Periodization Challenges – when you have to change the strategy in the middle of the game

Periodization is not a complicated idea. Basically, it means designing a training program according to goals distributed along a period of time, or even planning variation (or it’s opposite, maintenance) of stimuli considering time. That’s about it.

It gets a little more complicated when we have to decide how to organize time. What will we consider or count, and how will we structure time? It’s intuitive that we divide it in chunks. Different authors used different terms and coined different concepts. Time will then be divided in cycles (macro, meso or microcycles) or blocks.

Why draw these specific blocks or cycles and not others, and what are they made of? For a competitive athlete, time is structured according to the competitive season. The competitions occur in certain dates and these are used by the coach to cut the year (or years) into smaller periods.

For other people, time markers may be different: a wedding (in which the girl needs to fit into a wedding dress) or a surgery (in which the patient needs to be within certain clinical indicators that may be improved by the training program).

So now we have what structures time. How will we get there?

By manipulating the things a training program is made of: stimuli and rest. Some people say the goal of periodization is to avoid overtraining, others say it is to optimize supercompensation. Actually, we don’t quite understand what overtraining, or “underperformance syndromes” are. There are a bunch of proposals out there about sympathetic OT, para-sympathetic OT and neither one or the other. More cautious authors are not even calling it “overtraining” anymore, but rather very carefully studying them as a set of (more or less) independent syndromes of underperformance.

Supercompensation is another muddy road for that matter. What is actually supercompensated when stimuli are provided? Why and how does it vary that much according to intensity and nature? And other individual and contextual factors we have no idea about how they vary?

I like Plisk and Stone’s article (bellow) because of their honesty concerning the lack of sound scientific explanation or consensus for any of that. The truth is that periodization is more of an intuitive art than an exact science. It requires an experienced coach to design an effective periodized program.

I guess more important than to design it is to re-adjust it according to unexpected events. High performance athletes are much harder to plan for than average people. Constant re-adjustment is necessary and the actual training log, in the end of the season, doesn’t look too much like the original spreadsheet. There’s a lot of fine-tuning along the way.

I am my own coach. I wish I weren’t. More and more, I am concluding that some level of emotional distance is necessary to control the program. By which I mean emotional distance from the training itself. This cannot be achieved effectively if you are inside yourself in the act of executing something. Being outside yourself, of course, is not an option.

Last week, I had to make a difficult decision: I decided not to go equipped to the South American powerlifting championship. After months of following a training program for equipped lifting, I came to the conclusion that I had failed. Performance was erratic, not improving according to the expected and all in all, I had not adapted to the equipment. I couldn’t decide it earlier because there was still a chance that it was just a question of stabilizing the form. After all, performance was erratic, not catastrophic. But stabilization never happened and the rational thing to do is to shift to raw lifting.

This decision obviously implies accepting that performance at the meet will not be optimal. A change so close to the competition date is one of the big nightmares of any coach or athlete.

There is not much to do at this point except test a few performance indicators and plan the attempts for the meet.

This is a dramatic, extreme case of changing a strategy in the middle of the game. Other changes, however, happen all the time in high performance athletics. We need to accept the fact and work with it to the best of our ability, intuition and… luck!

Periodization Strategies – Plisk and Stone



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