Periodization for Sport Performance◆ ☕️ 7 min read
Planning, programming, and periodization are terms often used interchangeably. In reality, they are quite different. Periodization is the overarching term that encompasses both planning and programming.
Planning is the process of arranging a training program into phases to achieve training goals. Programming is the act of filling this structure with content in the form of training modalities. As stated, periodization consists of both the structure of the annual plan and the content (training methods and means) as they change over time. Simply put, periodization is the structuring of training in a way which leads to a positive outcome over time.
Periodization is necessary as it is just not possible to optimally develop every biomotor ability in a concurrent fashion, especially for advanced level athletes.
Periodization usually occurs in cycles and is often considered from the perspective of 3 units. Microcycle which refers to a period of 1 week, mesocycle which often refers to a period of 3-4 weeks, and a macrocycle which refers to a singular competitive cycle or a complete season of training, like a year.
Single workouts feed into the microcycle, several microcycles make up the mesocycle, and mesocycles make up the macrocycle. Olympic athletes also often use a multi-year plan, like a 4-year plan that consists of several macrocycles.
An effective periodization plan is the one that seamlessly integrates training phases in a manner that constant progression is made from one phase to the next.
This is related to the term phase potentiation, which is just a fancy way of referring to the thoughtful management of training phases so that positive outcomes are realized. It’s the understanding that a specific type of training right now can enhance the effects of a different type of training at a later date. In other words, your current training phase can allow for greater training adaptations in your next training phase.
This really states the obvious. You need a long-term plan of where you want to get to and what you want to achieve before planning your training so that you can work backwards from the goal and structure your training in a way in which the outcome is maximized.
There are several different types of periodization plans that have been described in the literature and used to successfully achieve training outcomes. It is important to note that whereas intelligent training planning is obviously a lot more effective than no planning, there is still no superior or “the best” way to periodize training.
The likes of Verkhoshansky, Issurin, and Bompa have been the pioneers in the periodization field. They were the ones starting to uncover how training could be organized to more effectively develop athletes.
A common approach is the “block” approach, derived from the ideas of Verkhoshansky. He argued that it is very difficult to develop two different training abilities at the same time, like strength and endurance. And so, he came up with an approach in which a single training component is developed separately and dominantly within a training block of specified length. Ideally, this would then build into the quality emphasized in the following training block. An example here would be maximal strength work preceding power development. In such a case, the athlete would be trained to produce high levels of force at low movement velocities which then feeds into producing force at higher movement velocities in the power development training block.
Despite its popularity, this type of classic sequential approach does have its limitations. In an annual plan that accounts for competitive periods, you can never be sure that the specific motor qualities you trained earlier in the process will be maintained at appropriate levels as you approach competition. In addition, making significant adjustments to the plan on the go is also difficult, as the phases focusing on developing a specific quality build on each-other. Another limitation, mainly seen in the case of inexperienced coaches, is that the block transfers are very abrupt, switching from training one dominant quality to another. The transfers need to be seamless between the phases to allow for the athletes to appropriately and safely adapt to the change in stimulus.
What I’ve found to work better than a rigid block periodization approach is what has been referred to as the parallel approach by Henk Kraaijenhof, or vertical integration by Charlie Francis, both legendary speed coaches.
In such an approach, you identify all the relevant training elements or key performance indicators for the given athlete. These are all the various qualities necessary to be successful in the given sport.
Unlike what might be practiced in the classic rigid block approach, none of these elements will ever fully leave the program. You are still looking to develop and focus on one or maybe two elements at once, while at the same time maintaining the levels of the other components. Sure, you won’t be able to maximally focus on the dominant quality, as you have to sacrifice enough from that to work the other components on the back end. But even then, as an illustration, I’d think it’s better to gain a 3% increase in strength, while getting a 1% increase in other qualities or at least incur no losses, in comparison to a 5% increase in strength but an 8% decrease in endurance, speed, or any other relevant training quality.
Think of it like a dimmer switch on a light. You have a dimmer switch for each of those identified elements. Then, you might still identify blocks of training in which you want to focus on a specific element, but you will maintain the levels of the others. For this specific quality, you’ll turn the dimmer switch up while you bring the others down, but never fully off. You’ll adjust that accordingly as you advance through the training year. You can’t have all the switches fully on at once, as that will just wreck you. You’ll have to find a balance.
In case you need to, or it makes sense to focus on more than one quality at once, it’s essential that those complement each other to make the most out of training. For a sprinter, working starts and accelerations will go well with absolute strength development at around the same time in the training plan, as starts and accelerations have large force production requirements. Absolute strength wouldn’t go well with maximal speed development for the sprinter, as minimal ground contact times and thus elasticity is the show at full speed sprinting. As such, when maximal speed development becomes the focus and the dimmer is turned up on that, absolute strength training will have to be brought down.
For a general population client, the same approach can be applied. You figure out what needs to be included based on their personal goals. Then you work those qualities. Plain and simple. For such clients, it is less relevant what qualities you aim to develop together. You can concurrently give them everything that they need in amounts that they can safely and effectively recover from.
In terms of how long a training element or complementary elements should be focused on, or how long should the dimmer switches be turned up for for specific qualities, is largely dependent on the structure of the competitive year. For competitive athletes, you will always have to build the plan around competitions to make them peak for performance. If the time frame is not an issue, you could emphasize a quality as long as the performance in the development of this quality starts dropping or you start plateauing. That’s when you know you should switch it up.
What I have presented above is just a simple and practical way of periodization. I’m not trying to say this is the best approach, as we just don’t know which approach is the best. It’s best to be aware of all the different approaches of periodization, so you can come up with the most appropriate solution for your situation. What has been presented here isn’t all there is to it. There are other ways like the conjugate and undulating periodization methods. To cover everything is beyond the scope of this article. Periodization is multilayered. But the parallel or vertical integration approach is one way to effectively periodize your training.