Written by James Hoffman
The term periodization gets thrown around pretty fast and loose these days. There seem to be a lot of different definitions and types of periodization concepts. The problem is that virtually all of these arguments are largely semantical and usually refer to much the same thing. What I so eloquently tell my students is that you can call it a terd poo, but it’s still shit. What I’m getting at is that the concept of periodization is largely similar across the board and the particular approaches to enhancing performance are what tend to differ. Let’s break down periodization for sport training into a simple and applicable concept.
For the purposes of this article, we will define periodization as “the logical and systematic sequencing of training factors in an integrative fashion in order to optimize specific training outcomes at pre-determined time points.” Key phrases for future consideration: systematic sequencing, specific training outcomes, pre-determined time points. The goals of periodization are generally to:
- Optimize an athlete’s performance at a pre-determined time point or the maintenance of performance capacity for sports with a specific season. We want our athlete to be at the very best when it counts. We don’t want our athletes peaked when they’re off the field, nor fatigued when they’re on the field.
- Manage the training stressors to reduce over-training potential. Fatigue can come from a number of stressors, some unrelated to training. These stressors can accumulate and wreak havoc on athletic performance. Stress and fatigue must be periodically alleviated. (Check out Dr. Israetel’s article Fatigue Explained.)
- Promote long-term athlete development. It’s easy to get caught up in the short term, but we want to make sure the athlete is improving throughout their career.
- Structure precise training interventions to target specific physiological and performance outcomes. We want to train the fitness characteristics critical for success in the sport. Although many sports overlap quite a bit, training to be a good marathon runner probably isn’t going to help you break any snatch records.
Periodization is composed of a number of additional training principles beyond that which will be addressed here, but for now, let’s take a look at a few basic concepts:
- Specificity: the degree of association between the training and performance variables.
- Variation: the periodic alteration of training variables (i.e., a removal of linearity) in order to stimulate specific adaptations and reduce over-training potential.
- Directed adaptation: the process by which your body makes adaptations specific to the training stimuli over time. Although variation is good, too much variation can be detrimental, thus minimal time thresholds are necessary to drive adaptation.
- Phase potentiation: the process of structuring the training plan into smaller phases that target specific fitness characteristics which build upon each other over time.
Although this might seem like technical jargon, these principles are not overly complicated and provide the infrastructure to our training plan. From these principles, we know that in order to optimize sport performance, the training stimuli must target specific fitness characteristics, performance outcomes, and physiological variables at a specified time. Over time, we can vary things like sets, reps, volume, intensity, and exercise selection to increase the transfer of training effects and compound previously obtained training adaptations to higher levels of performance.
One of the most common manifestations of periodization is the training plan. We might not necessarily think of it that way, but having a training plan for a season, the entire year, or even spanning multiple years is the physical manifestation of our periodization concept. The training plan allows us to adopt a timeline encompassing all training, practice, recovery, mandatory down-time, and competition sessions. This timeline then allows us to sequence our training into smaller phases – or blocks – accumulating and peaking our performance variables at the pre-determined competition time.
So how do we sequence our training phases together in a logical and systematic approach? For anyone who has worked in sports like MMA, rugby, hockey, and any other multifaceted sport, you know this can be quite an undertaking due to the enormous number of factors involved. The good news is we can effectively break down the sporting season, or macrocycle, into three main training phases:
- The preparatory phase
- The competition phase
- The active recovery (transition) phase
The preparatory phase is arguably the most important phase throughout the cycle, serving as the foundation of physical, technical, and psychological preparedness. This phase generally lasts anywhere from 3-6 months and is well away from any meaningful competitions. For single event sports, these competitions could include races, lifting meets, or fights. For multi-event or seasonal sports, these competitions could include league games, play-offs, or regional championships. The goals of the preparatory phase as a whole are to:
- Acquire and improve general physical training capacity.
- Improve fitness characteristics required by the sport.
- Improve psychological drive (e.g., determination, willpower, and perseverance).
- To develop, improve, or perfect technique.
- To familiarize athletes with the basic strategic maneuvers and tactics mastered later in subsequent phases.
- To educate the athlete on the theory and methodology of training for their sport.
The preparatory phase can be further broken down into two distinct subphases:
The general preparatory phase, or general prep, is the furthest from competition and is used to elevate work capacity, general physical preparation, technical abilities, basic tactics, and optimize body composition (e.g., lose fat, gain muscle, and significantly alter bodyweight). This phase will consist of the highest training volumes of the plan and moderate intensities. The general prep will include phases of strength endurance, hypertrophy, or general strength phases.
In the general prep phase, athletes will be developing basic sport skills like passing, catching, throwing, kicking, sprinting, tackling, shooting, etc., and some elementary tactics like basic offensive and defensive formations. Additionally, they will be learning basic lifting techniques like trunk bracing, keeping an upright posture against resistance, squatting, pulling, pressing, etc. For more mastered athletes, this phase can serve as a time to revisit skills and techniques that may have been overlooked in the previous preparation, attaining mastery of foundational skills, or adopting new skills and advanced techniques.
The specific preparatory phase, or specific prep, serves as the pre-season for many sports, drawing nearer to competition. The specific prep represents a transition from physical development to competition. This phase is used to develop technical mastery of sport and training skills, team tactics, maximal strength, speed and explosiveness, and sport specific endurance. During this phase, total volume, sport and training, is reduced upward of 40% from the general prep, while intensity factors such as load, speed, and power continue to increase. The specific prep will include phases of specific strength, maximal strength, power, and speed.
In the specific prep, athletes are focusing on mastering sport techniques and integrating them into tactical development. This includes scrimmaging, small-sided games, and live simulation. Maximal strength, power, and explosiveness become primary goals for training, using movements that emphasize not only heavy loads but power and rate of force development – such as weightlifting movements.
The competition phase is the perfection of training factors culminating in competition. The competition phase can include any pre-season exhibition or friendly competitions, tapering periods for single events, or post-season events like playoffs. The goals of the competition phase as a whole are:
- Continued improvement or maintenance of sport specific fitness characteristics.
- Enhancing psychological traits.
- Perfecting and consolidating technique.
- Elevating performance and preparedness.
- Dissipating fatigue.
- Perfecting technique and tactics.
- Gain competition experience.
- Maintain sport specific fitness.
- Winning – duh!
For many team sports, this might include an entire season. For individual sports, it might be a single event such as a marathon or powerlifting meet. In this phase, the total training volume is reduced again, while intensity is maintained or increased, and previously dormant fitness is finally expressed as fatigue becomes alleviated.
Competition phases for single-event sports tend to be a little more straightforward: Volume is reduced leading up to the event while intensity is mostly maintained up until the last 1-2 sessions prior to competing. For multi-event and seasonal sports, the duration of the competition phase can lead to some interesting challenges. Although most team sports do not reach a true peak during the competition phase, peaking them out too early may lead to burnout or detraining in post-season games, whereas peaking them too late may result in too few wins during the main season, losing a chance at post-season play. For longer competition phases, such as those seen in sports like hockey and basketball, there is a delicate balance of maintaining overload and reducing net volume, while simultaneously not reducing volume and intensity factors so much that the athlete is subject to de-conditioning or reversibility.
Because this can be difficult to predict and time appropriately, many coaches have adopted “training-through” strategies, in which elements of the preparatory phase continue into competition periods. Although a high risk/reward situation, training-through strategies seek to continue hard training sessions at the expense of potentially losing competitions that do not affect long-term success. These might include exhibition matches, early season competitions, friendly competitions, and competitions that would not affect qualification status for regional or championship competitions down the road.
Active recovery is the last phase of our training plan and is an integral step in not only alleviating physical and psychological fatigue of competitions, but also linking together multiple plans. The active recovery phase begins at the cessation of all major competitions for the cycle. The goal of the active recovery phase is to alleviate fatigue while maintaining an acceptable level of general fitness. This phase generally lasts 2-4 weeks and consists of rest, unstructured physical activity, or structured physical activity without an emphasis on skills or abilities for the sport in question. Athletes and coaches should be wary of the effects of reversibility as taking too much time off can lead to de-training effects. Although this can be modified based on the length of the competition phase and level of the athlete, active recovery phases of about 2-3 weeks are appropriate for most sports before starting a new preparatory phase.
Once you have mapped out the three main phases of training, working outward from competitions, filling in the sub-phases becomes more simplified. From here, we can begin sequencing our physical preparation and sport preparation, increasing in specificity as we draw closer to competition. Just like one must learn to pass, catch, sprint, and tackle before they can play rugby, physical preparation follows a similar pattern of development in which athletes must develop work capacity, strength, power, and speed to achieve peak performance.
Although periodization is inherently complex, we can simplify our approach to sport training by emphasizing sport skills and physical abilities in a structured manner. By breaking down each phase with these specific goals in mind, the process becomes more organized and effective. Perhaps the greatest and most rewarding challenge I have experienced as a coach and strength coach is integrating both physical preparation and sport preparation into one coherent plan. Remember that you can’t effectively train everything at once by blending it all together into a massive training smoothie; however, by emphasizing different components of sport training and building upon them over time, you are not only minimizing their overtraining potential, but maximizing their performance potential as well.
Dr. James Hoffmann grew up in Chicago and is now working as an Assistant Professor for the department of Kinesiology at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He earned his PhD from East Tennessee State University in Sport Physiology and has an M.S. in Applied Exercise Physiology and a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago. James has experience working as a strength coach/sport scientist in Division I men’s basketball, tennis, golf, as well as collegiate and men’s rugby, and high school basketball. He has a strong athletic background in wrestling, rugby, and American football. James is also a sports performance consultant for Renaissance Periodization.
Bompa, T. O., & Haff, G. (1999). Periodization: Theory and methodology of training (5th ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Stone, M. H., Stone, M., Sands, W. A., & Sands, B. (2007). Principles and practice of resistance training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.