Planning your sports training to ensure maximum performance gains
Organising training, periodisation and tapering to ensure conditioning is improved year on year and that peaking is correctly timed is one of the most challenging aspects of coaching. Richard Godfrey looks at what the latest science has to say and demystifies the jargon along the way.
In recent years, the concept of periodisation (the planned organisation of training) has become increasingly jargonised and hence often difficult to comprehend, particularly the difference between linear and non-linear models and when to use them. In this article, we’ll attempt to simplify things and hopefully provide a clearer understanding to enhance the construction of your training plan in the short, medium and longer-term.
Back to basics
Any good training programme must have the following training principles at its heart:
- Progressive overload – the need to regularly increase the magnitude of any training stimulus;
- Specificity – recognises the fact that the body adapts in a way that is specific to the nature of the stimulus imposed (1). For example, to run faster, you need to train at a faster pace etc;
- Reversibility – also known as detraining, recognises that reduction in the magnitude of a given stimulus results in a decrease in conditioning for that particular parameter.
In recognising the need for specificity and the need to avoid detraining (reversibility), Matveyev, a Russian physical culture expert, devised ‘periodisation’ in the 1960s as a method of organising training in order to enhance the likelihood of a good training outcome (2). He proposed that if a specific stimulus is not presented to the body on a regular basis then that aspect of conditioning will be diminished or lost. Research has since shown that without an appropriate stimulus, a good level of conditioning can be lost in two to six weeks (3-6).
Traditional periodisation starts with identifying a number of discrete competitions over the year that the athlete is required to peak for. Organisation of the annual training programme starts with those important competitions and works backwards. From a physiological perspective, it is not possible to improve the level of conditioning in several areas at one time. Training is therefore planned so that at certain times of year the emphasis is on improving one parameter while other areas are simply maintained.
Periodisation is usually partitioned into ‘duration categories’ to allow the prescription of training from a broad to more precise focus. To accomplish this there are three training cycles:
- A microcycle of one to 14 days;
- A mesocycle of two weeks to six months;
- A macrocycle of one to four years.
Hence the broad focus is macro, the more detailed is meso and fine detail is micro.
In any year there are four phases of training: the conditioning (or preparation) phase, the transition phase, the pre-competitive/taper phase and the competitive phase. For summer sports such as 5000m running and javelin, the major conditioning phase occurs in the winter. For winter sports such as cross-country skiing and ski jumping, it occurs in the summer. Regardless of the actual time of year therefore, the off-season is the time when base endurance is the major focus for endurance sports and strength training is the major focus for strength and power sports. Of course in some sports, the demand is for a combination of endurance and power (eg rowing) so a simultaneous combination of endurance and resistance training is required.
The transition between periods of major training emphasis should be seamless. So, in the transition phase there is an increase in one training type and a decrease in another. Taking 5000m and 10,000m running as an example, base endurance work occurs predominantly in the winter. Around mid-January, one session per week of base endurance work would be dropped in favour of a tempo/lactate threshold (LT) session, ie working at between 65-85% of maximal heart rate (where exactly within this range is appropriate will be individual-specific and depends on current level of conditioning). During the next four to six weeks there is a gradual decrease in the volume of base endurance work and an increase in the amount of threshold work. In this way a seamless transition occurs between periods of predominant focus.
Table 1 (below) shows an example of a periodised year for a 400m swimmer. This is an annual linear periodised programme with six to eight competitions in a season lasting 16 weeks (LT = lactate threshold training).
For winter sports, using cross-country skiing as an example, base endurance work occurs in the summer. This usually involves roller skiing, running and cycling, utilising base endurance training such as 30 minutes to two hours of continuous or interval work at 50-70% of maximum heart rate.
Likewise, the transition phase between the preparation (conditioning) phase and pre-competitive phase involves a decrease in the base endurance work and a gradual increase in the volume of tempo/LT work.
This increase in tempo/LT volume (either as increased duration per session or frequency per week or a combination of the two) continues until it becomes the largest percentage of training time. In other words tempo/LT work becomes the focus or emphasis of training at that time. The result is a rightward shift in the lactate work curve and a downward shift in the heart rate work curve. In functional terms this means the athlete is able to maintain a higher pace without fatiguing appreciably (see figure 1).
Other training types or stimuli are not eliminated but are used occasionally to maintain other aspects of conditioning. The key point here is that for individual endurance sports, training organisation is very similar, the only difference being the ‘opposite’ times of year where types of training occur between summer and winter sports.
This type of periodisation, where a limited number of discrete, specific times for peaking in the year are identified and training organised around them, is known as ‘linear periodisation’. In this model, the primary aim is preparation for competition or, more generally, improving the functional capacity (anatomy and physiology) of the individual. However, in sports where there is a long season, such as football and tennis, the time for training is reduced and the number of competitions is increased, and so a different form of periodisation with a different purpose is favoured.
Non-linear or undulating periodisation
The demand for more competitive sport to satisfy increasing audience demand and the desires of commercial sponsors has led to an increase in the length of the season in many sports and an increase in the number of competitions. This results in reduced time for applying training stimuli.
For example, in professional football, it is quite common for the quality of play generally to decrease towards the end of the season. Clearly, aspects of physiology related to ‘high-intensity’ performance are retained thanks to specific stimuli resulting from the game environment. However, those aspects that help to minimise fatigue and ensure good recovery are being lost because of a lack of lower intensity work, which is much more limited in the competitive situation.
Accordingly, it is common to see a decrease in aerobic capacity (VO2max) during a long season in many sports towards the end of the season. This is a problem because a good ‘aerobic base’ is fundamental to allowing an athlete to handle a large training and competing load and to facilitate rapid recovery.
Steps should therefore be taken to avoid a reduction in VO2max and this can be achieved by adding in one or two training sessions into each microcycle to maintain those aspects, which might otherwise be lost. For example, this could mean additionally including a long, slow distance session at 50-60% HRM (to maintain VO2max) and a session of two to four minute intervals at 90% of HRM (to maintain anaerobic performance) every two weeks.
The primary aim of non-linear periodisation is the maintenance of hard-won physiological advances. Table 2 shows a simple example of a non-linear model from resistance training. Strength, strength-endurance and power are objects of desire among strength and sprint athletes and to ensure that at certain times of year all are maintained, training must encompass all of these every week.
Whether using linear, non-linear or a combination of the two models, providing scientific evidence that one model is superior to another is extremely difficult. For example when scientists examined the magnitude of strength improvements when comparing linear with daily undulating (non-linear) periodisation in 2002, they found that the non-linear model was best for strength gains (7). In 2003 another study repeated the same work, this time examining changes in local muscular endurance. No difference was found between a linear and non-linear model but there was a difference using a ‘reverse linear’ model, which worked best (8). In other words gradual increases in volume with gradual decreases in intensity were the most effective for increasing muscular endurance.
Tapering (or ‘peaking’) is used to ensure that peak performance occurs when required. In broad terms, this involves reducing the volume of training to allow replenishment of energy stores and to facilitate recovery. Specifically, tapering requires maintenance of the intensity of exercise with a parallel reduction in the volume undertaken.
The relationship between the amount of reduction in volume and the amount of time over which that reduction takes place is critical. If the reduction occurs too fast then there will be an insufficient stimulus to prevent detraining. If the reduction is too slow, inadequate recovery will result and performance will be sub-optimal.
Exponential tapers are generally considered best and are of two types; fast and slow decay. Exponential tapers involve a ‘relative reduction’ in volume – ie successive percentage decreases – whereas linear tapers reduce the volume by absolute amounts. A fast decaying exponential taper (larger percentage decreases), is used with very well conditioned (ie ‘fitter’) individuals or those with less available time between required peaks. A slow decay (smaller percentage decreases) is used with those who are less well conditioned (eg where time off due to illness or injury has been required).
Last year, Canadian scientists carried out a meta-analysis (a study looking at the results of a number of previous studies) of the effects of tapering on performance utilising data from 27 separate research studies (9). They concluded that ‘a 2-week taper during which training volume is exponentially reduced by 41-60% seems to be the most efficient strategy to maximise performance gains’. This is an excellent and useful piece of information but it is not known whether this applies equally in well conditioned and less well conditioned individuals, partly because the level of competition in which the subjects participated was unknown. Hence, caution is required, but this is currently the best information we have and so we should ‘suck it and see’.
In the real world, with many sports increasing the amount of competition during their competitive phases, programmes emerge which are a combination of models, with a linear periodised model operating for most of the year and a non-linear model operating during the competitive phase. An example of this is given below in figure 2.
Periodisation is a means of organising and managing training to provide a greater likelihood of successful performance through year on year improvement and planned management of peak performance. Non-linear or undulating periodisation is increasingly used but rather than an either/or situation, it is most effective when both linear and non-linear models are adopted within the same annual cycle. This is particularly true where a sport has a long, intense competition season and, in that period, non-linear periodisation is, arguably, the only logical choice.
Achieving the correct taper has often been seen as the interface between coaching art and coaching science. Our constantly improving understanding of the efficacy of tapering is increasing the chances of optimal performance. However, much of our knowledge is still largely anecdotal and we look to the research literature to improve coach confidence and effectiveness. Where this is particularly true for periodisation, recent research evidence provides a good guide for tapering. Namely, that a two-week exponential taper during which there is a 41-60% reduction in volume seems to result in the best performance improvements.
Dr Richard Godfrey, FACSM, is a physiologist and senior lecturer in coaching and performance at Brunel University, UK
1. The Physiology of Training; 23-43. London: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2006
2. Fundamentals of Sports Training. Moscow: Progress, 1981
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