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Part 3: Understanding Training Cycles and the 80:20 rule.

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at two different approaches to the periodisation of training. Periodisation refers to the cyclical changes in the volume, frequency, intensity, and structure of training to elicit different training responses and improvements in fitness. The traditional approach builds training from low intensity and high volume towards higher intensity and lower volume. The reverse approach does the opposite, starting with low volume and high intensity, working towards higher volume with lower intensity intervals closer to race pace. In both articles we referenced different types of training cycles and how these are used to structure the periodisation and the intensity levels for training during a season. In this article we will take a closer look at the implementation of Macro-Cycles, Meso-Cycles and Micro-Cycles as well as the famous 80:20 rule and its implications on training load.

Training Cycles

In most literature there are three recognised levels of training cycles when it comes to endurance sports. The highest-level Macro-Cycle refers to a season-long or half-season cycle of training lasting anything from 6 to 12 months and usually focussing on one overarching goal e.g. Iron Distance Triathlon or Marathon Running. The Meso-Cycle, the next level down, refers to a phase of training lasting anything from 3 to 12 weeks, usually focussing on developing a specific element of fitness relevant to the goals set out in the Macro-Cycle. Finally, the Micro-Cycle tends to last 3 to 10 days and is a concentrated block of training designed to elicit training responses to progress towards the goals set out for the Meso and Macro Cycles. When amalgamated, these three levels of training cycles provide not only the overarching guidelines to achieve one’s fitness goals but also the nitty-gritty, day to day work that must be completed in order to get there.

The Macro-Cycle

As explained briefly above, the Macro training cycle refers to a season or half season long cycle of training focussed on one overarching goal such as Ironman racing or Marathon running. Defining the objectives of a Macro Cycle are vital to determine the type of training that needs to be completed. Moreover, the Macro-Cycle provides the start and finish dates for a season/objective and the deadline to which an athlete and coach needs to work. Below is an illustration of a Macro-Cycle and how it can be broken down into Meso-Cycles for a triathlete using a reversed periodisation approach to prepare an Ironman race.

The Meso-Cycle

Meso-Cycles tend to last 3 to 12 weeks and are used to carefully define the different phases of training within a Macro-Cycle. Whilst a Macro-Cycle provides the deadline and parameters for an athlete chasing a particular race or objective, the Meso-Cycles dictate the type of work and training that needs to be completed at different times within the Macro-Cycle to progress towards that objective. Continuing the same example of an Ironman athlete embracing the reversed periodisation method, the below illustration demonstrates how an amalgamation of Meso-Cycles can be used to build towards an objective.

The Micro-Cycle

Delving deeper into the specifics of training, Micro-Cycles usually last for anything from 3 to 10 days. These short cycles define the specific training sessions and rest periods that an athlete must complete to fulfil the guidelines of their Meso and Macro Cycles. Micro-Cycles. The concept of Micro-Cycles relies heavily on the General Adaptation Syndrome whereby every training stimulus must be followed by adequate rest in order to progress and avoid spilling over into the exhaustion phase. Any athlete that has pushed their boundaries will likely have experienced this exhaustion phase (overtraining) and learnt when to hold back and better respect or structure their micro-cycles.

Depending on the timing in the season (Macro-Cycle) certain Micro-Cycles will be vastly different to others, as the aims of each training cycle will differ in their contribution towards the overall goal. The diagram below illustrates three examples of Micro-Cycles that could be implemented at three different points of the season in the above-mentioned Meso-Cycles.

The 80:20 Rule

In the context of endurance sports training, the 80/20 rule refers to the share of training below and above aerobic threshold. Several coaches, including the famous Arthur Lydiard, popularised this method in the 1950s and 1960s. Without delving too deep into understanding aerobic thresholds, aerobic and anaerobic work – the takeaway message from this concept is that approximately 80% of endurance training should be ‘easy’ and only 20% should be ‘hard’. As you will have understood from the graphics in these past three articles, the periodised and reversed periodised training methods rely on this concept to structure the workload, never veering far away from the 80/20 split.

For example, if you run 5 hours a week, only 1 hour should be ‘hard’. How athletes implement these 20% of ‘hard’ training is up for interpretation. Many suggest that this should be concentrated in one hard session a week, others prefer to spread it over several sessions. The jury is still out on this, and both approaches have worked for runners and triathletes alike. Again, referring back to the General Adaptation Syndrome, in order for the training to be effective, athletes must incorporate sufficient rest and recovery between sessions to avoid overtraining.

If you would like to learn more about the 80/20 rule please let us know and we will do a full article on the subject.

Concluding Thoughts

Whilst some people may have struggled in the past to understand the concept of training cycles and periodisation, we hope that these three articles may have clarified certain elements. There are several ways of periodising a season, as illustrated in Part 1 and part 2, and both of these rely on structuring training cycles to meet the different goals during different phases of the season. These training cycles are built top-down from a Macro view of the season goals, into Meso-Cycles which are structured depending on the periodisation method used and then Micro-Cycles which provide the day-by-day content for training.

In Part 4 of this series we will take a deeper look at the two approaches to periodisation, comparing how they are implemented and their respective strengths and weaknesses. If you missed either of the first two articles, click here.

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