Periodisation: From Russia with Love

Perhaps contrary to popular opinion Russia has contributed to some of the greatest breakthroughs in science, art and sports over the years and in the field of training and coaching one of the most fundamental concepts, periodisation, is thought to have originated from Russia.

In a previous blog I talked about the difference between training and working out and once someone decides to train the first question that normally confronts them is how do they structure their training throughout the season to give them their best shot of racing well at their goal event(s). This is often where magazine articles and coaches start talking about periodisation. Periodisation can mean different things to different people and terms like microcycles, mesocycles, macrocycles, reverse periodisation and classic periodisation get banded about. Generally people use the term to describe a way of breaking up the training year into smaller blocks with a theme/concept/theory/belief applied to how training varies across those blocks and that seems like a pretty useful way of describing periodisation. Unfortunately for many athletes, article writers and some coaches it has become synonymous with the concept of building a base through lots of easy training before moving onto speed work in the run up to race season (I will take the liberty of labelling this approach as “slow to fast”). This approach can be right in certain circumstances but as a general theory of periodisation I would contend that it is at best severely limiting and more likely just plain wrong.

A brief history of periodisation will hopefully explain where this approach has come from and why it shouldn’t be used as a general description of periodisation. The theory of periodisation is thought to have started in what was the Soviet Union in the 1960s (e.g. the classical work of Matveev’s “Periodisation of Sports Training”). In this work a key concept put forward is that training for any sport should be planned so that the athlete is going from using general training methods far from the goal race, to using more specific training methods the closer they get to their goal race. This is hard to argue with because it makes logical and intuitive sense to focus on event specific training close to the time when you want to race at your best.

This work was built upon by the work of Tudor Bompa (generally described as the “father of periodisation”) in the US in the1970s. His seminal tome on the subject is what most coaches and training approaches use to this day to some degree to plan a year of training. Much of the Sports referred to at that time were power events, like the shot put or short running events like sprints and middle distance track events. Events lasting much beyond 2 hours where far less common in those days and certainly Ironman’s which last 8-17 hours were non existent. The key concept of General to Specific was followed and for short duration events and power events starting the training season with lower intensities and gradually moving to more intense training clearly fits that concept of General to Specific. Unfortunately, many people have taken that approach of slow to fast to be what periodisation means and miss the point that it’s simply the outcome of applying General to Specific to shorter duration and power events.

If we now apply the concept of general to specific to long endurance events like Ironman or 70.3s then going from slow to fast training is exactly opposite of general to specific as ironman racing is done at a relatively slow speed. To meet that concept of general to specific for Ironman athletes it makes more sense to do some higher intensity training a long way before the event and gradually introduce more race specific or lower intensity work as the race approaches. Some coaches and athletes have come to refer to this approach as “Reverse Periodisation” but I hope I have explained that it isn’t the reverse of anything but simply classical periodisation applied correctly. The important point is that the key concept of periodisation (general to specific) is not the same as slow to fast and how high intensity training is distributed through the training year is directly related to the nature of the goal event being trained for.

It’s important to point out that although I have focused on intensity as it applies to periodisation the concept of General to Specific covers much more than intensity. General training could include skills development, speed development, general strength work and trying different but related sports like mountain biking and cyclocross.

Another important point is that we are always talking about a mix and focus of intensities and activities; training is never all general or all specific or all high intensity or all low intensity. It’s good to have a mix at all times and just vary the degree and focus of each according to the golden rule of General to Specific.

That concept of General to Specific is fundamental to how you should plan your season of training; next time you are filling out your annual training plan why not give a little nod of appreciation to those early Soviet pioneers.