Welcome to the Coach's Blog, powered by Dillman Coaching. This is the platform I use to educate athletes I coach about training and racing topics. I've been racing at an elite level in cyclocross, road, mountain and gravel for over a decade. This blog combines lessons I've learned through racing with evidence-based science from top authors and coaches.
I just finished up a series on Matt Fitzgerald's Racing Weight book. Fitzgerald lays out a simple 6-step process for athletes to use to improve their nutrition. The primary focus of the book is a focus on performance enhancement. What's the point of losing weight if your performance tanks? Check out those blogs if you want to know more.
In this post we're going to talk about Periodization. Periodization reminds me of that episode of Spongebob Squarepants where he and Patrick find a box and call it the world of "IMAGINATION." Well, today we're jumping into the world of PERIODIZATION.
What Is It?
"Periodization: to apply the appropriate amount of training stress at the appropriate times, such that an athlete would peak for his or her most important competition." (Allen 2019. p.106)
Let's set the stage. We have an athlete, let's call him Steve-O. Steve-O has a big race he really wants to win. Let's call it the Big Kahuna 200. So he and his coach work together to put together an Annual Training Plan which could also be called a macrocycle (Big-Cycle). But to keep things simple we are just going to call it an ATP (short for Annual Training Plan). Steve-O's ATP works backwards from the BK200 to create his training phases, which could also be called his mesocycles (medium-cycles). But to keep things simples we'll call them "phases." And within each of these phases are Steve-O's customized weekly training plans, also called microcycles (small-cycles). These are his day-to-day workouts that balance the short term effects of stress and recovery.
Steve-O's coach has to figure out how to properly plan out his training phases so that he can show up to the BK200 in peak fitness, ready to crush souls. These training phases include Preparation, Base, Build, Peak, Race and Transition. Each phase has certain goals and the training should get more and more specific to Steve-O's A-priority race. Again, Steve-O's coach should know these details and consider them when preparing his ATP and training phases.
If Steve-O and his coach use TrainingPeaks then they will probably utilize the ATP tool to help them plan out the training phases (See image above). Steve-O and his coach can create and edit his ATP and TrainingPeaks will automatically generate all his training phases based on the date of his A-Priority events. This is a very useful feature especially if the coach has multiple athletes he works with, because it saves time and keeps him on track with each individual athlete. However, life isn't always that easy and the coach may have to adjust the ATP if Steve-O has a bad crash or illness. This means the coach still needs to know how to edit the ATP without relying on TrainingPeaks.
This is periodization. Periodization is all about dividing the Annual Training Plan into smaller training blocks that each focus on developing specific aspects of fitness. You could also think of it like a video game. You start out with the easier levels before you "level up" and get to the harder ones. Periodization is similar. It starts with low intensity but steadily increases the intensity from one training block to the next. So next time you move from Tempo workouts to Threshold workouts think of it as "leveling up." Congrats!
"Periodization - systematically changing the focus and workload of training to maximize the positive impact of overload and recovery on training adaptations." (Carmichael 2017. p.9)
Sounds like a pretty complicated undertaking if you ask me. So why go through all the trouble of created a periodized training plan? What's the point? Maybe you've been training for years without periodization and maybe that's working well for you. And if that's the case, then good for you! Keep it up! I never said this was the only method of training. A lot of people use a method of "race-into-shape" to get faster. Or maybe others just ride as much as they can, when they can. But if you're looking for serious gains and you have serious goals, then periodization is your best bet. It may not be the only training method, but it is the best. Let me explain why.
Let’s say you have a handful of workouts you do every single week. One day you do threshold intervals, another day you do sprints, every Tuesday you hit the weekly Tuesday Night Worlds and there’s a long ride thrown in there as well. This is more or less the same routine you follow week-in and week-out. I see a lot of people who go about training in this way. And to a certain extent this will get you pretty far, but there are a few things wrong with this method.
If you train this way then your body is getting the same thing thrown at it each week and eventually the fitness gains you make will begin to taper off or plateau. You'll stop seeing progress. Our bodies need variation. This is one area in which periodization excels over other training methods. Periodization changes up the training focus every 3-4 weeks so your body doesn’t have time to get comfortable in any one aspect of training. This is good for us. This is how we get the best benefit from our training.
Another problem with this approach is that it doesn’t have any specific training focus. It's a shotgun approach to training. Train all the different aspects of fitness, all at once. Threshold, endurance, sprints and race-like efforts all in one week. What if your body isn’t ready for threshold or race-like efforts? Periodization takes care of this problem. Each training phase has a specific focus for training. The preparation phase is focused on strength training and cross-training to prepare your body for the upcoming training. Base phase is all about building a foundation of base miles and aerobic fitness through endurance rides and tempo efforts. Build is focused on increasing threshold and adding more race-specific efforts. Peak and Race are focused on dialing in your training to be specific for your top goals and tapering the training so you can show up on race day recovered and ready to crush. It’s always changing and this is good for us. Our training requires a focus and strategy.
Another advantage to periodization is that it is segmental and sequential. When something is segmental that means something big is broken down into smaller pieces or segments. When something is sequential it is carried out in a series of steps or sequences that makes sense to the overall goal. Periodization accomplishes both of these. It takes your entire training cycling or ATP and breaks it down into smaller chunks. And each of those chunks or phases progresses in a sequence that allows for optimal fitness at the time of you A-priority event.
This is the #1 mistake within the sport of cycling: not enough recovery. Athletes tend to think that success is completely dependent upon the amount of work you put in. Work harder and you’ll go further. And to a certain extent this is true, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. This way of thinking is dangerous. If we take it too far we will overwork our bodies and actually go in the opposite direction of our goals. Our bodies NEED rest. Our bodies NEED to recover from the stress of training.
Periodization makes sure the athlete gets adequate recovery by incorporating recovery weeks between each training phase. This is usually a pattern of 3-weeks-on, 1-week-off. Or for masters riders it might be 2-weeks-on, 1-week-off. This ensures the athlete recovers before increasing the training load. This is crucial for gains in fitness.
Another recovery-focused benefit of periodization is the transition phase. This is that time of the year, typically right after an athletes top-priority event, when they take a few weeks completely off the bike. No riding. What!? Yes. That’s right, no riding. This is important both physically and mentally. Our bodies and our minds can’t handle non-stop, year-round training. It’s good for us to not ride, let our fitness drop and start all over at the beginning of the training cycle.
Alright Coach, you’ve convinced me that periodization is the way to go, now how do I implement it? Good question, my eager-athlete. The best answer: hire a coach and let them handle it for you. But if that’s out of the picture then here’s a few tips.
Build your race calendar and figure out your top priority races. This will be how you build your ATP.
Realize that every race can’t be a top-priority event. These are the “Big Kahunas.” Typically A-priority events are at the end of the season. For example: Cyclocross Nationals are in December, the end of the cyclocross season for Americans.
2 peaks in one year is a good idea. Typically a summer peak and winter peak for Cyclocross racers. Or a Spring Peak and late Summer peak for the Roadies.
You’ll want to plan for a recovery week every 2-4 weeks. Recovery weeks do not mean no riding. It just means reduced training load.
You’ll want to focus on a specific aspect of fitness or training in each training block. This means a lot of the same workouts for 2-3 weeks and then a rest week.
Each training block should get slightly more intense than the last.
Training should get more and more specific to your goal events. So at the beginning of the season this means more variability and cross training. But by the end of the season you should be practicing all the elements that will be crucial for your success in the goal event.
It’s not an algorithm that guarantees perfect success. This is why having an experienced coach to help you through it is a good idea.
Don’t jump the gun. Don’t skip any steps or take any shortcuts.
Everybody is different. If you have a system that works for you then you can stick to that. I’m not saying that periodization is the only good way to train. For a lot of people “racing-into-shape” works really well. But if you aren’t completely sold on your current approach to training, then I’d definitely suggest trying out periodization. I've been using it for years and believe it is the best approach to training.
I try not to use too many personal examples, because I want to convince you based on reasons outside my little bubble of racing and training. However, the best race result I’ve ever had was 4th place at Elite Cyclocross Nationals in 2018. It definitely helps when the race is in your hometown, but I also have another theory behind this good result.
At the beginning of that cyclocross season I broke my hand at the Waterloo World Cup in September. This kept me from training for a few weeks and I didn’t race for over a month. However, this helped me to stay fresh for my “Big Kahuna” event and I had a great race. I hadn’t over-trained or over-raced by the time Nationals rolled around in December. Breaking my hand in September may have had a significant role in this process. It slowed me down a bit. I was still able to use periodization throughout the remainder of the season to build my fitness to a point of peak performance. And yes, I had a coach (not myself) to help me with this process and I’m extremely grateful for his guidance and support.
If I’ve sparked some interest in periodization or you have a specific question, feel free to reach out. I’m a dork and love to talk about these kinds of topics with athletes. If you’re interested in what coaching would look like then we can talk about that as well. Periodization is awesome, but it’s even better with the added benefit of Purple Lightning Power!
Carmichael, Chris and Rutberg, Jim. 2017. The Time-Crunched Cyclist. VeloPress.
Allen, Hunter and Coggan, Andrew. 2019 Training and Racing with a Power Meter. VeloPress.