Periodization – Myths & Reality, A Coach’s Perspective

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
-Dwight Eisenhower

The first part of the Training Talk with John Kiely on HMMR Media was excellent interview. It caused to me to reflect on what I have seen in my 45 years of coaching. It was not long into my coaching career that I began to question the efficacy and validity of the periodization I was studying and trying to apply. Ironically I have found the concepts of scenario planning from Royal Dutch Shell and other long-term business planning literature have been as valuable to me in developing my concepts on planning as any of the Eastern European poorly translated incomprehensible training porn. It amazes me that federations, coaching schools and universities persist in teaching these outdated theories.

Early on (1970) I found the translations were quite poor and colored by translator’s bias. Over the years the best translations were done by Jess Jarver, they were accurate and without apparent bias (he was not trying to sell anything, just educate). Often I would compare the Jarver translations with the Yessis translations and it was as if there were not even the same articles. Jarver’s material in Modern Athlete and Coach and in his books was very helpful. No dogma juts a focus on concepts and the process.

The original Matveyev Fundamentals Of Sport Training was first translated into German and then into English, the English might as well have been in Martian, it was so incomprehensible. At one time or another I read everything I could get my hands and frankly was wondering why there was not more there there. I kept coming back to Bowerman’s seven day, fourteen day and twenty-one day cycles that I learned in Theory of Track & Field class at Fresno State in 1968 and various permutations of those because they worked in my coaching situation with my athletes.

To me the key is systematic organization of training based on sound pedagogical principles. Is there science to validate training principles yes there is. Is there science to validate much of the classical periodization literature, very little if any.

Traditional periodization literature is heavily drug biased, if you look carefully at the various theoretical periodization models they are essentially drug cycles. This has been validated by the writing of Berendonk and Franke in their in-depth study of GDR Systematic Doping – “Doping: From Research to Deceit” and this excellent article in Clinical Chemistry. 1997 Jul;43 (7):1262-79. Hormonal doping and androgenization of athletes: a secret program of the German Democratic Republic government. Franke WW1, Berendonk B.

In traditional thinking about periodization there is an over emphasis on time when in actuality it is all about timing of the training stimulus and the interaction of the various training stimuli. This seems to get lost in the translation. Very simply I look at training as having a period of preparation, a period of adaptation and then a period of application. The length of those periods varies with the sport and the athlete. Not more complicated than that, but simplicity yields complexity. Those periods can be of varying length depending on the stage of development of the athlete and the sport. It is simple application of sound pedagogical principles to organize the training. Pedagogy is the science of teaching, great teacher lesson plan. They teach the lesson, evaluate the lesson, revise it and deliver another lesson. That is what we do as coaches, no more, no less.

Effective long- and short-term planning is the cornerstone of the athletic development process. The cliche failing to plan is planning to fail is absolutely true. In order to effectively plan to achieve optimum training adaptation lets look at the body and its adaptive capabilities. The body is a finely tuned system of interlocking internal clocks, all of which display predictable rhythms and cycles. All our bodily functions are governed by these internal cycles. The more that we understand and tap into the cyclic nature of the body; the better we will be able to predict and control training adaptation. Fundamentally, our body works on and is influenced by various circadian rhythms. These rhythms control the sleep to wake cycle, heart rate, blood pressure, neuromuscular coordination, body temperature, pain tolerance, and the menstrual cycle. If the training cycles are in conflict with the body cycles then the athlete will not get the optimum return from the training.

Periodization has been portrayed as a strict model which it is not, it is a concept. As a concept periodization is an educated attempt to predict future performance based on evaluation of previous competition, training results and what we know from science about the body’s adaptive response to stress. It is achieved through planning and organization of training into a cyclic structure to develop all global motor qualities in a systematic, sequential and progressive manner for optimum development of the individual’s performance capabilities. In order to apply the principles in our sport culture we need to depart from the traditional focus on the models of periodization that were developed and refined in socialist/communist societies where they had strict control over every aspect of the athlete’s lives, including systematic doping. In order to be more effective and applicable the focus needs to shift to the process of adaptation and the underlying concepts needed to achieve optimum adaptation by applying a systems approach to planning training. This implies that everything must fit into the context of a larger whole. Everything is interconnected. The elements of the system are only viable because of the relationship between the parts.

Planning is essential to sport performance regardless of the level of competition. The traditional focus has been on the long-term plan. It has been my experience that the longer the period of time for the plan the less applicable the plan will be. To be more effective the long term planning should focus on global themes and training priorities based on competition performance, training, and testing data from previous years. Think of it as the table of contents of a book. It directs the reader to each chapter for more detail. The detailed planning of the microcycle and the individual training sessions is where focus needs to be for planning to be more effective and practical.

There are contemporary issues that necessitate re-evaluation of the traditional concepts of periodization:

  1. A serious decline of basic physical fitness levels and fundamental movement skills at the developmental level. Even elite athletes do not have the broad base of movement skills that the athletes had when I began coaching in the late sixties. This necessitates a remedial emphasis throughout the athlete’s career because this was not incorporated in the foundation.
  2. The reality and demands of the extended competitive schedule that exists today. In classical periodization competition was strictly controlled and limited. Because of the careful control of the competition schedule it was possible to be very exact in the ability to peak for major competitions. There was a defined “off season.” This is not a reality today. This competitive schedule will not change so we must adapt the planning to this reality.
  3. We must consider the drug influence/bias in traditional periodization models developed in the former eastern bloc nations. This has a profound effect on the frequency and intensity of training and most importantly on the ability to recover. To base training methodologies on information derived from this system is fundamentally flawed, yet this is what has been done and is continued today. People who were part of this system have written the majority of the traditional literature on periodization.
  4. There has been an overemphasis on volume loading relating to the previous point. Systematic doping enables the athlete to tolerate significantly higher workloads. The published programs from the former eastern European countries always emphasized the periodic increase of tons lifted, meters run etc; linked to incremental performance improvement from year to year. It turns out that the volume loading increases in those programs was closely linked to changes in dosages of anabolic substances. For the non-drug athlete volume has to be increased gradually and in many sports it should not be the primary emphasis.
  5. Applying the improved understanding of human adaptive response to various training stimuli, especially in terms of neural and endocrine/hormonal system response. From current research our knowledge of the adaptive response has increased significantly. This needs to be applied in order to devise more exact training plans based on what we know of the science of adaptation.

To address these challenges I feel it is necessary to erase the word periodization from training lexicon. I propose that we call it Planned Performance Training (PPT). Planned Performance Training (PPT) is the timing, sequence, and interaction of the training stimuli to allow optimum adaptive response in pursuit of specific competitive goals. It is essentially why you do, what you do, in relation to when you do it. I certainly do not want to add confusion by introducing another term, but I use this term instead of periodization because it is more descriptive of the process.

The body is always seeking to maintain a state of homeostasis so it will constantly adapt to its environment and the stress from that environment. Training is simply the manipulation of the application of stress and the body’s subsequent adaptation to that stress to maintain homeostasis. Lets not over complicate and mystify this process.

3 replies
  1. Joe Burke
    Joe Burke says:

    A couple of notes:
    great article!

    The literature coming out of Russia was as much about disinformation as it was bad translation.

    If we are going to really to learn how to plan workouts for an athlete we are going to have to keep track how the athlete adapts to the work we give them. We will have to carefully track practice and competition results as well as keeping track of stressors outside of training. This is easy enough to do with weight room results but less easy with the nuances of technique. For instance, a lot of times the technique is good but rhytm or feel is not there.



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