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This post appeared in the Novermber 2014 Granfondo Axel Merckx newsletter:

You’re likely familiar with the infamous training techniques used by Eastern Bloc athletes to achieve superior performance in endurance sports during the cold war. Allusions to special drugs and performance enhancing magic that came out of some secret state run lab in East Germany. The truth is a little bit more positive. Yes, there certainly were drugs, but there was also a new method of training, and interestingly, its roots came from Austrian-Canadian scientist Hans Selye’s work at McGill University in Canada.

Selye’s research on adaptive stress response indirectly led to the work of Romanian (now Canadian) Tudor Bompa, who coached athletes to groundbreaking performances in the early sixties. While in Romania, Bompa trained atheletes who won eleven Olympic medals and two world championships. The innovation these men discovered was a training discipline called periodization.

The idea behind periodization is simple: the theory of adaptive stress response holds that peak intensity is an unsustainable state and must be balanced by periods of lowered stress or adjusted focus. Ignore this important concept and risk maladaptive psychobiological responses to your training loads. Simply put, if you do not give your body time to heal and strengthen, your performance will plateau, or worse, degenerate.

Or look at it from another way – periodization allows you the time to create a training road map where strengths are built up individually over time with training that is focused on single and specific performance attributes. It allows you to temporarily ignore some aspects of training and focus on others with the confidence that the end result will be greater and more durable athletic performance. But here lies the biggest challenge of periodized training: Discipline. In the early stages of a periodization program, you must have the discipline to go slow… in order to go fast later.

Identifying the three stages

Selye’s Generalized Adaptation Syndrome model from the 1930s comprises of three stages, and remains  relevant today. The first stage, according to Selye, is the alarm state. This state is triggered by the intense use of a muscle that is unsustainable. In fact, the alarm state is characterized by a reduction in the capacity or performance of the physiological system in use. Your body recognizes this and reroutes resources to repair and renew tired and damaged tissues. The second stage is adaptation – this is the body’s response to repair the damage and renew the functional capacity. The reason training works is because the body ‘supercompensates’. When asked to do a difficult amount of work, the body rises to the occasion, marshals its energy, and afterward intelligently plans ahead for the next difficult event by attempting to build extra capacity.

It is the supercompensating response that clarifies the reason periodization is such a successful training strategy. If you think about it, you will quickly realize that a constant state of supercompensation is not sustainable in the long term. We all know of someone who has over-trained. Clearly that does not work. Athletes that train smarter extract the maximum amount of adaptation (and supercompensation) from the body before driving the body to Selye’s third state – exhaustion.

Exhaustion is just what it sounds like. The body’s supercompensation response is sidelined for an extended breather. While sidelined, the body does not recover, and athletic performance decreases. This is also known as over-training. An extended recovery period is required to escape this exhaustion phase, and during that long period the body can lose the acquired gains. Training too hard for too long is thus a counterproductive strategy that will lead to sickness and chronic injury due to the body’s exhausted state.

Building your periodization plan

So you can see the primary goal of periodization is to focus training on one physiological system or function at a time, to train it to extract the maximum amount of supercompensation response prior to exhaustion, and to then move to another specific physiological aptitude, and begin again. This way we use the body’s recovery function to its maximum capacity.

So how does one approach the seemingly onerous task of planning your workouts for the next 8 months? To start, there are two important features to keep in mind: First, for most people the body is close to exhausting its supercompensation capacity after four to six weeks of moderate to high intensity training. Second, the higher the training intensity, the more quickly the supercompensation response is exhausted. These facts lead to two natural conclusions: lower intensity training phases should have higher volume and longer overall duration, and higher intensity phases should have the inverse – fewer hours of training per week, and shorter periods of training before maximum adaptation is reached.

Once we have decided to build up our bodies with a specific target in mind we can easily break down the block of time available to us into segments. The next step is to use those segments to effectively target specific physiological functions.

When I think of cycling, I think of three key aptitudes: a) sustainable long endurance; b) threshold power on the edge of what can be maintained over distance; and, c) unsustainable short efforts of maximum power. Your long endurance faculty is obviously required in order for you to maintain a steady pace for the majority of the long ride. Hill climbing is the most common use of your threshold power – you will likely wind up riding in a pack, and you will want to be able to climb with the group lest you be dropped. Last, your maximum power is what is going to get you back on a group when you briefly fall behind, up a short steep hill with an aggressive pack, or sprinting past your training buddies at the very end of the ride for bragging rights next season.

The above aptitudes are listed in order of intensity, from lowest to highest. We should start then with the lowest intensity, as it will take the longest to train to the limit of supercompensation. Thus, in your eight-month block, your first months are spent building a strong endurance base where long, low intensity rides are the majority of your workload, and high intensity work is infrequent. This is also the time to train technique. Make sure you lock in proper bike form as early as you can on the bike, as practice makes permanent. Fortunately, low intensity longer rides are exactly the right time to learn to settle those hips and calm that upper body to maximize an efficient pedaling style.

In block two, the focus changes to riding for increasing durations at or near your functional threshold power. This is go time – fast riding, hill repeats, and hard intervals. Your workouts will trend toward shorter, faster, more intense rides, and the long slow recovery ride will be relegated to as little as once per week. Incrementally increase the duration and intensity of your threshold intervals each week, while also increasing your recovery time slightly on the same schedule. Now is also the time to introduce long recovery rides at low intensities to maintain the base of endurance you built earlier.

Remember to always watch for signs of injury and excessive exhaustion. It’s not productive to slavishly adhere to a training regimen that is ramping up at a pace your body cannot sustain. If suspect your body is slipping into the exhaustion phase, it likely is. Certainly more attention to your sleep, diet, and training volume/intensity would be warranted. If you are not feeling good about your training, spend the time to find out why exactly. Don’t be afraid to slow or pause your weekly intensity increase.

About five or six weeks out from your Granfondo you will begin to focus your training on short anerobic intervals that are very intense. This is the time to go hard, to do sprints up a short hill, to blast along in a 30-second sprint, or to crush it in that early morning spin class. If you have properly prepared your body by building a solid base in the early months of your training, you likely will now feel more comfortable on the bike, riding with better technique, and have more confidence than ever before. You will know you are both psychologically and physiologically prepared to ride your best Granfondo. At this point, your training volume and intensity will both be almost at their peak.

Final preparations before the big ride

The last week before the big ride is very unique to the individual. If this is your first Granfondo, you will have a lot of planning to do (How much water? How much food? How hard to go out of the gate? How deep to go up those hills?). Some will keep training right up to the day, Some will reduce intensity and some will reduce volume. There is no single right answer, but after months of careful work, you will be much better equipped to make your decision than you were before you paid so much attention to a training road map.

Once your cycling season winds down, take that well-earned rest, let any minor injuries heal, and recharge your psychological state. Come early winter, begin to plan, choose your goal, and target it with the knowledge you learned over the previous year. You are now well schooled in the gold standard of training used by professional endurance athletes all over the world. You have a toolbox filled with knowledge and organized by a method that will allow you, should you choose, to reset your athletic goals quite a bit higher than before. You are no longer winging it – you now have a plan, and a likely a very good idea of what you can achieve.

Ready to ride after reading that? Book a class now!