Toolbox: Re-Defining Periodization
T.S. Eliot hit the nail on the head when he said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” And so it goes with training goals, the planted seeds of accomplishment. Turning dreams into solid athletic achievements takes a well thought out program with training goals to guide you through your course.
By John Howard and Gina Poertner, CHES
Goals are the mileposts that mark your progress and give you interim victories to feed your competitive spirit. Your set of goals and yearly schedule comprises the overall picture of your future achievement, known as the macro cycle of periodization. Your meso and micro cycles will be established by you (and your coach if you have one) based on your competitive schedule which we will address further in this article. Meso cycles are shorter, up to a few weeks and contain short-term goals. Micro cycles are shorter yet, maybe a week, which contain your daily objectives of training. The suggestions and practices that follow will help you to personalize these more detailed cycles of your plan to take you step by step towards your dream.
Formulating Realistic Goals
Goals are set up as short-term and long-term, each to be cultivated as you grow in your sport. Set realistic goals that are attainable yet challenging. Sometimes in the enthusiasm of the moment your goals may take on an air of grandiose proportion, and inevitably you may have to re-adjust them or adjust the time frame for accomplishment.
For example, when John Howard wanted to win the Race Across America (RAAM) in his first attempt, he soon realized he had short-changed his training and was playing second fiddle to a superior competitor. A second place finish was a tough lesson to learn after 3,000 miles of racing. Following this, a different set of more realistic goals were established with a methodical approach of setting interim goals and marking progress with each achievement.
Defeats and setbacks are all part of the maturation process, but after three years and three attempts, John finally broke the 24-hour world record for distance on a bicycle, an experience he describes as “exhilarating and gratifyingly sweet.” As a masters cyclist, treat goal-setting as the most important directional tool at your disposal. Whether your goal is to win a national championship or a local time trial, short-term motivators will make your training fun and exciting.
Periodization is a concept based on a scientific model created by Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye whose work has been used by athletes since the 1950s. His General Adaptation Syndrome is based on the body’s physiological response to stress which is categorized in three stages:
Alarm: Physical stress is initially experienced by the body.
Resistance: The body adapts to the applied stress.
Exhaustion: Physical recovery from the applied stress is inadequate and physical output of the body decreases.
Selye called positive stress eustress and negative stress distress. Eustress causes the body to increase muscular strength, speed, and endurance; distress causes cellular damage to muscles and joints and compromise the immune system. The goal of periodic training is to keep the athlete’s body in the resistance stage and avoid slipping into exhaustion. An athlete’s body must have adequate time to recover from the stress of training before additional stress is applied. After the body recovers, it is better able to deal with increased demands and the applied stress can then be elevated in intensity or duration.
Periodization should reflect the state of your lifestyle and training environment because every aspect of your life, from weather to responsibilities, dictates the ebb and flow of training. What periodization should not be is a regimented programming of pre-conceived, and planned disciplines that are adhered to with pedantic discipline, with little to no diversion for interminable periods of time, ad nauseum. Such a format offers no flexibility to expand or grow. Computerized training programs that follow cut-and-dried guidelines are the bane of creative training and prevent us from exploring our potential which is discovered rather than programmed.
The climate in which you live has a major impact on how you will set up your training year. Warmer climates give cyclists many more training days than colder, harsher climates where trainer sessions become the norm for up to several months in northern areas. Participation in winter disciplines such as cyclocross will also impact your schedule since you are in the competition phase when roadies are in the off-season or pre-competition phase.
Regardless of your locale and seasonal cycles, setting up a plan for your training year is crucial for success. As coaches, both of us work with athletes in various climates and a variety of disciplines, so rather than define the four main weather seasons, we define each athlete’s year as Off-Season, Pre-Competition, and Competition.
This period might also be called Transition. We begin this period by asking a few questions: How well did you achieve your goals? Where were you deficient? What were your successes? Were you plagued by pain or injuries? One of the components for this period include a brief time of rest. This does not mean lounging on the couch with a bag of chips watching the tube for days on end. The rest period is a time for light, spontaneous activity each day that allows the body to recuperate from competition. Enjoy some riding, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, anything that you enjoy. Let the mind and body rejuvenate.
Following a bit of rest and recovery, gradual conditioning with a variety of intensities and volumes, generally based on available time with sporadic intervals thrown in to test and monitor fitness are added. We also have rest days to add the necessary catalyst to make the hard work gel. It is important to remember that you don’t get faster from training, you get faster from resting. Pace and loading will vary at comfortable intervals rather than a strict interpretation of a training concept like “small gear intervals” based on seasonality.
For triathletes and road cyclists, autumn is typically the time when our weekly mileage drops and by winter it is limited to a long “base ride,” usually during the weekend. If a second base day is added, mid-week is the best time for it. Training at the gym or at home becomes more oriented toward balancing flexibility and core strength. Your goal is to have a body that is symmetrical where strength and flexibility are concerned since a lack of symmetry increases the risk of injury.
Contrary to conventionally structured planning, violating the rules of reason on certain occasions enhances the quality of training and makes you a more complete rider. For example, let’s say your coach has saddled you with a slow build mode in the dead of winter, and your longest ride might be 35 miles, or 2 hours on a trainer. But suddenly the weather breaks, and it’s a beautiful day with sunshine. Get out of your routine and stretch your limits. A rolling 75-miler on a bright winter day can be the perfect ingredient for expanding the edges of your endurance envelope and more importantly, re-charging your mental batteries. Another part of the off-season program includes a variety of cross-training such as jogging, hiking, skiing, even swimming to vary the routine for our cyclists.
Coach Gina takes to the cross country ski trails for winter conditioning. Use a variety of activities to enhance fitness during the off-season.
As our endurance improves and the body becomes balanced in terms of flexibility through off-season training, strength training is the next priority. It advances in intensity during the off-season and is used at reduced levels during the more active times of the year. Core strengthening should be addressed year-round since a strong core is a pre-requisite for strong cycling.
This is the sport-specific application of your training. If you are training for road racing for example, spend more time developing the “long game” endurance element needed for your training and further refine your prep to include similar terrain features. Train at similar times that you will be racing. For most of us working stiffs, this is done on the weekends. If the racing includes hills, train with hills and do repeats on same percentage climbs. If criteriums are to your liking, build a plan around short explosive efforts with a shorter recovery interval. Lead-and-follow drills with club mates are another good strategy in which you can simulate racing conditions. Regardless of the direction, TT, crit, CX, all have a pronounced, specific approach to preparation. Motor pacing is a great way to fine tune and polish the nature of your discipline.
For many of us, this period comprises the majority of our year if we are participating in more than one discipline. During your competitive season and as often as possible during your off-season, include the element of group riding into the plan twice per week.
There is a popular notion that a cyclist’s training must be planned out with specific low yield workouts or traditional strength training that is not cycling specific. Some examples might be spending three months in the small chain ring, or maybe obeying a pre-determined heart rate limit, or strengthening the legs with conventional strength training, none of which will be beneficial during the actual competition period. This is the time when training workouts are typically shorter and rest is more of a premium. Motor pacing can be geared to the event specifics to follow and represents a logical means of holding ground without beating up the body. This is the phase when all the hard work of building is stabilized with extra rest, weight management, good diet and frequent testing to check power and blood values.
A Few Focuses Throughout the Year
Coming to the sports of triathlon and cycling from a running background, coach Gina Poertner puts athletes on the podium by incorporating the Fartlek technique into the cycling component of her plans. “Fartlek” is a Swedish word that means “speedplay,” or random intervals. The intervals are basically done when you feel like it and at the intensity you like which could mean blasting over a short hill or circling a park loop at full speed with no specific time limit on the interval or the recovery. It adds the element of variety to your workouts and works especially well during the off-season when discipline, while important, needs to be kept in the category of fun. During the competitive season, this is a useful tactic to teach the body to respond at will, just as you would do during a race.
Another type of variation is time of day. If you train at the same time every day, change it up, especially on recovery days when the body craves variety. Not only is it the spice of life, it is a vital ingredient in keeping the training game fresh, and that means staying out of ruts that tend to plant us in mundane routines. By the same token, if you do your intervals on a standard clock face, avoid digging another hole by changing the “go time” from the top to the bottom or go at the quarters. The mind tends to tire of starting and finishing images associated with perceived painful redundance, so alter your timing and enjoy a fresher burn.
Flexibility and sport-specific strength training are essential ingredients particularly for masters cyclists. With age, strength and flexibility decline, but we can stay ahead of that game by taking care of our muscles with a bit of special attention. We use the BodyFiTTE™ flexibility and strength programs and periodize them for each of our athletes as an important component of their yearly training program. Athletes note improved flexibility, muscle symmetry and strength, and many times, we hear of improved sleep, an important part of tissue repair.
Happy New Year
Your upcoming season can be your best one yet by setting smart goals and organizing a plan to address your needs. Customization rather than one-size-fits-all structuring delivers the best results. To this end, we can develop a far more realistic, enjoyable, and spontaneous mode of periodization training.
Howard, John. (2010) Mastering Cycling. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publisher.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.
Gina Poertner, CHES is the owner of Life Balance Sports & Wellness who specializes in bicycle fitting and positioning, Dynamic Motion Therapy, and adapted sports. Gina coaches cyclists, triathletes, and track & field athletes at all levels of ability. Find out how Gina can help you achieve your goals at www.lifebalancesports.com.