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Periodisation for cyclists

For more information:

Dan's presentation on Approaches to Periodisation is worth a watch for more detail on the different approaches to periodisation and some of the practical considerations

Check out our factsheet on Goal Setting

Helen's talk on Winning in Cycling will help you set goals and plan for peak performance by going beyond the classical text book type material presented here

What is periodisation?

Periodisation is a planning process, taking into account the athlete’s major season objectives, and designing a training programme which enables the utilisation of correct loads and adequate regeneration periods for avoiding excessive fatigue. It thus serves as a useful tool for both athlete and coach. “Periodisation provides the structure for controlling the stress and regeneration that is essential for training improvements.”1

Periodisation enables a cyclic arrangement of training loads to increase the likelihood of performance excellence at a chosen time. Training load can be altered via interplays of volume, intensity and frequency (Figure below), optimising the training adaptations. Periodisation also encompasses changes in the basic structure of the training over time (e.g. low intensity steady training, high intensity interval training, recovery, and taper).

Periodisation methodology involves structuring the annual training plan in blocks or phases each of which focuses on the development of a specific energy system. The goal is to increase fitness steadily so to reach optimal fitness in time for their priority event or events. This implies a good understanding of the energy systems necessitated for the chosen event. This allows the decision as to the order in which the components should be developed (the periodisation), and how to develop each (the training), and know when they have been fully developed (monitoring training).

Training_load

Some definitions2

Training intensity: Qualitative element of training. Can be expressed in absolute (speed, m.s-1; power, W) or relative terms (%VO2max; % of maximal heart rate).

Training volume: Quantitative element of training; total amount of training, calculated as a combination of duration and frequency of training.

Duration of training: The length of time a training session or a particular training programme lasts. The optimum duration will depend on the intensity of the session and the level of fitness of the individual.

Frequency of training: The number of times per week training is undertaken.


How do we “periodise”?

Prior to constructing your periodised training plan:

A] The first question to ask to yourself is “What is my ultimate goal?” Setting an aim to train for is the imperative first step. It is crucial to know what event you want to complete, when and where you want to peak to subsequently plan your training – too often people compete week in, week out for a whole season. “If you don’t know where you go, you might need a long time to get there!”. If you're not sure where to begin, read our factsheet on Goal Setting before coming back to this and if you want to go a little deeper with your goal setting have a watch of Helen's presentation on Winning in Cycling.

Setting your final destination will avoid a loss of motivation through lack of direction3. Over-competing often results in under-performing and under-training (significant stress from travel, social and psychological factors)4. Once your goal is defined, planning your training will help you organise your training year, months, weeks, sessions, and even sets. While the goal is your destination, the periodisation of your training becomes your journey! “Training tends to focus on the outcomes (winning) rather than the process (optimal training)1.

B] With the help of some sports science, you should define the factors that have been shown to explain performance for your particular event. With lab testing (lactate threshold test, critical power, VO2max test) your strengths and weaknesses can be identified and compared against the optimal. All that is left to do is to go out and train!

Periodisation

A] Duration and objectives of each cycle

Periodisation_example

The period from the start of the training plan to the “peak date” is divided into manageable phases, each phase being associated with a major objective (example: Preparatory, competitive, recovery phase). Some technical terms have been introduced in the literature to help athletes and coach to periodise training but unfortunately, their definition is inconsistent.

The first level of periodisation is usually called a macro cycle and can last 2 to 6 weeks5 (e.g. preparation phase, competitive phase). A good example is the phase of tapering which is well known to be difficult to program. Its purpose is to allow for fatigue to reduce while maintaining if not improving fitness before performance can peak 6 (see the factsheet on the training triad).
After having defined the main objectives of the macro cycles, each one can be divided in subsequent smaller phases called meso cycles, which also have predetermined training objective7 (according to the weaknesses / strengths you want to work on).
Finally, each meso cycle will contain several micro cycles, lasting from one session7 to a week6 (Figure left). A micro cycle can embrace 6 days of training and one day of rest, 5 and 2, 4 and 1, or 3 and 1.8 They can aim at stressing the body systems (shock and competition micro cycle) or can follow these stressing periods (recovery micro cycles).

Types

Meaning

Excessive load

Surpasses the capacity of the body and results in a form of overtraining

Trainable load

Results in a specific training effect

Maintenance load

Is sufficient to avoid a detraining effect

Recovery load

Favour promotion of the recovery process after a previous excessive or trainable load

Useless load

Is below the threshold to achieve any effects

B] Assigning training loads

Finally, training loads will be assigned to all the cycles included in the training period. Changes in training frequency, duration and intensity (Figure right) should occur in an appropriate manner for optimising training adaptations that meet your weaknesses and strengths. Length of each meso cycle, and changes in the training load will all depend on the type of adaptations the training is aimed at (metabolic, neural, etc). It would then be important to monitor the training responses to make sure the adaptations are maximal and the training impulse optimal.

An example of periodisation with an annual cycling training program for “Sam”

Here, we present a “classic” training plan to give you an idea of the first stage of the periodisation process. It has been designed for Sam, a cyclist aiming at performing better (2 minutes off a personal best) in a 25-mile time trial.

1. The transition phase/testing (2 - 8 weeks)

This phase (end of one season and beginning of the other) will give Sam time to reflect on his seasons’ successes and define goals for the next season with his coach. Sam will also be tested in the laboratory for a complete physiological screening (Lactate Threshold, critical power, body composition, maximum minute power). It is the best period to do so as Sam’s fitness is still high and “true” weaknesses and strengths will be defined and used in setting of training goals. His lactate threshold (47% VO2max) and economy[1] (11.6 ml.min-1.kg-1) were rather low compared to other physiological parameters measured9. Sam needs to improve them within the next 12 months in order to reach his goal. Active recovery, using cross training, is the exercise goal of this phase as well as possible rehab of aches, pains and injuries.

2. Preparation Phase (2 - 4 weeks)

Sam’s fitness will have slightly declined and he needs to get ready to build the aerobic base. Sam will start biking again but only at low intensity and a couple of times a week alongside cross and weight training.

3. Aerobic Base Phase (10 - 24 weeks)

This phase is always the longest because the aerobic system is the most important system to develop and needs a long time to develop. For Sam, the aerobic base phase is longer because his Lactate Threshold and economy are low. Sam will see his volume of training going from medium at the start to high volume toward the end, while the intensity will increase from a low level. Along with building the aerobic potential, Sam’s cycling workouts will also focus on cadence drills to improve his economy. This phase is complete when the aerobic system has been significantly developed. Signs of this include improvement of lactate threshold and VO2max, and ability to complete long rides.

4. Build Phase (8 - 12 weeks)

Efforts at and above lactate threshold are prioritized as well as maintaining aerobic power base. Some short highly intense efforts will be added to Sam’s program in order to stress more his anaerobic potential and increase the range of higher powers. Sam’s power at lactate threshold should improve, as well as his ability to maintain this power for longer durations. This phase should precede any peaking phase and be specific to the race goal.

5. Tapering Phase (2 - 6 weeks)

This phase is the most difficult to gauge; often, it takes a few attempts to individualise a taper. The fatigue accumulated over the last two periods should slowly disappear for Sam to reach his maximal potential on the date required. The time required to “recover” from previous weeks can be anything from 1 to 3 weeks depending on the level of fitness, workload accumulated over the past two phases, and individual “skill” in recovery. As Sam is unused to periodisation and has worked much harder than he is used to, the taper might be adjusted based on his feelings over the first. Volume is usually decreased while the intensity is maintained (if not increased) during a optimised taper but Sam’s feeling will be recorded and discussed in order to adjust the training load on a daily basis. Sam’s desire to race will be extremely high.

6. Race or Peak (2 - 6 weeks)

Peaks in performance are only held for limited time period unfortunately. Although individual differences are apparent, anecdotal evidence suggests absolute peaks in form cannot be held for much more than a week to 10 days. This makes it terribly difficult to peak for one event!

How do I know my training is going well?

You need to monitor your training to know whether it is going well and as well as you wanted to when programming it. Physiological testing in a laboratory will give you an indication as to how your fitness is improving in terms of aerobic and anaerobic potentials (lactate threshold, critical power, VO2max) as well as economy, flexibility, etc. But regularly recording and tracking your own progress are as important to get a good picture. A good training diary will help you or your coach adjust training. At PBscience, we make use of the Training Peaks online diary system to manage the training of our athletes. The amount of data generated by power meters, heart rate monitors and GPS units make some form of electronic storage essential and the Training Peaks system allows this to be stored alongside athlete comments on how they felt during the session, as well as other metrics such as body mass, hours and quality of sleep, nutrition etc. These days there's too much information to store every last detail in your memory, and the graphing and analysis features of software like Training Peaks allows the identification of trends in the data to done much more easily.

Why “periodise” your training?

The physiologist’s perspective

The effects of a given stimulus are only short term. It has been shown that a body cell put under a given stress will adapt in the short term but these adaptations will be limited in the long term. That is why an athlete will not get better if they always do the same training - the fitness would stagnate at a fixed level.

Some key training principles have to be considered for maximising training benefits. These are still under the scrutiny of scientists so it is difficult to find good scientific evidence so remain theoretical constructs. They are often referred as to “training principles”. For example, it is accepted that during a training phase, load should gradually increase to keep stressing the body (this refers to the principle of progression). This overload needs to be optimal, i.e. adequate stress/recovery balance, as opposed to maximal (to avoid overtraining).

The coach’s perspective

“When I started coaching with the U.S. Cycling Team, there was not much of an overriding structure to the team’s training… organizing training into blocks of similar workouts was one of the changes we made…When I was racing, the common training program was structured to hit all aspects of cycling every week. Monday was rest day, Tuesday was hill training, Wednesday was a long day, Thursday was for intervals and Friday was a short ride to rest up for racing or group rides on the weekend. The limit of that program was that there was never enough of a load on any one energy system to lead to significant growth. A full week was too long to wait…when we started restructuring training to tilt the balance to specific energy systems, the athletes made significant gains very quickly.” 11

The psychologist’s perspective

Planning assists in achieving regularity yet variation in the athlete lifestyle, decreasing the danger of monotony and mental saturation despite high training frequency. Planning in advance will enable you to gain in confidence in what to do and what for.

 

REFERENCES

1.   Smith. Sports Med 2003, 33, 1103-1126.
2.   Kent. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2002).
3.   Williams et al. Human Performance 2000, 13, 159-180.
4.   Balyi. Elite athlete preparation: the training to compete and training to win stages of long-term athlete development. , in Sport Leadership, Coaching Association of Canada, Montreal (2002).
5.   bompa. Human Kinetics (1999).
6.   Mujika et al. Sports Med 2004, 34, 891-927.
7.   Matveyev. Progress Publishers, Moscow (1981).
8.   Viru. CRC Press Inc (1995).
9.   Coyle et al. J Appl Physiol 1988, 64, 2622-2630.
10. Armstrong et al. Rodale Press (2000).

11. Carmichael & Rutberg. Putnam Adult (2003).