Periodization of training in sport: what is it and where does it come from?
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The periodization of training is the tool that coaches have for athletes to respond to the training load with beneficial adaptations for their sports performance (Medicine, 2013). If the load used is less than necessary, no adaptation or improvement will occur. If the load is too high and too frequent, training adaptations will be negative (burnout and overtraining), which will cause performance to worsen rather than improve (Bell, Ruddock, Maden-Wilkinson, & Rogerson, 2020). Based on this, training periodization is the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) to maximize training adaptations and prevent the occurrence of overtraining syndrome (Buford, Rossi, Smith, & Warren, 2007; D. S. Lorenz, Reiman, & Walker, 2010a).
Seyle’s General Adaptation Syndrome
The concept of training periodization is attributed to Hans Seyle for his research on General Adaptation Syndrome (Cunanan et al., 2018; Selye, 1938). The author observed in his studies with mice that they produced an adaptive response to stress. This syndrome, in short, states that systems will adapt to any stressors they may experience. According to Seyle, this is achieved through a three-phase process (Selye, 1976):
- Alarm/reaction phase: the athlete reacts to the stressor first with muscle stiffness, soreness or a small drop in performance due to fatigue after the training session.
- Endurance phase: the body responds to the stressor by adapting to the new stress with less soreness, stiffness, more tolerance to the activity and improved performance. This process is known as supercompensation, and means that our body is able to withstand more stress than before, due to the adaptation produced.
- Burnout phase: This phase occurs if the stressor lasts longer than the time we need to recover and adapt. The athlete may experience stagnation in training or deal with symptoms of overtraining
The fitness-fatigue model considers training periodization as a balancing act between fitness and fatigue (Plisk & Stone, 2003). An athlete’s readiness is the constant result of the interaction between his or her fitness level and the amount of fatigue. In that association, there are three different scenarios that highlight a correct periodization of training (Mujika, Halson, Burke, Balagué, & Farrow, 2018):
- Positive adaptations and improved sports performance: volume and intensity are altered methodically taking into account the fatigue generated and the objective sought. Sometimes the volume and intensity will be higher, sometimes lower, but always stressing the body to adapt to those loads, and giving enough time for it to recover.
- There are no adaptations, neither positive nor negative: when there are no changes in volume and intensity, the system does not need to adapt. We always do the same thing, or we train with a lower volume and intensity than what the athlete needs to stress his system.
- Negative adaptations and worsening of sports performance: If the load is too high, the physiological costs will be too great and the athlete’s physical preparation for the training will be compromised.
Why should we take training periodization into account?
A periodized program helps to avoid exhaustion, overtraining and the negative adaptations involved (Kiely, 2018). Proper variation of training load (sets, repetitions, exercise order, number of exercises, resistance, rest periods, type of contractions or frequency of training) will boost positive adaptations, always taking into account the fatigue generated (D. Lorenz & Morrison, 2015).
An additional benefit is to avoid training stagnation or boredom (Clemente-Suarez, Ramos-Campo, Tornero-Aguilera, Parraca, & Batalha, 2021). And the most important reason is that training periodization is useful to obtain greater gains in strength and muscle mass, with compared to non-periodized training (Williams, Tolusso, Fedewa, & Esco, 2017), and also endurance (Casado, González-Mohíno, González-Ravé, & Foster, 2022).
Structure of the periodization of training in sport
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To properly understand the bases of training periodization, it is necessary to name the structures that make up these cycles and organized sequences. Below, we describe the structures of training periodization, ordered from smallest to largest (D. Lorenz & Morrison, 2015; Lyakh et al., 2016).
The training session is the smallest structure in which training periodization is organized. A day can have one or several sessions, and in turn, each session can have different training units, whether they are strength, endurance, mobility, etc.
A microcycle can range from three or four days to two weeks, with the one-week extension being the most common microcycle. These microcycles have a common function and are organized according to their volume and intensity. Some examples of microcycles are: impact or shock in which we take the magnitude of the load to extreme limits; setting to anchor training for subsequent microcycles with low to moderate volume and intensity; or many other types.
The union of several microcycles associated with a stage of homogeneous objectives is called a mesocycle. It usually groups between three and six microcycles, with a period of one month being the most commonly used. In these mesocycles, the microcycles are organized to achieve the desired adaptations, but giving the system room to recover and not reach exhaustion or overtraining.
A macrocycle is a succession of mesocycles aiming at an adaptation peak, or several, in order to carry out a specific competition at that peak. In some sports such as long-distance running or powerlifting, the macrocycle will be organized according to the competition. From there, we will generate microcycles and mesocycles backwards, so that the goal is to reach that competition in peak form. However, most sports require frequent competitions, such as soccer, basketball or field hockey in which there are one or more competitions a week. In that case, periodization of training is fundamental to evaluate the critical moments of the season when we need to be physically fitter, and others in which the training loads may be greater.
Training periodization models in sports
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A common confusion when talking about training periodization is to associate non-periodized training with non-linear periodization (Afonso, Clemente, Ribeiro, Ferreira, & Fernandes, 2020). A non-periodized training is one in which no training structuring is taken into account, i.e., we train without a logical and ordered sequence, as they do in periodized training of any kind (Afonso et al., 2020).
Such periodized training can be linear, non-linear or block training. As its name suggests, linear periodization consists of gradually increasing or decreasing volume and intensity over the weeks, while non-linear periodization is more sophisticated and performs variations of volume and intensity in shorter periods, which can be within the same week, or even within the same day (Simão et al., 2012).
This is the reason why a non-periodized training can be confused with a non-linear periodization, because without knowing it, we are performing those ups and downs of the load throughout the week. However, in non-linear periodization everything is structured within the season, while in non-periodized training we do it randomly.
Linear periodization or regular load model
Linear periodization is the easiest to perform, but it has a basic flaw: the adaptive effects of training programs are inevitably nonlinear (Denison & Mills, 2014). Athletes are complex adaptive systems, whose training-induced responses vary considerably depending on a multitude of factors (genetics, sleep hours, diet, training experience, etc.). This means that they cannot be treated as machines that are subjected to a stress or training load and respond to it in the same way every time.
In addition, this training periodization model was conceived as a strategy for Olympic weightlifters to prepare for one competition per year (Dietz & Peterson, 2012). Athletes have multiple competitions in a season, and that, together with other drawbacks, makes the nonlinear periodization model more appealing and effective in most sports (McNamara & Stearne, 2013). Such nonlinear periodization is a better fit for most sports, as it allows the stimulus to be varied frequently, depending on the athlete’s condition.
In classical linear periodization there is a gradual increase in intensity while there is a progressive decrease in volume (Harries, Lubans, & Callister, 2015). We start with low intensity and high volume to end with high intensity and low volume.
In reverse linear periodization there is a gradual increase in volume while there is a progressive decrease in intensity (Harries et al., 2015). We start with low volume and high intensity to finish with high volume and low intensity. It is little used in strength, but widely used in endurance (Casado et al., 2022; Williams et al., 2017).
Nonlinear or undulating periodization
Nonlinear periodization allows for greater variation in training progressions (Afonso et al., 2020). It is characterized by more frequent alterations in volume and intensity, which may be biweekly, weekly, or daily (D. S. Lorenz, Reiman, & Walker, 2010b). Weekly fluctuations in training loads may result in better neuromuscular adaptations compared to the linear model, as loads are more unpredictable. Another advantage is that this non-linear periodization modifies the training program depending on an athlete’s recovery.
Weekly undulating periodization varies each week in volume and intensity (Spineti et al., 2013). One week can be dedicated to a workout focused on power, the following week on muscle mass gain, and so on with any physical quality. If instead of varying every week, we modify the volume and intensity on a daily basis, the periodization model is known as daily undulating. Within the same week, Monday can be dedicated to power, Wednesday to muscular hypertrophy and Friday to maximum strength, for example.
There is another undulating model known as flexible periodization (McNamara & Stearne, 2013). Today, if the coach has the right knowledge and means, it is the best option for scheduling workouts. Subjects are free to choose an easier workout on a given day depending on how tired they are. Flexible nonlinear periodization allows to adapt to the needs of each individual situation on a daily basis (Kraemer, Torine, Dudley, & Martin, 2015).
The disadvantage is that the coach must rely on the athlete’s sensations if he does not have devices such as, for example, a speed measuring device. These types of speed measurement devices give us information about the athlete’s condition in just a few seconds (Cooper, Dabbs, Davis, & Sauls, 2020; Jiménez-Reyes et al., 2019). In the warm-up, depending on the speed at which a load is lifted, or if we measure a vertical jump, we already know if he/she is recovered and can train harder, or he is fatigued and must perform a smoother training. In this way, we can carry out a flexible periodization according to each athlete individually.
This block periodization model is a hybrid between linear and nonlinear periodization (Issurin, 2010). This type of periodization does not focus solely on one peak performance per season, as does linear periodization, nor does it vary intensity and volume as frequently as does the nonlinear model. As the name suggests, block training periodization concentrates the development of a physical quality, while maintaining the gains made in previous weeks.
The block approach is divided into three distinct phases (Stone et al., 2021):
- Accumulation phase: develops work capacity with general movements, high volume and medium intensity.
- Transformation phase: refines the development of the trained physical quality with more specific exercises, medium volume and somewhat higher loads than in the accumulation phase.
- Realization phase: seeks the optimal point of form and focuses on the movements of the sport with high intensity and low volume.
Joaquin Vico Plaza
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