Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Periodization for Everyone?

Periodized Training as practiced by The Modesto Roadmen. 
In winter, we wore down jackets to train. In summer, we wore as little as possible. 
Actually, we practiced random training as recommended by Joe Friel.

Consider the aerobic exercise recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine for a healthy adult: 300 minutes of exercise a week consisting of 5 days of moderate exercise, 60 minutes per day. Although there is some periodicity there, both daily (one does not exercise continuously over the course of the day but only for one hour, leaving 23 hours exercise-free) and weekly (one does not exercise for 2 days of the week), this is a pretty uniform plan. Week after week after week one does the same workout, 52 weeks a year. Contrast this to a conventional periodized training plan for a bicycle racer consisting of an annual macrocycle divided into three to eight mesocycles each of which consist of a number of weekly microcycles. Nary a week goes by that the pattern of rides doesn't change. What is the purpose for all this changing, what is the theory behind periodized training?

Before I begin I think it would be useful to explain what I mean when I use the term "periodized training." Part of the reason I feel a need to define this is a 2008 blog post by Joe Friel in which he argued that periodized training represented a broad range of very different training programs. In fact, he argued that everything except random training (which he recommended for novice riders) is a form of periodization. I would never argue about the definition of periodization with an expert like Joe Friel but I would like to use a narrower, working definition for this post. The definition I would like to use is based on the periodized training program described in Joe Friel's book, "The Cyclist's Training Bible." Very briefly, at the end of very racing season one takes a break, and then progressively trains according to a plan directed towards a few key races. Just before each race, one reduces the intensity of training as part of a phase called "taper" to reduce fatigue so as to maximize performance in that race. There is a great deal more to his plan than that, but this very brief summary will do for the purposes of this post.

As I understand it, four major factors underlie all periodized training plans:
  1. When you stress your body (e.g. by completing a training ride) at first you become weaker because you are tired, but as you rest, you recover to a stronger state than when you started. (This is just the basic process of training.)
  2. Although you need to leave time for recovery, you can put that off, sometimes for weeks, allowing you to train harder in the short run than you could sustain. This leaves you fatigued, which both reduces performance and which must also be paid back with future recovery.
  3. If you do the same exercise for more than a few weeks, your body adapts to that exercise and as a result there is less stress and less improvement.
  4. Continuous exercise (even periodized) without an annual break leads to an undesirable psychological condition known as burnout.
Point 1 is, I suspect, uncontentious. Personally, I am skeptical about Point 3, but it seems to be fairly universally accepted, so I will leave it be. My guess is that Point 4 varies a great deal from person to person but I also think that it contains enough truth that it ought to be taken seriously. For reasons I find it difficult to articulate, I suspect that Point 2 is the one that most readers will question. One reason it might engender resistance is that I don't recall ever having seen it expressed in this explicit a form. And yet, I claim it is implicit in almost all common periodized training plans. Note the following graph taken from "The Cyclist's Training Bible":

From "The Cyclist's Training Bible" by Joe Friel, page 112
As can be seen in this graph, fatigue (the grey line) builds up over the course of the season as does fitness (the red line). However, form (the yellow line), which determines your ability to perform in a race, stays constant or even drops because the harmful effect of fatigue balances the beneficial effect of fitness. To prepare for a race, the volume of training is reduced, fatigue drops, fitness drops a little, but form, the combination of fitness and fatigue that determines performance, reaches a peak. The main point I would make from this graph (based on real data from a real athlete) is that fatigue does build up over a period of weeks and months and that this can be used as part of a training plan. (One detail which I find intriguing is that very early in the season - mid January - before training has really started, fatigue is at a minimum and form is actually higher than on race day. Bike Snob comments on this phenomenon.)

I ended up adopting periodized training via a series of mistakes and corrections. When I first decided to attempt randonneuring in 2011, I was routinely riding 35 miles and attempted jumping directly to a 50 mile ride. Given how I felt during the 35 mile rides, it didn't seem like it should be much of a stretch, but it was; I did not complete that first attempt at a 50 mile ride. Early in my return to cycling, my wife had given me "The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling" by Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka. I referred to that book and found that I should be increasing the length of my weekly long ride by no more than 10% a week. By following that formula, I was able to complete my first 200K brevet in May of 2012. However, Burke and Pavelka are less than explicit about what you do after reaching your goal, probably figuring that any idiot knew that to expect to maintain that level of fitness was impossible. Not being any idiot, that was exactly what I expected. I soon found otherwise, which stimulated more reading of the training literature and ultimately in the discovery of periodized training. Since then, I have been experimenting to find the parameters that govern my particular options vis a vis such a training plan, and it looks like it takes me over six months to recover from the preparation for and riding of a 200K brevet, by which time all increase in fitness from the previous attempt has been lost. In fact, in looking over my riding history from August of 2008 when I first resumed cycling after a 30 year hiatus until today, I made a lot of progress during the first few months, but much less since then. My endurance seems to have improved, but at the same time, my speed seems to have diminished. Has my dalliance with periodization lead me down the garden path to futility?

An alternative to periodization I have considered is to focus on sustainable fitness rather than peaks of form. Rather than grind my way up a series of long rides of 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 72, 80, and 90 miles followed by a 124 mile (200K) brevet and then a year-long collapse, maybe I should gradually increase the intensity of a constant, weekly workout, being careful to avoid anything I could not sustain pretty much indefinitely. If it is really true that any exercise plan repeated for too long stops working (Point 3, above) it might be wise to depart from a strict, linear increase, perhaps by working on speed for a period of time, and then to change my workout to focus on endurance, but all within the constraints of a constant stress load and long term sustainability. This weekly workout needn't be devoid of joy. After all, I can meet my health needs with a fairly light schedule. Anything beyond that should be for fun.

To be perfectly honest, I do not understand the theory behind a lot of the training literature I have been reading. At the risk of being arrogant, I wonder if anyone does? They need not of course, not even an expert like Joe Friel. The training plan of an expert is based on years of experience and produces excellent results, theory be damned. (Whether the experience of a Joe Friel applies to an unfit old man like me is an entirely different question, of course.) However, being a scientist by training and a human by birth, I cannot help but construct theories in my head as to how the various aspects of training work, theories which inevitably (if dangerously) lead to new training ideas. When I look at the above graph from Joe Friel's book, I wonder what happens to fatigue in a sustainable model. Is it a steady state equilibrium, the harder you train at steady state, the higher your level of fatigue? That would be a bad thing and could even lead to health risks. Alternatively, if I held my training plan constant, would fatigue decrease over time as I gained fitness? One assumes that, in either case, there would be an upper limit to what level of fitness one can sustain. Stay tuned as I continue to bumble my way towards whatever end state my tarnished karma demands.

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