A Problem With Periodization

When was the last time you or one of your athletes PR’d but you couldn’t explain why? 

OR

Have you ever done everything you can to prepare for a meet or competition and feel like absolute garbage the day of?

When talking with other coaches, weightlifters or even team sport athletes, I feel like these themes of conversation are very common. Weightlifters will joke about how they PR when they’re hungover, dehydrated and exhausted. Coaches will say there’s no way that their athletes should’ve hit a PR on testing during cycles of high volume. Team sport athletes will come out of the game day tunnel on FIRE after a night of travel and awful sleep, and nobody can explain it.

Conversely, athletes can be given everything they need to feel most comfortable and prepared for a meet or competition and then bomb out or play horribly. They might taper, sleep like crazy, and put everything else on hold only to perform at their absolute worst. I’m not saying these are absolute truths or that they happen all the time, but why do they seem to happen so often? Maybe it’s because those are the only stories that are fun to tell, but maybe it’s a problem of too many variables.

Periodization as a method of organization

For all of recent history, there has been periodization involved in the training of athletes. Essentially, periodization is the road map that guides us along the most practical, efficient, and direct route to our destination. In athletics that destination is competition, and feeling like you can control variables along the way to maximize performance certainly has allure.

However, periodization operates on a number of very simplified premises. According to John Kiely(1), They are:

  1. Control of a limited number of factors, controls the behaviour of the system.
  2. Progress is determined through measurement or quantification
  3. Factors that are measurable are of greater importance than those that are not readily measurable.

I think most would agree that these premises each have some shakiness in their underpinnings, but it’s the first one that I like the most.

Control of a limited number of factors controls the behaviour of the system. 

It seems to me that the factors we can control start feeling like the only ones with any influence on the system. The system in this case is the athlete, and the factors we can control are incredibly few compared to the number of factors that are capable of influencing that system. Strength and conditioning coaches recognize that training, practice, sleep, nutrition, and any type of stress ALL have influence on the way the athlete will train and perform. Furthermore, each of these variables has the independent ability to either add or detract value from the effectiveness of physical preparation in a pretty significant way.

Frans Bosch (2) highlights this as the major point of difference between reductionist research and complex biological systems. Essentially, the difference between academia and application. Research selects a specific number of variables and outcome measures in an effort to either support or refute a relationship between them. This is helpful for providing training recommendations that can be incorporated into a more holistic perspective of factors considered by practitioners. Unlike reductionist research, the complexity of biological systems (athletes) do not allow for complete control of a select number of variables. Complex biological systems allow for any and all variables to have varying degrees of influence on their state. More frustrating is that these variables can have different magnitudes of impact on the system, depending on the state of other variables which influence the conditions within that system.

The following picture illustrates exactly what I’m trying to say:

boschdiagram

A picture from my copy of “Strength Training and Coordination” Bosch, 2015.

In the case of figure 1.1, things seem the way they should be. Factors with major influence will stay major, and factors with minor influence will stay minor. However, in 1.2 some of those “not-so-major” factors end up comprising the majority of what requires management. For example in off-season basketball training, the kids have one or two classes which may even be online (this can be thought of as the yellow line marked “d”.) Otherwise, they lift, they run, and they shoot (colored bands marked a,b, and c). In this case, a lot of factors are controllable, and the overall training parameters will look more like fig 1.1. Once school starts there is the addition of a full course load, full team practice, pre-season games and more lively social opportunities. These previously minor parameters begin to complicate the state and preparedness of the biological system.

So with respect to training athletes, considering as many variables as possible can help make better decisions regarding periodization. Sometimes that better decision may be to simply chuck the daily training in the trash can. I think a lot of people in athletics take an additive approach to managing their players and their performance. In other words, what else can we do to make them better? Well, sometimes we need to think about which variables we are controlling and determine maybe it’s something we decide to not do, that will help the most.

I was talking to a colleague last summer who uses the omegawave system to do morning monitoring of training status with his athletes. Since most of them have class, they have to get up earlier (and skip breakfast) to go in and have their readings done. Guess what the omegawave tells them? They need to sleep more, and they need to eat! This is a perfect example of how a well-intentioned training intervention can have deleterious effects on training status.

So what’s the hype over periodization?

Basically, the result of the training does not depend simply on the exercises chosen and the precise manipulation of volume or intensity. There are far too many other variables that can and will affect the athlete and their training status. Biological systems simply cannot be programmed the same way other things can, and therefore training systems and responses cannot by nature be algorithmic. In other words, a set of conditions and even controlling for some variables is not going to produce a predictable outcome when it comes to complex biological systems like the athlete training response. You may be able to get the intended result out of some athletes, but certainly not all.

This in itself is the reason why we must refer to periodization as a component of training theory as opposed to science. There is ample research demonstrating that periodized programs founded on scientific principles are more effective than non-periodized training programs, but that is simply due to variation. Variation included in undulating periodizations are believed to be more effective than standard linear periodization simply due to intermittent exposure to higher intensities (3) as opposed to standard progressive overload.

So while we understand that periodized programs do produce better results, we have to be cautious of how far we take those implications. Correlation in this case does not necessarily imply causation. Lack of causation means there is little to no predictive value in periodization. All that can be really predicted is that it is a safer bet to employ a periodized program vs. completely random training.

So what about the old guys?

Back in the 50’s and 60’s when Leodin Matveyev was collecting data on the training of athletes, the eastern European countries were experiencing incredible amounts of success in the Olympics. Combined with the fact that they had a great deal of research in sport-science going on, a lot of the Soviet secrets to sport training were held in pretty high regard. The interesting thing to note is, they were doing research on all their athletes! Research (as we mentioned before) requires a degree of systematic stability that cannot be afforded by most strength and conditioning practitioners or weightlifting coaches these days. Since those athletes back in the Eastern Bloc were fundamentally research subjects (and communist subjects) they had to do whatever they were told in order to receive their stipends. Don’t try and argue with me that it’s the same way here with scholarships. It isn’t. These kids are protected.

In that case, the coaches could account for their athletes 24 hours per day. I don’t think any of those guys were leaving the gym early because it just “wasn’t their day” and blowing off some steam at buffalo wild wings. The variables we cannot control for in amateur American sport are ridiculously abundant compared to how things were done back then.  I’m not even getting into the drug use here.

Conclusion

It probably seems like I’ve knocked periodization around a little bit this time, but that’s not the intention. All I wanted to get across was that periodization, in order to be effective, does not need to be as exacting as people might believe. That’s also probably the reason for the prevalence of unpredictable resultst hat I opened the article with. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that the human organism as a complex biological system, does not respond to training algorithmically.

That’s not to say that we should abandon periodization either however. Undulating Periodization or planned training has value based on it’s irregular stimulus relating to variation in intensity and volume. The organism requires novelty in order to promote continued adaptation, and most types of periodization have that. So there are really three take homes regarding the underlying structure of periodization.

  1. It needs to be sequenced: Volume before Intensity before Power
  2. There need to be planned periods of overload
  3. There need to be planned periods of decreased training

Outside of that, I’m struggling to come up with anymore “absolutes” in terms of training for anyone below the Olympic or professional level. Simply put, the more variability that exists in your daily life and schedule, the fewer variables you can really account for. So in that case, the best training program in the world will be worthless, and the worst training program in the world might work just fine. You might not PR every couple of months, but you will probably be doing enough to stay about the same (believe me). So next time you’re in the gym and you’ve only been 2 times that week, if you feel like going for a PR go for it. You probably won’t hurt anything. The more consistent your training, and the more regimented your plan is, the more you need to stick with it.

References

  1. Kiely, J. (2011). Planning for physical performance: the individual perspective. Planning periodization, prediction, and why the future ain’t what it used to be.
  2. Bosch, F. (2015). Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach.
  3. Kraemer, J. (2003). Physiological Changes with Periodized Resistance Training in Women Tennis Players.