Training for Life: Periodization

Welcome to a new week, new post, and new series!

In this series of posts (which will go on as long as I think of topics to write about), I’ll talk about different concepts that are commonly considered in athletic training that are also relevant and useful for everyday life. Some of these connections may be a bit tenuous or you may feel that they don’t apply to you, but that’s okay. This is a blog, not a scientific publication and certainly not top-class journalism. All the opinions and relations are from my own first-hand experience with training, so my sample size isn’t great and your mileage may vary. If you get something useful out of this, then you’ve made my day 🙂

So let’s start big for the first topic. Periodization. In a training context, this is the practice of breaking down your year, months, and weeks into different blocks aimed at gradually building performance with the intent of hitting your peak fitness 1-4 times during the year. At it’s highest level, it separates your year into an “on-season” and an “off-season”. Within each, you have different periods focusing on different aspects of your fitness with different goals in mind.

The “off-season” will be broken up into two main periods with each of these periods being broken up into sets of 3-4 weeks. The “on-season” is broken up into two or three main periods.

These 3-4 week blocks are the core building blocks of the periodization system. Your three main building blocks are: Base, Build, and Race. There some auxiliary periods in there that are interspersed at different parts in the season, usually only in one or two week chunks (Transition, Preparation, and Peak)

The exact details of building a periodization plan aren’t particularly relevant to the point I’m trying to make here, so if you want to learn more about the nitty gritty details, I’d highly recommend checking out Joe Friel’s The Cyclist’s Training Bible, or his blog posts. The most important things to know about periodization are:

  1. When starting your plan, you start by defining key points in the year (these are your A races, in a sports context)
  2. You work backwards from there, scheduling your Race, Build, and Base periods appropriately until you get to present day
  3. Each period (Peak, Build, Base) focuses on a specific aspect of fitness
  4. Every third or fourth week of consecutive hard work, a recovery week is taken
  5. The whole plan is built around balancing volume of work and intensity of work
  6. You fitness isn’t just increasing linearly. At some points of the year you will be weaker and at some stronger. The idea is to hit your best fitness when you need/want it most

You can see below a sample of part of my training plan from the end of 2017 into the start of 2018. One thing to note is that these plans are designed to be flexible. Shit happens and sometimes (a lot of times) things don’t go as planned. My actual weekly hours rarely line up and the Details column has a bunch of notes about changes I made to the plan.


“Cool, that’s interesting, I guess. How is this useful?”

With those concepts in mind, I’m going to posit that you can, at a higher level, apply this concept of periodizing your time for your everyday life, be it school, work, relationships, or hobbies. I’m not saying you can make a nice pretty spreadsheet on how you will spend your time (your significant other will probably take offense to that), but I am saying that you can be deliberate with when, to what, and with what duration and intensity you apply your focus. Maybe this sounds a little cold-blooded, but hear me out.

Starting at the highest level of periodization, you can come up with some key points or goals in the upcoming year that you want to achieve. Like any good goals, these should be primarily under your own control. Other factors may influence the outcome, but the achievement of the goal is not entirely dependent on some third party For example, “win XYZ race” isn’t a great goal but “make the winning break in XYZ race” is much better. Or, in a non-athletic context: “grow my business to 1 billion clients” isn’t a great goal since it depends on other people wanting whatever your business is selling (also that’s a lot of people) whereas “devote 4 hours a day to growing my business” is a much better goal.

From these key points and goals you can work backwards to where you are now and figure out a pretty detailed set of steps you’re going to take to get to where you want to go. In deciding the steps you’re going to take, you’ll realize that you surely can’t tackle everything at once, that’s not how steps work. But, you may likely realize, that these steps can be grouped into larger steps. Do this. Voila, now you’ve created periods! Sometimes these steps are very linear, going through each period one after the other. Sometimes they’re a bit more circular, with some steps being repeated again later on in the process. These are the building blocks for achieving your goals.

“Huh, maybe you have a point. But what was that you were talking about ‘applying focus’?”

In order to form the periods, the steps that you grouped together all had something in common, whether you consciously noticed it or not. By identifying the common trait between the steps you’ve grouped together, you will have identified what the “focus” of that period is. Maybe it’s some design work, maybe it’s communication, maybe it’s strengthening willpower. Whatever it is, that is the specific aspect of your “fitness” that will be worked through that period. By focusing on that fitness and being very deliberate with your intention to improve those one or two aspects, you’ll likely make leaps and bounds of improvements in that area.

Tackling all the aspects at once might very slowly improve everything, but that takes a hell of a lot of focus and willpower to face so many different fronts at once. The benefit of focusing on one or two aspects is you can much more easily see improvements there, which further motivates you to keep making more improvements.

“You mentioned ‘recovery weeks’. Those sound nice. What are those?”

I’m a strong believer in recovery and specific recovery periods. Learning to push yourself hard is important. Learning to push yourself hard day after day is also important. But only pushing yourself hard will do two things:

  1. It makes “hard” the new “normal”
  2. You eventually burn out

The physical adaptations to a hard set of intervals don’t come while you’re ripping your legs apart and your lungs are screaming. The growth comes when you give your body time to relax and super-compensate for the training you just did.

This same idea applies to enhancing skills or pursuing goals elsewhere. You’ve set out the goals you want to achieve, the steps to get there, and what skills or aspects you need to focus on to complete those steps. Relentlessly pursuing those skills will eventually lead you to make that pursuit feel like a burden and, if you push it far enough, you may even start to resent it. You set out pursuing this goal for a reason and, whatever that reason is, it isn’t because you wanted to hate the process.

Giving yourself recovery days and weeks is important to prevent this downwards spiral. In athletic training, that typically means a low volume and low intensity week every third or fourth week and one or two easy days within the higher intensity weeks. As much as it is to give your body time to recover, it gives your mind time to recover from the hard work you’ve just been doing. With both your body and mind recovered when you do come back from the recovery period, you’ll be much more effective, motivated, and will get more done than had you forced yourself to work straight through.

This concept of recovery applies across all time scales. Give yourself some recovery during the day, during the week, during the period, and during the year.

So cut yourself some slack. You can still pursue those goals and learn those skills, but if you don’t stop to smell the roses once in a while you’re going to run headlong into a brick wall.

The picture below shows my fitness vs fatigue graph as of February 2019. The darker line is my fitness (higher is better), the lighter line is fatigue (lower is better). The red circled areas are periods where I’ve taken significant recovery time, ranging from 1-3 weeks. The blue circled areas are minor recovery periods (3 days – 1 week). Notice how fitness doesn’t and can’t always increase. It goes through cycles increasing then decreasing, increasing higher, then decreasing.


“Alright, I think I see where you’re coming from. Finally, how do ‘volume’ and ‘intensity’ relate?”

Luckily, these are the least tenuous of any of the relations. Volume simply refers to how much training you do and ‘intensity’ is at what difficulty. The key is in balancing the two. Too much volume without enough intensity (like doing a ton of paperwork or other monotonous tasks) makes you efficient at low demand tasks but lacking when more thought/strength is needed. Too much intensity without enough volume (like doing any complex mental task) gives you a very high capacity for work, but only for a very short time.

In pursuit of your goal, there will likely be monotonous work and there will likely be intense, demanding work. Balance the two. Likely, no given period will have a 50/50 split, but some can and should be weighted more heavily one way or the other. I hope the relation here is clear.

“Cool stuff, you’ve given me lots to think about”

Glad I could help! The whole point of drawing this parallel is that, as athletes, we labour so intensively over exactly what we want to achieve in a season, how we’re going to get there, and the workouts we’re going to do day in and day out. We forget that we can apply this concept to helping improve our overall life experience. While it doesn’t have to be as demanding as a set of threshold intervals, taking a little time to plan a reasonable amount ahead can go a long way. Even if you have to dramatically change your plans, just thinking out a plan will help. After all, a bad plan is better than no plan at all!

Cheers and Ride On!


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