There are basically two ways to improve fitness. For now let’s call fitness aerobic endurance, or more specifically, aerobic capacity (VO2max). The two ways are through an emphasis on volume and through an emphasis on intensity, especially an intensity at or near VO2max. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. For example, volume-based training requires more time (as in weeks/months) to reach a similar level of fitness as when using intensity-based training. High intensity training has a greater risk of breakdown from injury, illness and burnout. Volume-based training has a greater benefit for muscle capillarization while high intensity does more to improve heart stroke volume. There are others but I won’t go into all of them here.

Of course, we don’t have to use just one or the other. Both may be used quite nicely at different times in the season (that's in part what periodization is all about) and are complimentary. At this time of year, assuming an athlete has several months (at least 5) until his/her first A-priority race of the year, I like to have the athlete focus on volume-based training. Don’t assume this means “long, slow distance.” I don’t really believe in that at all except when recovering. The volume I like includes aerobic threshold training, speed skills and force training. These are all described in my Training Bible books. I’ve found most athletes do a poor job of training these three abilities. I’ve even found riders who, when at the end of their seasons when they should be in great aerobic condition, cannot complete the long, steady aerobic threshold workouts I have athletes doing now—at the start of winter. Their aerobic fitness still is not complete. Athletes tend to be impatient and want to get to the hard stuff too soon and never fully develop their most basic abilities. A little patience goes a long way at this time of year.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


One of the athletes I coach had her last race of the season this past weekend. It didn’t go well; one of her worst races of the year. Her head just wasn’t in it, she said. That sometimes happens this time of year. It’s been a long season made up of purposeful workouts and weekly goals for what can seem like a never-ending 11-month tunnel of focus. For the most part, she got stronger with every race and altogether had a great season despite this finale.

When we talked after the weekend’s race, however, she was not depressed or angry. While she certainly would have liked to have performed better, there was no second-guessing or blaming others. She took full responsibility without commiseration. Interestingly, her previous race two weeks before was perhaps the best of her season. When we spoke after that race she was pleased but not ecstatic or giddy. There were no whoops of joy.

What really stood out for me from these two races was that there wasn’t 10% of difference, if we can measure such things, between her temperament from the best race to the worst race of the season. She was quite even-tempered. No excessive highs or lows. There was just a slight variation in disposition in spite of the big difference in outcomes. I have found this mental characteristic in nearly all of the most successful athletes I’ve coached.

For example, in the late 1990s I coached Ryan Bolton as he worked to make the US Olympic triathlon team for the Sydney Games. I’ve never coached an athlete who experienced so many setbacks that seemed to be out of his control. There was a period of several weeks in the summer of 1999 when he was repeatedly sick. During this time he lost a lot of fitness, was unable to race and dropped from 25th in world rankings to 76th. He never once broke down when it seemed he wasn’t going to make it. He never lost his focus, never became depressed, never felt sorry for himself, and never gave up when many would have. In May of 2000 he qualified for the team. The evening after that qualifying race was the only time I saw him truly celebrate after a race, and deservedly so.

I could tell you about many more such athletes both in cycling and multisport—pros and amateurs, old and young, men and women. In fact, I’ve yet to coach anyone who wore his or her emotions on the sleeve, who was easily depressed, or who was always ecstatic after victory who went on to be an exceptional athlete. I’m sure they exist. I just haven’t come across one. And it could be me. I’m sure I work better with even-tempered athletes. I suspect that in endurance sport it may even be beneficial to be evenly tempered. I’ve never seen any research on this. But it appears to me that long events are best managed when staying calm. Emotional swings would seem to be a disadvantage and a potential energy-waster when one still has several minutes if not several hours or days to go to the finish line – or the end of the season.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Q&A: Aging and Injuries

Question: I'm 50 and starting to get new injuries, and old injuries are creeping back into the picture. I'm concerned about taking extended time off to recover and heal correctly and being able to come back at the same level I'm used to. My concern is not being able to race at the level I've worked hard to achieve and maintain. I appreciate your thoughts and input. Thanks!

Answer: Thanks for your note. There is no doubt that some fitness will be lost if you reduce or eliminate training for some extended period of time to allow the injuries to heal. But the alternative seems even worse—to train at a reduced level in order to mollify your injuries for a (probably) long period of time.

A short, personal anecdote: In 1994 at age 50 I was diagnosed with viral myocarditis, an inflammation of muscles in the heart due to a virus from a bad cold I had that winter. I was advised by my cardiologist to take time off from training until the symptoms were gone. It turned out to be 7 months of no activity whatsoever. I started training gently again in October of that year. By June the following year I podiumed at nationals and was in as good of a physical condition as I had ever been in recent years.

Injuries must be attended to immediately and aggressively. I always have my client-athletes stop or greatly reduce training when an injury pops up. We try to nip it in the bud immediately. Better to lose a few days than a few months.

The bigger issue, it seems to me, is to avoid injuries in the first place. If I was in your place I’d be trying to determine why this is happening. Age is not a good answer. That’s just a cop-out for allowing an imbalance of some sort to occur (strength or flexibility, most likely). There is no physiological reason why age, by itself, should cause an injury. I’d suggest seeing a physical therapist who works with endurance athletes and have him/her assess your body from head to toe and tell you what may be causing this. Then you would begin to devote training time to prevention.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Thoughts on Volume

There is little doubt that the key to high performance is getting the intensity of training right in the last few weeks before a race. Volume is much less important at that time on the year. But now is the time of year when summer-sport endurance athletes in the northern hemisphere should be devoting a great deal of time to training aerobically. Bumping up the volume can provide a significant payback later on. The primary benefits to be achieved with high-volume, low-intensity training take place primarily in the muscles: increased mitochondrial density for the production of energy from fat, increased capillary density for the delivery of oxygen and fuel to the muscles, and enhanced activity of aerobic, fat-metabolizing enzymes. These adaptations take years to maximize. Kenyan runners are a great example of this. They spend much of their childhood using running as transportation since their families often don’t have cars. It’s during these years that they develop superior aerobic fitness which serves as the base of their high-performance training later in life.

High-volume training should be conducted at an intensity well below the anaerobic/lactate threshold to be affective. I like to have the athletes I train do the bulk of such training in their heart rate or power 2 zones. This is about 80 to 89% of lactate threshold heart rate and 65 to 75% of functional threshold power (FTP). Throughout the base period I compare their heart rates with their power or pace when doing such steady-state workouts to see how much drift is taking place. I call this “decoupling.” They should be able to do quite long workouts with minimal decoupling (less than 5%) before starting into the build period of training. For details on this go
here and read the article on “AeT Training.”

Webinars Archive: On another topic...TrainingBible Coaching now has posted webinars our coaches and I have done in the last few months. Included are triathlon swim strategies, the Paleo diet for athletes and race pacing strategies. They may be viewed here.