Periodization in accordance with your natural bio-rhythms:
Art meets science

Alan Couzens, M.S. (Sports Science)

Jun 10th, 2015

“I’ll ride the wave where it takes me” – Pearl Jam ('Release'.)

There was a great article on the McMillan speed blog a couple of days ago on the development of periodization over the years that I referenced/linked to in the tweet below…

Periodization should be based on individual biological rhythms not "a selection from a menu of models"

— Alan Couzens (@Alan_Couzens) June 7, 2015

The author, Matt Jordan suggested that the evolution of periodization in coaching has resulted in a movement away from the talk of theoretical models and towards a process of “biological problem solving” for the individual athlete.

Jordan goes on to reference another great article by Russian sports science guru, Yuri Verkoshansky, entitled …

The End of Periodization in The Training of High Perfomance Sport (click to read).

While there are some points in the article that I am not a huge fan of, there is one key point that Verkoshansky makes that is far too often overlooked…

"3. There is a disregard for the biological adaptive process. This is another key point – periodization must be married to monitoring and assessment of the biological adaptive process over time. If periodization is not grounded in biology, mistakes happen."

This tying of the training with biological rhythms is actually the basis of theoretical periodization, i.e. that different adaptations have different ‘time courses’. For instance, the mesocycle is supposed to tie in with the circa-vignition cycle of structural rebuilding (Arbeit, 2007) – a period of 21-28 days. However, something gets lost in the literal translation of a general theoretical model to a specific (individual) reality.

While this period may represent the average period of adaptation over a population, not only are there a number of factors that lead to variation among individuals, but because we are humans, living in a very human world of chaos & emotion that we can only slightly control (let alone predict!) there is also a lot of variation in the time it takes to go through this biological process of degradation and repair for a given individual!

For example…

Of course, you say, these are all common sense! But common sense is not always so common, or so easy to apply. Ongoing modification of a plan takes time and energy and, in practice, most of us (coaches and athletes) have a tendency to ignore the above signs until they become dire and just 'stick to the plan'

These points bear extra significance in working with ‘real life’ working age-groupers….

At the extreme elite level, the prime source of stress is training stress. At the very best National Training Centers, every effort is made to remove the normal stressors of daily life so that the athlete can focus on one thing – the training.

There is no worry of “What am I going to eat for dinner tonight? Dang, the cupboards are bare. Guess that means I’ve got to rush to the store on the way home from work…”

There is no mid-training thought of “Man, this upcoming presentation for the boss at work is stressing me out…”

And there is certainly no “I don’t know how I’m going to make the mortgage payment this month. Little Johnny’s school fees are due and the car needs a service and….”

Every effort is made to eliminate these extraneous variables that have such a significant impact on the ‘total fatigue’ in the world of ‘real life’ athletes.

In the virtual lab of High Performance Training centers – the birthplace of theoretical periodization models – there is, understandably, a very strong correlation between the fatigue of the athlete and the total training load. In the real world that most of us occupy, maybe not so much….

Below you’ll see an illustration of this in the form of some actual ‘real life athlete’ data that compares the training stress balance of the athlete with their RMSSD – a measure that uses heart rate variability to assess autonomic fatigue.

We might expect that when training load is the highest and TSB ‘bottoms out’ that we would also see HRV bottoming out, indicating the highest fatigue at the peak of the recent training load. Indeed, we do see this in the first block of training where the 2 track together, i.e. HRV goes down as training 'freshness' (TSB) goes down. However, in block 2, we can see that, despite a similar pattern of a week of recovery followed by 3 weeks of loading, the athlete’s HRV numbers start to recover but then plateau, indicating incomplete recovery. They actually reach their bottom point during his 'recovery week'. Then, in the 3rd block of training, HRV actually rises back up during the loading portion of the block(!), reaching its peak when the load is at its peak and the athlete is theoretically the most tired! So what happened?

This real life athlete had a family emergency at the end of week 1 that necessitated travel (& additional stress). You can clearly see that in the pattern of his ANS function, which holds steady low over the course of the block and then bottoms out following the lightest week of training, where TSB (& theoretical 'freshness') was the highest for the block. With the removal of the non-training stress, his ANS actually recovers despite increased training load.

i.e. the periodization model didn’t match the biological reality.

Similarly in my own data from this year, the time between my ‘wave troughs’ (where my HRV 'bottoms out') have been...

  1. 18 days (travel block)
  2. 37 days (base block)
  3. 34 days (base block)
  4. 23 days (intensity block)

Looking at the above examples, it becomes clear that...

If we rigidly adhere to an arbitrary cycle, we will have periods where we are fighting the natural adaptation rhythms of the body – i.e. trying to train hard when we should be resting & resting when we are still fresh enough to absorb more work.

So what’s the solution?

I find myself frequently coming back to another favorite aquatic quote…

In other words, be responsive in your prescription. Pour the proper amount of training into the athlete's current 'stress bottle'. Match the prescription with the current realities of the athlete’s life.

In a previous post, I talked about my 3 step ‘systems check’ that I encourage my athletes to use. When an athlete starts ‘failing’ the systems check over multiple days, it may be time to look at restructuring the cycle (irrespective of what the periodization ‘plan’ may say) to ensure recovery falls where it is actually needed most!

In other words, if an athlete has a string of days where he/she fails the 'system check' it may be prudent to move the recovery week forward to that time and reconfigure the rest of that block (& potentially the following blocks). I.e. Plan the recovery for when the athlete is actually the most tired!

This responsive 'crafting' of the plan isn’t easy for coach or athlete. The application of this ‘art’ is both technology and time intensive. At the risk of sounding harsh, this approach is best reserved for athletes who only need it sparingly, i.e. if life stress is continually compromising the integrity of the plan, the optimal solution from a life/health perspective may be to, optimally a) Dial down the life stress b) (at least, temporarily) Dial down the overall training stress.

An important reminder: Even for athletes living in 'the real world', for the best ones, their world is a little less 'real' than most. Put another way - athletic success is built on a platform of an atypically stable life. This stability in life translates to a generally stable biological milieu.

Even with a committed athlete who has bought in to the value of this sort of monitoring, there is a very real management challenge in getting that information to the coach, amending the plan and having the athlete act on the amended plan ‘real time’. Therefore, at least currently, in practice, this responsibility falls to both coach and athlete…

For the athlete - run your system checks, ‘know your norms’ and report anything out of norm so that amendments can be made.

For the coach – have a sufficiently flexible platform & approach that can accommodate these modifications while still maintaining the integrity of the long term plan.

It is only with the above that these potentially season-ending “biological mistakes” of rigid periodization models can be avoided.

Train smart,



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