Many people getting into fitness look to elite athletes or coaches for training ideas and inspiration. Whether it’s admiring a successful football player or marathoner, the desire to train like one is appealing.

However, when attempting to copy a tiny sliver of their training plan, it’s easy to overtrain or become overwhelmed by the magnitude and intensity of their workout, making it hard to continue.

What you don’t see is that an athlete’s training volume and intensity vary over an entire season. Most high level athletes use a training principle known as periodization training to allow the body to adapt to conditioning safely.

cyclists outside ready to bikeShare on Pinterest
Andy Smith/Offset Images

Periodization training is the deliberate manipulation of training variables to optimize performance for competition, prevent overtraining, and progress performance.

Variable adjustments in duration, load, or volume are planned out over a specific period of time to achieve these objectives (1).

For athletes, the goal is to mix up load variables (training intensity or volume) at different times of the year to allow the athlete to peak at certain times. These peak times usually coincide with competitions.

Periodization has been applied to resistance and strength activities like powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, as well as endurance associated activities like running and cycling.

3 phases of periodization training

There are typically three phases used in a periodization training cycle: long term (macrocycle), medium term (mesocycle), and short term (microcycles) (2).

Macrocycles

These are the big picture planning cycles. They typically span a longer period of time, such as a year, before a competition. However, they can span longer periods, such as 4 years, for athletes competing in the Olympic games.

Mesocycles

These tend to be 4–6 week cycles within the macrocycle. For example, they typically involve 3 weeks of progressive intensity training followed by a week of lower intensity training.

Microcycles

These are short-duration cycles within the mesocycle. They tend to last a week. They can vary in intensity on the different training days of the week.

3 common periodization training models

There are three main types of periodization paradigms (3):

Linear periodization

This involves changing load and volume over several intermediate or mesocycles (usually every 1–4 months). Each intermediate cycle would have progressive weeks of increasing intensity followed by a recovery week with light load and intensity.

Nonlinear or undulating periodization

Load and volume are changed more frequently, such as daily or weekly, typically with the load increasing but volume decreasing.

These are hypothesized to be more appropriate for sports where there are multiple competitions during an event, such as a triathlon.

Reverse periodization

This is a form of nonlinear periodization, except that the load is decreased while the volume increases. These may be more appropriate for those competing in endurance races with longer distances.

Multiple studies have found no significant difference in the benefit of one periodization program over another. Both linear training progressions and nonlinear training programs produced similar strength gains (4).

The history of periodization training

Periodization training evolved from general adaptation syndrome, a concept developed by Dr. Hans Selye. It states that an organism’s response to stressors goes through a predictable series of responses: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion (5).

The concept was later adapted to physical conditioning to optimize performance, manage stress and fatigue, and reduce the risk of injury and burnout for optimal performance (6,7).

Summary

Periodization training evolved from a concept called general adaptation syndrome. It was devised for athletes to maximize performance for competition, but it can be applied to general conditioning as well.

Strength training

You may perform a 4-week program (the mesocycle) where you progressively increase the load lifted each week for 3 weeks while decreasing the number of repetitions. Then, the fourth week may be a recovery week that involves a lower load or a lower volume.

For example, you may squat 225 pounds, for 8–10 reps, for 3 sets during the first week. Then, you may change to 265 pounds for 4–6 reps for 3–4 sets in the second week.

Finally, the last heavy week may involve 300 pounds for 2–4 reps for 3–6 sets. The final week may be a recovery week where the load drops or stays at 300 pounds for 1 rep for 3 sets.

In this example, the volume has changed (total number of reps performed), but the load has increased. In the subsequent intermediate mesocycles, the person can increase the weight for the different phases.

Cycling

A cyclist may be preparing for a 100-mile bike ride in 3 months. Perhaps the course will entail multiple sections of ascending hills. They may start with varying their rides throughout the week to include hill training, sprint work, and a longer distance ride.

Gradually, as the competition draws near and during the mesocycles, the distances will increase while the intensity of the cycling workouts will decrease.

Running

A runner is preparing for a 5K. They have run farther than this in the past but want to improve their speed. They may perform the same training scheme as the cyclist (hill training, sprint intervals, and a 5K run).

However, in this case, the intensity may increase as training continues but for shorter distances during runs.

Summary

Periodization can be helpful for a variety of athletic endeavors, such as weightlifting, cycling, and running.

When working toward a fitness goal, most people end up exercising only at moderate intensities, neither allowing the body to adapt to higher intensities nor allowing the body to recover at lower intensities.

The result is a lack of improvement, also known as plateauing.

For general fitness and nonprofessional athletes, periodization training can be an excellent way to vary training and keep progress from plateauing while decreasing the risk of injury.

Another benefit for athletes, especially the linear periodization progression, is tapering the load at the end of the mesocycle. This can reduce the risk of injury between the training phase and the competition, when the risk of injury can be greater (8).

Summary

Periodization can decrease the risk of overtraining and injury, maximize strength, speed and endurance, and help combat training burnout.

Some of the difficulties of periodization include planning intensity and duration to avoid overtraining. In addition, it is difficult to achieve multiple peaks during a training season (1).

Periodization deals with the physical aspects of training to avoid excessive overload. However, it does not take into account the psychological stressors that can occur with training for competition.

High emotional stressors have been correlated with increased injury rates in athletes (10).

Summary

With periodization, it can be difficult to avoid overtraining. It can also be difficult to achieve multiple peak performance modes during a training season. Finally, periodization does not account for psychological stressors that increase the risk of injury.

Periodization can be good for many people wanting to be better athletes or improve their fitness. However, it may not be as helpful for athletes who have frequent competitions in a season.

They may benefit from a maintenance program during the competitive season and a program that focuses on sport-specific skills.

Summary

Periodization may not be helpful for athletes competing in frequent competitions during a season. However, it may be beneficial during the off-season.

Begin with a timeline for when you want to achieve a certain goal. This is your macrocycle.

Then, break your time up into intermediate phases, working on specific physical attributes such as strength or endurance. Ideally, focus on one at a time. This is considered the mesocycle.

In each phase, divide your weekly training sessions to address those attributes at different volumes and intensities.

The important part is to make sure to incorporate weeks into your program that account for recovery at lower intensities or volumes.

It may be helpful to hire a coach to help you build structure and reduce the risk of overtraining.

Summary

Periodization can be incorporated into a fitness routine by setting a timeline for achieving a certain goal and then breaking that timeline into smaller cycles to focus on specific training goals.

Periodization is a way for athletes to maximize training gains for peak performance, decrease the risk of injury, and prevent training from getting stale. General fitness enthusiasts and amateur athletes can also use this training plan.

Periodization involves adjusting variables during workouts to improve performance. It also involves adjusting the volume of training to constantly challenge the body.

Periodization applies to anyone preparing for a competition or who wants to vary their workouts to constantly force the body to adapt.

However, the amount and intensity of exercise have to be monitored to avoid overtraining.

Nevertheless, periodization can be applied to a variety of different exercise activities to keep them fresh and foster improvement in training.