Friday, December 14, 2007

Why I'm no longer following a periodized training program

Some of you may know that I used traditional "periodized" cycling training for my entire 2007 racing season. Periodization is a training method that uses carefully scheduled workouts of varying intensity and volume to allow an athlete to "peak" (reach their optimum fitness level) for selected periods during the year. It was a secret weapon that the Eastern Block used to win tons of Olympic medals during the Cold War, so clearly it worked!

Typically, coaches who teach this method have their athletes select two or three periods (hence the term "periodization") during the year in which they want to peak. So athletes must decide months in advance which races they want to prioritize so they can schedule their training periods to synchronize their peaks with their priority races.

Most cyclists hate the very idea of scheduled workouts, and instead just "ride lots," join anarchic group rides, and try to "race" themselves "into shape." It's better than nothing, but has a low return on the time you spend in training. I tried this haphazard method for many years, with mediocre results. So I resolved to train smarter for my 2007 season.

Joe Friel is one well-known periodization coach and author of Cyclist's Training Bible, and I put together a very detailed workout schedule using his book and templates (you can see my 2007 training schedule here). Every day called for a specific type of ride, and I stuck pretty much exactly to the script. My periodized training allowed me to have by far my best season ever, with five race victories, some other medals and a USCF racer upgrade from Category 4 to Category 3.

So why would I mess with success and discard periodization for my 2008 racing season? I wrote about that a little here, here and here, but I thought I should devote some more time to explaining it in detail.

Off-season training

Traditional periodization calls for a complete break in the autumn, followed by increasingly long endurance-building rides at a moderate pace during the winter in order to rest, recover and prevent burnout, boredom and injuries. In essence throwing away many of your fitness gains from the past season as a precaution against the possibility of overtraining. In the spring you would then reintroduce intensity into your workouts to gain back your speed. Short-distance speed, e.g. sprinting, responds pretty quickly to training so that works well.

But my new program calls for hard training year-round. Historically, lots of racers raced year-round, including all-time great Eddie Merckx who raced on indoor tracks during the winter and many others who raced cyclocross. So this approach has many precedents. But does that mean it's the best way? Maybe not for everyone, but for me it may be.

My "FTP" power (the maximum power I can sustain for 1 hour of cycling), for instance, may still have lots of room for improvement through specific training. That's especially true for sprinters with fast-twitch muscle fibers like me. But FTP doesn't respond to training very quickly, and in the past physiologists even believed it to be totally untrainable as a result. We were supposedly stuck with whatever FTP our parents's DNA dictated! But more recent studies have shown that FTP can, in fact, be improved with several years of continuous, focused training.

And even periodization coaches like Joe Friel have adjusted their recommendations. here's a quote from him:
Over the years my approach to building aerobic fitness has changed. I used to believe that long, slow distance (LSD) was the most important type of training for aerobic system development. But in the last few years, experimentation with the athletes I coach has led me to believe this is not enough. By itself LSD will not fully develop the aerobic system. A bit higher intensity is needed. Rather than just noodling along at a relaxed, 1-zone effort, I believe that one must challenge the aerobic threshold in training to see complete aerobic development.
Because I have not reached my full potential yet there's still hope that FTP-specific training will make me faster for these longer distances.

Racing-season training

The regular season may not change quite as much for me as I will continue my hard workouts, substituting some of them with races. This is pretty much the same as periodization, except for one big difference:

Instead of varying the volume and intensity of my training during a 9- to 10-week period to peak for my two or three priority races, I will simply reduce my training volume (but not my intensity) for a few days before. I will essentially "train through" most of my races, using them as training, and just rest a little before the big races.

With traditional periodization coaches strongly advise their athletes against scheduling more than two or three peaks per year, because of the fitness loss that results from the long process of peaking. They obviously understand the cost of periodizing. Yet they maintain that the cost is an acceptable tradeoff for the improved fitness you gain for your priority races. But is it? Only you can say because it depends on your goals.

For myself, I have decided that I'd rather train for the longer term, and eventually realize more of my potential FTP as a result. Bye-bye periodization!

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