Periodization: Truth or Myth?


Last week, I picked up an interesting paper on Twitter: Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future aint what it used to be!  It was written for UK Athletics by John Kiely of the University of Central Lancashire.

For those of you who are involved in training prescription, it’s an essential read. It’s encouraged me to take a few minutes to reiterate my views on Periodization, whilst exploring why it’s important to be a critical thinker and to take real care when accepting information at face value.


Let’s be Challenging

Periodization is simply a systematic way to organise training, most specifically physical training. At university it was the bedrock of all training theory we were taught. When I applied for a job at the Scottish Institute of Sport, there was that word again in the job spec:

“Essential….sound knowledge of Periodization “.

Periodization is like the root of a wart, deeply imbedded, an accepted truth in sports science and coach education throughout the world.

I have my own wart. The boss suggests that I use the word “but” too often and some people find it irritating. He’s right of course, but….I’ve convinced myself that it’s just about justifiable and it comes down to my academic training. During my undergraduate study, Prof. Bill Baltzopoulos delivered many of our biomechanics lectures and tutorials. Most of his teachings laminarily flowed around my slipstreamed head. However, one lesson stuck!

“What’s the mechanism?” he continually asked.

“Where’s your evidence?”

These infernal questions, whilst annoying, are vital for every self-respecting sports scientist and coach. Bill was simply asking how and why things work the way they do. His lesson was never to accept something as a truth unless his questions have been asked and/or can be explained by fundamental principles.

So why does Periodization work? Where is the evidence that it does? Ehhhh…….An inference from Kiely’s paper, which I wholly prescribe to is that there is no convincing evidence to suggest that Periodization is an effective training system.

Bill Baltzopoulos
Bill Baltzopoulos

Why does it not work?

Periodization involves the training of one of the most complex systems known to humanity….the human body. We may have a basic understand the fundamental principles that explain how singular systems of the body work i.e. the cardiovascular system. However, how do all systems interact together? Kiely analogises Periodization with chaos theory, the (mathematical) study of dynamic systems in relation to their environment. Chaos theory is a deterministic one which can predict the future state of a system. However, I’m sure any of us who have coached a performance athlete will know that:

“The chaotic, highly sensitive, nature of the biological system will ensure that the progress of physical fitness will not be an orderly, uniformly incremental, and predictable process. The adaptive responses to any given training ‘inputs’ will not result in readily predictable fitness ‘outputs’”.

Periodization is a deterministic conceptual framework which fails to account for the important scientific principle of ‘Shit Happens’. Take for example Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident in the ITU triathlon in Yokohama. She tripped in T2, sliced her foot with her chain-ring, which in turn affected her race result and subsequent training. This accident was avoidable but certainly not predictable. If Coach Daz had spent 2 days carefully designing a pretty periodised annual plan for Jodie, he’d be pretty pissed at having to start again!

Jodie Stimpson
Jodie Stimpson

Because I’m a bit of a thinker, I like to look beyond contemporary science to the humanities when exploring complex questions. That’s because I feel they enrich our understanding of humanity in a way not possible with science alone.  Take Plato for example, the man who 2500 years ago laid the foundations for modern philosophy and science. He understood that the body, mind and soul are distinct but not separate entities.

This understanding is fundamental to contemporary training theory in which the aim is to promote adaptation so the athlete functions optimally. Let’s move beyond concept and apply Plato’s work to endurance sport.

Something that is relatively predictable is that with around a 1/3rd of a race to go, regardless of its distance, the mind will tell the body to slow down. Scott Jurek, the ultra-marathon runner, talks about the domain “between exhaustion and breaking” that I’m sure most of us understand. I will call this the Domain!  Operating in this Domain requires an athlete to consciously control the urge to quit. The very best athletes can operate in the Domain consistently. Great endurance coaches such as Shane Sutton, Brett Sutton and Darren Smith understand that, with the right raw talent, athletes can be conditioned to operate within the Domain and subsequently excel at world level. This requires a training environment that is challenging by design.

Of course, every athlete has their breaking point and sometimes it’s important to go beyond this point to identify it in the first place. However, psychological factors and how to periodize them only gets a few pages in Tudor O. Bompa’s Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, a book that is required reading for most sports science and coaching students.

My conclusions are that:

  1. I accept that Plato’s writings on exercising the mind, body and soul together as a fundemental truth, specifically within the context of endurance training.
  2. Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident, proves that training cannot be planned effectively using a determinist model.
  3. Periodization is simply a conceptual theory that simply confuses coaches and practitioners because it bears little resemblance to what works in real life.
  4. If Periodization worked, then so would accurately predicting performance. Bookies would go bust!
  5. Plato would have rightly dismissed periodisation as nonsense.

Me after exiting THE DOMAIN

What’s the Alternative?

Sometimes, athletes will perform optimally without too much structure but they rarely do so consistently. Rather, success in endurance sport usually happens by design, rather than by accident. But what is that design?

I believe that designing training programmes is an iterative (trial and error) process which can be informed on by a broad knowledge and experiential learning.  Sports science certainly has a place, in which it provides knowledge to minimise coaching errors. Other factors to consider include:

  • Having a dream of what can be achieved. Goal’s and goal-setting are also accepted truths in training theory. However, goals have limits! Dreams do not; they enable athletes to achieve what may not be considered by others to be achievable!
  • Systematically developing an understanding of all the demands of the sport. Then prioritise training towards developing strengths and minimising weaknesses relative to these demands.  Most athletes find it mentally challenging to continually work on weaknesses so priority should be given to strengths.

Considering these factors does not discount medium- and long-term planning or dismiss having specific training focuses within defined periods. Such planning is most certainly essential for elite athletes supported by extended programmes which require a degree of predictability to allocate resources.

Closing Words

As a coach, sports scientist or an athlete who wishes to excel, having a hunger to find out how and why things work is vital. Doing so enables us attempt to solve complex problems, to challenge accepted truths and to avoid dogma. One Olympic coach confided in me that he found a particular athlete very challenging. She always wanted to know why! She challenged his ego but also encouraged him to consider his own coaching knowledge and practice at every level. This is coming from a coach that has helped win more medals than many countries have won!

If more of us challenged dogma, it would be less likely that things like periodisation were accepted as truth when in fact the null hypothesis is far more appropriate.


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