Wow. What a title. A little wordy, but sometimes you just have to go for it. Hopefully you’re hooked and ready for me to drop some exercise science! If you’ve ever trained for anything, have aspirations to train for something, or are doing so now, stay with me till the end—amidst the science, this article has practical information that can help you stay healthy while working toward a big goal.

Periodization is a training term, referring to planned changes in exercise volume or intensity over time. Volume is the measure of how much exercise you’re doing, and intensity is the measure of how hard the exercise is. Usually, this exercise volume and/or intensity increases over time, with a goal to bring beneficial adaptations to the person training. These adaptations could range from getting stronger, to losing weight, to preparing for soccer season, to running a trail race, to riding your bicycle across the state. It just so happens that I’m doing the latter beginning in a few days, and have been formally training for this goal for the past 14 weeks.

As I come to the end of my training, I wanted to use the opportunity to talk about a couple of training concepts that can help you if you’re working toward a long-term goal. First, the concept of periodization is fundamental to exercise science, but actually owes much of its origin to a Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist named Hans Selye. Selye is credited with the idea of the General Adaptation Syndrome (or G.A.S. theory), which describes how the body (particularly the endocrine system) responds to stressful environmental stimuli.

The reason this theory is important to exercise scientists and coaches is because exercise, as far as the human body is concerned, is a stressful environmental stimulus. The act of exercise takes our bodies out of cushy, comfy homeostasis, and puts stress on a number of our body systems, depending on what we’re doing, how long we do it, and how difficult it is. If you haven’t exercised for a long time, and then do some intense exercise, you know what I’m talking about. Or, if you exercise all the time in a certain way, and then go do something totally different, you know what I’m talking about.

The G.A.S. theory consists of 3 events:

  1. A stress (In this context a bout of exercise)
  2. A negative response from the body (Fatigue, stiffness, soreness, inflammation, depletion of resources, etc.)
  3. An adaptation from the body (Gain of lean muscle tissue, improved motor skills, gain of muscular strength, improved cardiovascular efficiency, etc.)

A periodized training plan takes advantage of the magic of this cycle, which is the adaptation. Our bodies are amazing at adapting to acute bouts of stress, but there’s a caveat. There must be sufficient time and rest after the negative response in order for the adaptation to occur. Without enough rest and recovery, and given enough repeated exercise bouts, our bodies and even our minds can become worn down, worn out, and exhausted. Injury, burnout, and even illness often follow.

“Rest is where the magic happens…”

Periodization is also sometimes referred to as progression. One strategy to build-up, or progress exercise volume and/or intensity is just to keep adding more and more over time, in more-or-less a steady progression. This is called linear periodization or linear progression. For example, say a runner accustomed to running 20-miles a week decides to train for a marathon, and has a goal to work up to 55 miles a week. She decides to add 5 miles a week every week until she is hitting 55. This is an example of linear progression, and when you look at the graph below, you’ll see that it is aptly named. Linear periodization or progression is pretty straight-forward and logical, and it can work, but it is not without some risks and pitfalls. It’s like the old “straw that broke the camel’s back” analogy. Everyone has a breaking point, and at that point, the body just can’t handle the ever-mounting stress, and things fall apart. That being said, a linear progression is still a much better plan than someone just jumping from 20 miles a week straight to 55. Mistakes like that are made often among recreational athletes, and are usually not without consequences.

Training Volume3
Example of a linear progression. A runner adds 5 miles a week until she’s up to her training goal.

So linear progression is a better method than going straight from not-a-lot to a-whole-lot, but there’s still a best way. The best way minimizes risks and maximizes rewards, and it only requires a slight tweek or adjustment to the concepts just presented. What’s more, the best solution is rooted to the concept of allowing the body and brain adequate rest and recovery, and much research and practical application favors this training strategy. It’s called non-linear, or undulating periodization. Non-liner periodization does exactly what the name implies, training volumes and intensities undulate, both during the week (microcycle), and over the entire training program (macrocycle).

Let’s take a look at my macrocycle. Below is a graph of my weekly training, in minutes, over the past 14 weeks. For my training, I chose to measure volume in minutes instead of mileage, because when I rode on the indoor trainer or did a spin class during cold, wet spring days, then I wasn’t getting true miles (the bike just sits in the same place no matter how hard I pedal).

Training Volume
Cycling volume by minutes per week. The undulating pattern is by design.

Notice the peaks and troughs, and the overall trend over time. The training peaks provide extra stress to the system, and the troughs allow the system to recover enough to adapt (and hopefully not break down), while still keeping the overall volume on the up-and-up. Here’s the same graph with an arrow to illustrate the overall direction of the training volume, which turns out to be pretty linear:

Training Volume2
The non-linear progression still follows an overall linear trend, but the dips allow for extra rest and recovery. Think of a switchbacking trail up a mountain rather than a trail straight up.

Pretty cool, eh?

Another way I like to think of it is kind-of like switchbacks. A trail that just heads straight up the mountain would be like linear progression. If the slope is too steep, it can be very difficult, and it might break you at some point. But a path to the top of the mountain via switchbacks is a little more gentle.  Even the steepest of slopes can be managed with some thoughtful switchbacks. You’ll still get to the top, and you’ll hopefully be in one piece when you get there!

Finally, notice the graph climbed to its zenith a couple of weeks ago, and then begins to fall. This is called a taper, and it allows some really nice recovery to happen so that you feel fresh and fit when it’s go-time. This week, my final week before my ride, my volume will fall off even more. Personally, for big events like this ride or a long race like a marathon, I like for my volume to peak 2 to 3 weeks prior to the event, to allow for a full recovery and a peak performance. During the taper period, I also like to hold my intensity steady while the volume falls away. It’s like keeping the engine of a sports car revved-up, but not putting many miles on it.

There’s a fine line between optimal training and over-training. Over-training is a road to injury, burnout, dysfunction, and even illness. Whenever I set a goal and train for something, my first priority is to be healthy whenever it’s time to perform. Non-linear progressions help me get to the starting line healthy and confident. You don’t have to be a coach or exercise scientist to put these concepts into practice. If you’ve read this whole article, kudos to you! There was a lot of info here, therefore I will try to summarize simply:

  1. Your body and brain need the stress of exercise.
  2. Your body and brain need time to adequately recover from the stress of exercise.
  3. You will get better over time if you practice this model, and slowly progress volume and intensity.
  4. Be patient, trust the process, err on the conservative side, and meet your goal healthy and confident!

I’m ready to Rock n’ Roll!



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