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Part 1: Endurance Training Series - Traditional Periodisation

The periodisation of training is the division of a training year or season into smaller more manageable chunks of time. The aim of periodising training is to help structure the type of work athletes do at different periods of the year to reach peak fitness and peak performance at a desired date. It is inadvisable to do the same type of training all year round, as this is unlikely to provide any substantial improvements in performance. As such, periodisation involves changes in the volume, frequency, intensity, and structure of training to elicit different training responses and improvements in fitness. This Part 1 article in the Endurance Training series will look at the traditional approach to periodisation in endurance sports training, exploring the concept as well as its strengths, weaknesses, advantages and limitations.

What is periodisation?

The concept of periodisation was first coined in the 1950s by Hungarian Hans Selye (Endocrinologist and Physiologist) and later expanded by the Russian and Romanian Physiologists Leo Matveyev and Tudor Bompa. The scientific model behind periodisation is the General Adaptation Syndrome which breaks training down into three parts: Alarm Stage -> Resistance Stage -> Exhaustion Stage. It was posited that by respecting a cyclical model of training one can keep their body in the first two stages, thus avoiding exhaustion aka overtraining. By structuring one’s training such that every Alarm Stage (initial training stimulus) is followed by a Resistance Stage (adaptation to the stimulus) which incorporates sufficient recovery, it is possible to avoid exhaustion and as such build fitness over time.

Periodisation allows coaches and athletes to break down their annual training plan into various levels and cycles. These are known as Macro (Annual), Meso (Monthly) and Micro (Weekly) cycles. The details of these cycles will be explained in Part 3, at this point it is important to understand that periodisation helps define the type of training that is done in each Micro and Meso cycle as well as how training is structured across the entire Macro cycle.

What is the traditional approach to the periodisation of training in endurance sports?

The traditional approach to periodisation in endurance sports is relatively straight forward. Using this approach, athletes develop through their Macro Cycle as outlined in the diagram below.

The principle behind this approach is that athletes build their fitness for their competition by initially working on their aerobic base before incorporating increasing amounts of high intensity intervals and race specific work. The logic behind this approach is that the initial physiological response to High Volume/Low Intensity training (i.e., General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS) allows the athlete to build a strong aerobic base such that they can later move into higher intensities at moderate volume and then more race specific work at moderate to low training volume but higher intensity. Through each Meso-Cycle the athlete relies on the incorporation of sufficient rest and recovery in order to assimilate the training load and prepare their body for the next phases.

How is this type of periodisation put into practice?

For coaches, or self-coached athletes, putting this method of periodisation into practice is relatively straight forward. To periodise your training using this method, the main factor to understand is the different levels of training intensity. For simplicity these can be broken down into 3 Zones. These 3 Zones can be defined using three levels of Perceived Exertion as outlined below:

Once these three levels of intensity are defined, a training plan can be built out using the cycles outlined in Diagram 1. Using these principles, a 24-week Macro-Cycle is given as an example in Diagram 3 below.

The specificities of the training within each meso-cycle will be discussed in Part 3 of this series, but the above diagram already provides a good overview of how the workload is scheduled over the season.

What are the advantages of this approach to periodisation?

This traditional approach to periodisation is rather easy to understand and implement for athletes of all levels across various endurance sports. If one is new to endurance sports or simply looking for a straightforward approach to structuring your training, this could be the best solution. This approach to periodisation builds towards higher and more race-specific intensities as athletes approach their competition and gives their bodies time to assimilate the training load over each cycle. Finally, this approach is tried and tested over 60+ years, it’s been proven to work and to provide success for athletes of all levels in different endurance sports.

What are the limitations of this approach to periodisation?

The traditional approach to periodisation has a few limitations that have been widely discussed in recent times. Notably, it can be tough to implement for northern hemisphere athletes partaking in summer sports, needing to start their Macro-Cycle in the depths of winter with long hours and low intensities. In a similar vein, their can be an increased risk of over-use injuries when jumping straight into high volume training, as the athlete’s body hasn’t had any time to build up enough durability. Finally, this approach to periodisation can also lead to potential mental burnout, as it can be challenging to put in such long hours so far out from a competition, burning mental matches when it may be better to keep them for race day.

Concluding thoughts

To conclude, the traditional approach to periodisation is a tried and tested method that has been used in endurance sports for 60+ years. It is easy to plan and implement for athletes at all levels but can have its drawbacks in the northern hemisphere and for summer sport athletes who may struggle with the way training volume is distributed over the season.

Part 2 in the training series will address reverse periodisation, and Part 3 will go into more detail with regards to the different cycles and the famous 80:20 rule of intensity distribution.

If you have any comments, thoughts or questions following Part 1, please let us know! We are keen to get your feedback.

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