The top 5 periodization myths
Yesterday Vern and I put on a workshop about periodization and planning here in Zurich. Over the last decade we have seen more and more critiques of periodization come out. On the outside some of the cracks are starting to show in traditional approaches to planning. But at the same time coaches keep coming back to it. With that in mind we kicked off the day with looking at busting some myths of periodization. If know you where something has flaws, you have a better chance to address those in your own planning. Below are 5 major myths that coaches need to understand and address in order to improve their planning.
Myth 1: We’re still living in the 1960s
This myth is never expressly stated in the literature, but it is implied. Most periodization models were built for a sporting world that no longer exists. In the 1960s doping was rampant, Olympic sports were still amateur, the season was condensed and focused on one major competition, women had limited opportunities to compete, many sports had little global competition, technology was not on hand, and more.
All that has changed in the last 50+ years, but the models have not evolved with it. Planning for one major championship every few years is a completely different task than developing an athlete with a condensed offseason and 9+ months of competition. Nevertheless, we fall back on the same tools to do both jobs. Vladimir Issurin, among others, notes the deficiencies of the old models, but the proposed solutions don’t address the problem. With his block periodization, for example, he says the changes necessitate that we further isolate physical qualities in training. This is just backwards: if we need to be able to perform nearly the whole year why does that require us to further separate qualities in training?
Myth 2: Periodization is based on science
Vern asked a key question in our workshop: is periodization science or ritual? If you look into the evidence, it’s clearly the latter. Despite all the numbers, charts, and graphs that give periodization a “sciency” feel, periodization models are derived from our traditions and not the lab.
John Kiely has devoted a lot of time to debunking the footnotes in most periodization articles: research is often short-term, on untrained athletes, not peer-reviewed, focused on isolated qualities like strength/endurance, and rife with other methodological errors. As Greg Nuckols has summarized elsewhere, even the research that is out there shows little benefit to traditional periodization models. So where does it all come from? Look at the work of people like Nick Bourne, who has chronicled the history and evolution of training methods for runners, and you see the influence of tradition.
Even the concepts behind periodization have little scientific support. Traditional periodization is built upon the back of the General Adaptation Syndrome and theory of supercompensation, which is an outmoded and incomplete understanding of how the body handles stress. Issurin’s calculations of the Residual Training Effect is the basis of block periodization, and presents similar scientific gaps. Periodization is sold as science, but when you look closely it is just a house of cards.
Myth 3: We can predict performance
Take a step back and what is the whole point of periodization? It’s an attempt to predict performance. That is a pretty optimistic aim. The body is complex. It is difficult to predict what will happen after one session in a controlled environment, let alone a year in the real world.
For me the first lockdown of the pandemic illustrated this the best: in track and field we all threw out our plans and nevertheless saw some world records and historic performances in the summer of 2020. Who would have predicted that? And just take a look at how few athletes actually peak when it counts and you see how hard the task is.
It is time to readjust the goal of long-term planning. As Vern has said, we need to get over our prediction addition. Think about planning as something that gives us direction, purpose, and structure rather than aims to predict the future.
Myth 4: Qualities cannot be trained concurrently
Most traditional and modern approaches to periodization use q sequential approach where different qualities are isolated. In the classic Matveyev model there is an extreme focus on certain qualities, while block periodization takes a more extremist approach by trying to complete isolate qualities. This is all built on the assumption that you can only train one thing well at a time.
This quote from the start of Triphasic Training summarizes the idea well:
“Due to the high training loads that are required . . . it becomes impossible to train multiple parameters at once. An athlete can’t train for strength and power at the same time . . . as a result each block must focus on one training parameter at a time.”
Impossible is a strong word. Is it really not possible? We take this statement as gospel without asking that question. But, as Nick Lumley wrote in an article years ago, how many athletes reach the level where such an intensification of a stimulus is required? I haven’t met any. In fact, quite the opposite. I can show you a long list of world class throwers that increased strength and power together, or any number of other qualities concurrently.
Myth 5: We can isolate qualities
The last myth leads into another one: can we even isolate qualities in the first place? It’s not just that we shouldn’t isolate, but that we cannot ever truly isolate. We might try to isolate speed in one block, and strength in another. But what is speed? Speed is a dynamic expression of strength, power, coordination, skill, etc.
Rather than trying to fight nature, embrace it. The goal of every sport is the concurrent expression of multiple physical qualities. Why develop them in isolation when we have to bring them all together to perform? We wouldn’t cook a dish by preparing each ingredient on its own and only combining them at the end.