Some time ago I wrote about recovery on demand. This is a method of training in which recovery is not planned in advance, but rather done when the need arises. For the athlete who is good at self-monitoring, this is a very effective way of recovering as it maximizes one’s use of training time. Unfortunately, many athletes tend to ignore their body’s signs of overreaching and with such a method would probably press ahead without ever allowing time for recovery, eventually resulting in full-blown overtraining.
“Periodization on demand” is a similar concept. Most athletes think that periodization is a rigid system in which a training plan is created which must be followed regardless of all other factors. My books have probably given that impression as everything on the plan is quite detailed and time-specific. I still think that’s a good idea as it provides a roadmap for where you are going. It doesn’t, however, mean that you must follow it without change. There can be several factors that require straying, such as illness, injury, periods of mental stress, unusual demands on your time, and more. One such factor that is seldom discussed is rate of adaptation – how quickly your fitness changes.
Physiologically, the purpose of training is stress the body with some combination of workout intensity, duration and frequency causing it to adapt. We call this adaptation “fitness.” The planning of periodization assumes the body will achieve a given level of fitness at a given time by following the plan. That may well be the case. Historically, the problem with this assumption has been that there was little in the way of data to confirm that the planned adaptation had occurred. That’s now changing due to technology.
A power meter for cycling or a GPS for running has taken some of the guesswork out of the measurement of adaptation. Such devices (there are more to come) allow you to more accurately measure performance changes – if you know what to measure. (I touched on this idea in my last blog post.)
Typically, in the Base period an endurance athlete wants to improve aerobic endurance, muscular force and speed skill. The first two can be measured using some combination of a heart rate monitor, power meter and GPS. Speed skill is still difficult for us to measure in a field test. But expect that to change when second generation power meters – yet to be released – provide more analytical information on pedaling mechanics such as individual leg contribution to power output and the range of effective force application to the pedal per stroke. In the mean time, we can easily measure aerobic endurance and muscular force adaptation.
I’ve previously written about the “Efficiency Factor” (EF) as a way of gauging changes in aerobic endurance. It’s based on the simple concept that as aerobic fitness improves, heart rate decreases at any given power output (or speed in running) [Lucia, et al, Heart rate and performance parameters in elite cyclists: A longitudinal study. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2000, 32(10):1777-82]. Or, to reverse that, if heart rate stays the same, over time, power (or running speed) will increase as aerobic fitness improves. Heart rate by itself tells us absolutely nothing about fitness. It must be compared with something to have meaning.
This brings us back to the idea of periodization on demand. The optimal way to train, I believe, is to frequently measure your adaptation changing your training only when it’s evident that fitness has plateaued at a higher level or achieved a predetermined level. By doing this you take the guesswork out of training and move on to a newer form of stress only when your body says it’s time rather than when the plan changes. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t plan. Follow it, but be willing to change it when the time is right. This will usually require that you modify the plan going forward.
How about I give you an example of this from my own training.
I use a block training form of periodization. With this method the focus of training during any given period (“block”) is quite focused with generally only one or two aspects of fitness being addressed. In block 1 this fall I focused on aerobic endurance as measured by EF. The accompanying chart shows the progression over the course of four weeks (Oct 17-Nov 17). During this time I did the same EF workout 17 times. This involved warming up for 30 minutes and then riding one hour at a fixed aerobic threshold heart rate in low zone 2 (120-125, in my case), followed by a 30-minute cool down. I used the same two courses for these sessions and the same equipment with the workouts at about the same time of day. After the workout I compared normalized power for that hour with average heart rate for the same hour (NP/AHR). That produced a ratio that ranged from a low of 1.29 to a high of 1.45. You can easily see the progression of EF in the chart. Only the EF workouts are shown here (the blank days were missed workouts due to travel, easy recovery rides, or a cycling camp from Nov 1-3).
By the middle of November it was obvious that my aerobic endurance (as reflected in the EF ratio) had plateaued. Power had increased at the same heart rate but was no longer rising. It was time to move on to the next training block, which I am currently in.
The takeaway message here is not block training or aerobic endurance training, but rather making changes to training when your body says it’s time, rather than when the plan calls for it. Some day we’ll have software that does such monitoring for you and suggests when it’s time to change your training and what those changes might be. Until then you need to pay close attention to that which is appropriate and measurable.