Every athlete needs a goal. Levi Leipheimer, the American captain of the Gerolsteiner cycling team, stated recently that his goal was “to get on the podium at the Tour de France.” Your objectives may not be quite so lofty, but whatever your goal, the training methodology known as periodization is the best way to get there. If you’re a weekend warrior who works out for health and enjoyment, periodization will help you increase your fitness skills. If you’re planning a bike tour of Provence next year, periodization will have you riding your way to the Brie and Bordeaux, and if you’re heading for a marathon several months down the road, periodization is your ticket to peaking at just the right time.
Periodizing your training plan means dividing up your long-term training program into discreet blocks of time and varying both training intensity and skill set from one block to the next. Working at different levels of intensity over time improves your overall fitness, teaches you to cope with fatigue both physically and mentally, makes training more enjoyable, lowers your risk of injury and helps you to avoid the dangers of overtraining.
Periodization introduces structure and efficiency to your training plan, allowing you to make the most of each workout session. There’s no wasting time on sessions that don’t help you to reach your goal, which translates to better performance on event day.
Periodizing your training plan involves two concepts: 1) figuring out a workable timetable that fits you and your schedule and 2) selecting the appropriate workouts for each time period that will help you achieve your fitness goals.
The Building Blocks of a Training Plan
Like most scientifically-minded people, exercise physiologists are fond of multi-syllabic labels for relatively simple things. Fortunately, the meanings of the three time divisions in a periodized training plan aren’t too difficult to discern. The macrocycle (“macro” = large) is the biggest increment of time in your training plan, lasting from several months to one year in length. A mesocycle (“meso” = middle) is the intermediate increment of time between the largest and the smallest; there are several mesocycles in a macrocycle, and each mesocycle lasts anywhere from several weeks to several months. Lastly, a microcycle (“micro” = small) is the smallest increment of time in the training plan, usually lasting from seven to 14 days. As you might imagine, two or more microcycles make up a mesocycle. Wondering where actual workout sessions fit into this scheme? Think of a workout session as the basic building block of the training plan; several workout sessions occur in each microcycle.
Defining Your Training Cycles
Isn’t it great how life comes full circle? You started out with training wheels, and now you’re ready for training cycles - macro, meso and micro, that is! Mapping out a periodized training plan involves five basic steps:
- Put your goal event on the calendar and work backward.
- Determine your macrocycle.
- Divide your macrocycle into mesocycles.
- Divide your mesocycles into microcycles.
- Plug workout details into your microcycles.
To construct the outline of your training plan (your macrocycle), it’s best to get out a calendar and work backward from the date of the event for which you are training. So the first question is, how long is your training period preceding the event going to be?
For example, as an “event rider,” Teresa would like to achieve her best time yet in a local benefit bike race on March 10. Teresa lives in Florida, where she can train all winter. She would like to start training after the school year ends on June 22. So, she has about eight months (37 weeks, to be exact) to train for the event.
Determine Your Macrocycles and Mesocycles
A macrocycle is divided into four distinct blocks of time in which to focus on different aspects of your training: Preparation 1, Preparation 2, Event Training and Transition. Each of these blocks is a mesocycle. Preparation 1 is devoted to general conditioning and building your endurance base. Preparation 2 begins your event-specific training and continues to build endurance, speed and strength. Preparation 2 is the mesocycle in which your training hits its highest intensity level. Event Training is the mesocycle in which you focus on event-specific skills while building toward peak performance. Transition, the shortest of the mesocycles, is devoted to regeneration, both mentally and physically.
That’s all fine and dandy, you might be saying, but faced with putting pencil to paper, how do you actually put together the training plan? If only there were some easy formula! Unfortunately, to get the length of each mesocycle just right takes a pinch of art, a dash of science and a good deal of trial and error. However, if this is the first time you’re putting together a periodized plan, you need some place to start, so try the 10-25-65 rule:
- 10 for Transition: Determine the number of weeks between the date you will start to train and the date of the event. Then calculate 10% of that number to determine how many weeks your transition mesocycle should be. Round up if necessary. For example, you have 36 weeks between your training start date and your event - 10% of 36 is 3.6, or four weeks, if you round up. So, your transition mesocycle is four weeks.
- Add your Transition mesocycle weeks to the number of weeks between your start-training date and your event date. The sum is the number of weeks in your entire macrocycle. For example, 36 weeks from start of training to event plus four weeks of Transition comes to a complete macrocycle of 40 weeks.
- 25 for Preparation: Figure out how many weeks is equal to about 25% of your complete macrocycle, then divide that number in half to determine Preparation 1 and Preparation 2. For a 40-week macrocycle, that’s 10 weeks altogether, with each preparation mesocycle lasting about five weeks.
- 65 for Event Training: The remainder of your macrocycle, after you account for the preparation mesocycles and the transition mesocycles, is devoted to training for your event.
Go into your planning with the understanding that there’s a big “fudge factor” here; you may feel comfortable with only eight weeks of preparation, or you might want to stretch it out to 12 weeks. Adjust the rest of your plan accordingly.
Applying the 10-25-65 rule, Teresa’s macrocycle looks like this:
Divide Your Mesocycles Into Microcycles
For simplicity’s sake, begin with microcycles that are each two to four weeks long. Remember you can shrink or stretch microcycles and mesocycles as much as you need to in order to achieve your training goals. Here are general guidelines to help you divide your preparation mesocycle into microcycles:
- The first preparation mesocycle is devoted to general conditioning, with a sprinkling of event-specific activities. This training is conducted at low to moderate levels of intensity as you build endurance; distance and time slowly increase. Weight training and flexibility training occur during this microcycle.
- During the second preparation mesocycle, the focus is on event-specific training, and training intensity reaches its maximum. Time and distance peak as well. Flexibility training continues, but weight training tapers off as event-specific training begins in earnest.
When dividing your competition or event training mesocycle into microcycles, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Your intensity level is moderate as you train to reach optimum performance capacity. You built your base during the preparation mesocycle; this mesocycle is for maintaining your base and increasing your event-specific skills.
- Event-specific training occurs in these microcycles, such as time trials, attacks, climbing, sprinting and the like.
- You’re keeping the mileage in the moderate range as you approach your event day.
When thinking about the transition mesocycle, remember the following:
- The purpose of the transition mesocycle is to allow for the regeneration of your body and your mind. It is a time of recovery but not of total rest.
- The intensity of workouts is low, and the distances traveled are small.
- During the transition mesocycle, enjoy yourself!
Filling in the details of each microcycle is the fun part, where you get to decide each day what kind of ride, run, climb, etc. to take. Do you need a high intensity ride that emphasizes hills? Or does your microcycle call for a focus on sprints? As you work out the details of your plan, be flexible and introduce lots of variation into your training regimen. Keep careful logs of everything you do, observe and measure as you prepare for your event, and refer back to your logs often.
Whether you want to ride to the company picnic at the city park without getting winded or win the next Eco Challenge, periodization is the key to reaching your maximum potential as an athlete. Break your training into manageable units of time, vary the intensity and skill set during each interval of training and reap the rewards of a periodized training program.