Periodization is a pretty common term and training practice within the realm of endurance sports. When most endurance athletes think of periodization, they think of a pyramid; with the lowest intensity/highest volume at the bottom and the highest intensity/lowest volume at the top. This pyramid is typically designed to peak for one event per year, or in some cases, multiple peaks per year.
Origins of Periodization
The concept of periodization was developed during the 1950s in the Soviet Union as a way to train for the Olympics. After the Russians did well at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, it put periodization on the map as a novel and groundbreaking way to train. Because of this attention, periodization was established as a formal training practice in 1964 by Leo Matveyev. The establishment of periodization as a training practice primarily resulted from Matveyev’s book, Fundamentals of Sports Training. Matveyev’s periodization training principles were later adapted for use in Western countries in the mid-1980s. Tudor Bompa is often credited with being the founding father of modern periodization and, more specifically, responsible for bringing the concepts of periodization to Western countries.
Specific to running, Arthur Lydiard created a periodization model that many runners have followed throughout the years.
There are also detractors of periodization in terms of the overall concept of periodization, as well as what model is best for what population. While this topic will be covered in another post, it is worth noting.
But What Exactly Is Periodization?
Concerning sports training, periodization typically refers to organizing an annual training program into quantifiable blocks of time (i.e., periods or phases) that specific physiological areas are focused on. While there are different models and theories on periodization, the overall gist of periodization is the same – to program and highlight specific training variables in phases with the purpose of having an athlete reach their peak condition at a particular point in time… most often, their goal event.
Key Training Principles
Before we get into reverse periodization, the following are three trends to focus on regarding constructing a training program, which relates to periodization.
Focus on developing the most race-specific physiology closest to the race and, conversely, develop the least specific physiology furthest away.
Focus on strengths closest to a race and weaknesses further away.
Common sense dictates that the most specific physiology to a particular race will not always align with an athlete’s strengths. So, what should you do if the most specific physiology to a goal race of yours also happens to be your weakness? Double down and start focusing on your area of weakness further from the race.
During a training block, start with workouts with the highest training load and progress to workouts with the lowest load.
This trend is often reversed. Meaning athletes will often start off a training block at a relatively easy training load and increase it as the block goes on. The result is that they are fatigued toward the end of the block when the highest training load sessions occur, and therefore, the training effect is reduced. Conversely, if athletes perform the highest training load at the beginning of a training block, they can perform at or near their maximum potential due to being the freshest at any time during the training block.
As the name suggests, reverse periodization is the opposite of ‘traditional’ periodization, as defined in the introductory paragraph. Meaning, instead of focusing on low intensity/high volume at the beginning of a program (or training phase), the focus is on high intensity and low volume.
The next logical question is, in what scenario would reverse periodization be appropriate?
To answer this question, let’s go back to trend #2 and, more specifically, the ‘Least Specific to Most Specific’ trend. This means exactly as it sounds. For the race type/distance that you are training for (in this example, we’ll assume it’s a 5K), the least specific training medium comes at the beginning of the training period, and the most specific training medium comes at the end of the training period. As 5K’s are raced at fairly high intensity, endurance training is the least specific training medium, and speed/interval training is the most specific. The opposite is true for long-distance events such as marathons and ultramarathons.
As alluded to in the opening paragraph, the traditional way periodization is structured is to focus on low intensity/high volume first and then slowly transition to high intensity/low volume toward the end of the training cycle. However, as noted above, as it relates to long-distance events such as marathons and ultramarathons, the opposite (reverse periodization) would likely be the correct method.
The point of this is that the ‘type’ or structure of periodization should not always be the same. Rather, the structure of a training program with respect to periodization type should be assessed based on the needs of an individual (strengths/weaknesses) and the type of event being trained for.
There are two caveats that no matter what, easy cardiovascular training should take place before any sort of intensity is integrated.
- If someone is new to cardiovascular training and/or is cardiovascularly deconditioned, it is advised to start off with easy intensity to allow them to focus on developing aerobic fitness without too much stress.
- “Metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness.”
This quote by Jay Johnson means that individuals’ cardiovascular adaptation occurs at a faster rate than their musculoskeletal adaptation. For example, from a cardiovascular standpoint, a runner might have no problem running for an hour at an intense level. However, their muscles and connective tissue might not be able to support or sustain this effort.
Therefore, for athletes that do not have a foundational base of volume (especially those in impact-related sports such as running), starting off at easy intensities will help the muscular and connective tissues adapt to the training process. This is not to say that hard efforts cannot or should not be fused into the initial stages of a training program. However, they should be integrated intelligently.
Too Much Volume at Either End of the Spectrum
This is often the case with those training for a marathon. The beginning part of the program is primarily made up of easy runs that increase in time/distance (i.e., base training) and the latter part of the program is focused on building volume with a focus on long runs and overall increasing weekly volume. The net result of this is that for many marathon runners, the focus is overwhelmingly on developing their ‘low end’ aerobic fitness with little to no focus on increasing other aspects of their fitness such as VO2 max, lactate threshold, etc…
The fact of the matter is that both short events (i.e., 5K) and long events (i.e., marathon) should have a substantial amount of intensity built into the program – it’s just a function of when in the program should the bulk of the intensity occur.
Workout Specific Programming
As high and low-intensity training exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, so does their effect on programming. High-intensity (ex: VO2 max-type intervals) work requires shorter adaptation periods, longer recovery between workouts, and less frequent sessions. Conversely, low-intensity training (ex: endurance) equates to a longer adaptation process and shorter recovery between workouts, and thus these workouts can be done with greater frequency. The caveat to this concerning recovery is that long runs often require substantial recovery times.
The chart below denotes the four key workout types concerning their associated recovery and adaptation times. For example, intervals have a short adaptation time but require more recovery time than the other three workout types due to the intensity.
While it is fine to use zones to base one’s training intensity around generally, it must be stressed that there is no magic on/off switch with respect to one’s energy systems as it pertains to intensity. As an example, if your ‘aerobic’ zone ranges from 112-135 bpm, your body does not magically switch over to another area of physiological development at 136 bpm.
The reality is that regardless of your training or racing intensity, your body is utilizing all of your energy ‘zones’ simultaneously – albeit at different levels.
This is mentioned because even if an athlete starts off their training program or training block with high intensity versus low intensity, they are still developing the same physiological adaptations as they would while focusing at a low intensity… just not in the same amount.
It is common knowledge that training programs should be constructed on an individual basis due to a multitude of factors. Despite this, the overall training program structure, specifically with respect to periodization, is often assigned the same regardless of the race being trained for and/or the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete.
Therefore, it is not enough to only address workouts when creating a training program, but the structure of the program as well.