Weaknesses of Periodization
If you have spent some amount of time studying training philosophy (sprint training, strength training, or otherwise), you are likely familiar with the term periodization. There are many studies that point to the strengths of periodization, and as such it is not my goal to discuss these strengths. It has been repeatedly shown that periodized training can be more effective than non-periodized training. Still, the improper application of periodization principles can in some cases lead to athlete burnout, poor performances, or even worse - lead to major injuries. In this article, I want to give you some things to think about so that you can exploit the strengths of periodization without falling into the traps that are the weaknesses of periodization.
What is Periodization?
Periodization is an organized approach to how you schedule your training in both the short and long term. Within periodization, various schools of thought exist which promote a variety of periodization models. Regardless of the model, training is broken up into cycles of various length, ranging from short periods of time (micro-cycle), moderate lengths of time (meso-cycle), and long periods of time (macro-cycle). The term periodization simply refers to training which is broken up into different periods of time.
In a perfect world, one could continuously increase loading parameters (weight on the bar, meters sprinted on the track, etc.) and the body would continuously respond in a positive manner. Unfortunately, this isn't how things work in the real world. In reality, one must ebb and flow between more stressful loads to less stressful loads, to allow for the body to be exposed to stressors and subsequently be given the opportunity to recover. The only time we get stronger or faster is when we are able to train and then fully (or mostly) recover from training.
By structuring training in a way which changes training variables over time (load, volume, density), periodization allows for training to be distributed in a way that is optimized for the loading and recovery capabilities of the athlete.
Models of Periodization
To keep things brief, there are a couple basic models of periodization which could then be expanded upon in great detail. For the sake of this article, I just want to cover the basics. The two over-arching models of periodization are:
- Sequential Periodization - Training is focused on a limited number of qualities at any given time, such as performing a 6 week strength block followed by a 4 week power block.
- Concurrent Periodization - Training is focused on improving various qualities within the same cycle/period of time.
With sequential periodization, you aim to develop a small number of qualities by focusing all of your efforts in a single or limited number of areas at any given point in time. This is highly effective for improving any one quality, but athletes will generally lose some of the qualities they developed in previous blocks. Because of this, sequential periodization is often used in a linear progression toward specific training means. For example, the long to short periodization method for track & field sprinters dictates that one progresses from slow, long runs toward shorter, faster runs (i.e. general to specific). Basically, the weakness of sequential periodization is that it often leads to some qualities being detrained while others are being emphasized. Additionally, you run the risk of injury when working on something such as maximal strength for weeks on end. Eventually, the body needs a break from chronic loading of any specific training modality.
In concurrent periodization, athletes are able to juggle a number of different qualities while sacrificing the concentrated development of any single quality that you get with sequential periodization. The benefits of this system are due to the ability to keep a variety of training means in the program at any given time, such as balancing strength, speed, power, and endurance at the same time. The weakness of concurrent periodization is that its lack of focus on any one category limits the ability to improve any single category of training to its fullest extent. If the body is being stressed with 5 different qualities in one week, no single stressor is potent enough to cause major change and adaptation. In general, this approach is best suited for maintaining all qualities, such as for elite athletes at the end of their career or a team of athletes at the end of their season.
Weaknesses of Periodization
1. Nobody can see the future, and plans make us blind to the present
Periodization was born out of the desire to plan for the future. The funny thing about the future is that technically it is just a mental construct, and all that we can really control is whatever we are doing at the moment. Training should be planned with a long term progression in mind, all the while keeping in mind that its impossible to predict how someone will respond to training multiple months in advance.
By periodizing training in the long term, coaches expose themselves to a mental dilemma which can be challenging to overcome. If I explicitly plan out every week of the season, and I tell myself that I am going to stick to the plan (because my plan is perfect), then what happens when week 8 rolls around and the athletes are not in the shape that I was expecting them to be in? The inability to realistically plan in the long term is one of the weaknesses of periodization.
While it may be true that some studies of old show that strength development tends to plateau after 6 weeks, that is not an absolute fact that is going to work with every athlete. Bobby and Jenny, your freshman twigs who can't perform a push-up properly, are probably better served by a week-to-week progression as their adaptation to training will be hard to predict.
Periodization is one of those areas where humans show their arrogance. It is common for coaches to be so wrapped up into following the plan, that they miss what is happening in front of their eyes. I know one coach who likes to hammer his athletes, following the same high volume program year-in and year-out. He has the "this is the way we've always done it" mentality. While he chooses to see the occasional successes and blips of improvement that flicker like the stars during the new moon, he fails to see that the rest of the year his athletes are suffering due to his inability to modify his plan.
This coach has become so wrapped up in following the long term periodization scheme that he has put together, that he cannot see his that athletes are falling apart from quite an early point in the year. Sometimes I wonder how people have jobs.
Main Point: Focusing all of your energy on planning for the future can make you blind to the what is going on in the moment - such as losing sight of your athletes falling into the pit of over-training. Avoid this weakness of periodization by planning specific workouts in the short term, and general themes of training and progression in the long term.
2. Periodization schemes are rigid, while real life is not.
Another weakness of periodization is that, by its nature, periodization is a rigid mental construct. When someone sets out out to spend 6 weeks doing this and then 6 weeks doing that, it is most common that they ignore their body's cue to stop and instead push through with the training plan at all costs. "That's the plan and I'm sticking to it!"
When it comes down to it, the human body knows not of timelines and expectations, but rather only knows what it is going through now and what it has been exposed to in the past. The body is going to respond to what you throw at it, but that does not mean that the timeline you chose is the timeline your body wants to abide by.
Similar to point one above, focusing your attention on a rigid plan is bound to make you less adaptable to change at times when change is imperative. You may be 3 weeks into a 4 week cycle when some achilles pain or hamstring tightness starts to creep in. While you could switch week 3 to a deload week and allow your body some time to recover, more commonly someone in a periodized plan will stick to the plan and push through the week of intense sessions to finish out the cycle. The risk here is that, by sticking to the plan, you are ignoring the signs your body is giving you to focus on recovery. Was your plan all that great? Did your scientifically validated periodization scheme work out? No it did not, and now you get to sit on the bench and watch your teammates have more fun that you.
Main Point: Rigid plans do not allow for the Plan B's of life. Plan your training, but dictate what you do each primarily by what you feel, with your periodized training plan coming in at a close 2nd. Avoid this weakness of periodization by being open to change in your training plan.
3. Timelines for training are not universally applicable, and they can be historically flawed.
A lot of the training principles we rely on today were developed during the mid to late-mid 20th century. During this time, the East Germans, Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States (among many others) were heavy into the use of strong steroids with many of their athletes. During this time, a lot of research was done into the adaptation to training. The information gleaned from this period was highly valuable in getting us to where we are today in regards to our understanding of training and adaptation. Unfortunately, most coaches miss an important point - periodization timelines developed during this era were heavily influenced by the use of steroids. Why does this matter? Some elite Soviet on the juice can train for 8 weeks with increasing loads each week, while Bobby the freshmen may need to deload every second week. Throw him on the 8 week linear progression, and Bobby is going to end up snapping like a twig by week 3 or 4.
Understanding the historical context of something is crucial, whether you are talking about geo-political interactions or when toying with the idea of doing depth jumps off of the roof. This is particularly important when looking at research studies, as much of the periodization research has been done on adult males. Due to hormonal differences, men and women have different adaptation timelines, and as such a periodization scheme that works great for a bunch of 20 year old men is not likely to work for a similar group of women.
Additionally, not everybody progresses through various types of training in the same amount of time. Younger athletes may need to spend more time on their general preparation work, building general strength and fitness so that they can progress to more intense and specific loads. Rushing them through the GPP could lead to sub-par adaptation down the road, or even worse lead to injury. Instead of creating a mental construct which dictates that you must stick to some predetermined timeline, allow your coaching senses to pick up on the clues which will tell you when to progress your training.
Main Point: Consider individual differences and historical influences on the timelines you use to plan your periodization & training. Think critically about whether or not your sources of information are applicable to you or the athletes you work with. Avoid this weakness of periodization by being aware of individual athlete timelines, and by being critical of the context of your sources of information.
Ultimately, coaches can choose to spend their time in ways that are productive or not. While it is very important for coaches to study periodization models and subsequently build plans for their athletes, this is not the most vital role of the coach. Avoiding common weaknesses of periodization without abandoning periodization as a whole is the best way to plan and execute your training.
The true value of a coach is their ability to look at athletes and their training from an outside perspective, minimizing bias and aiming for what is truly most beneficial to the individual athlete. Instead of getting caught up in sticking to the plan, coaches and self-coached athletes need to regularly and consistently adjust training parameters to optimize training for the individual. Just because you have 4x150m at 95% planned for today does not dictate that all members of the group need to or are capable of completing the workout in an effective manner.
Be open and flexible to the natural ebb & flow of training, working with the understanding and acceptance of the fact that not all athletes will respond in the same way to the same training. True coaches adapt to the needs of their athletes, and can sense when it is time for a change. On the other hand, faux-coaches stick to the plan at all costs, protecting their pride and ego by blaming the athlete for lack of work ethic or for being mentally weak.
Be fluid. Be flexible. Be a good coach.
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- Effect of concurrent training, flexible nonlinear periodization, and maximal-effort cycling on strength and power. (n.d.). Retrieved January 11, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23037617
- Periodization. (n.d.). Retrieved January 11, 2017, from https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/periodization.html
- Periodized Strength Training: A Critical Review. : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (n.d.). Retrieved January 11, 2017, from http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1999/02000/Periodized_Strength_Training__A_Critical_Review_.15.aspx
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