Phasing your training programme will maintain high performance levels all year round

Phasing the year allows athletes to recover, improve and analyse their performance

Periodisation is the word I do not want to use. It is an ugly word and all it means is 'dividing a season or a year into separate periods'. It follows from this that within each period or phase there are different objectives. I prefer to use the word 'phase' because it fits the concept better. 'Periods' are thought of as having precisely fixed time-scales, like school periods, whereas phases are usually thought of as transitional, things which one moves through; it is an organic word. One phase merges into another, and this is what should happen with a properly organised training programme.

The one-season sport

If yours is a 'summer-only' sport, such as rowing or cricket, the phasing takes care of itself. The competitive season, May to September, is followed by a break - say, one month. There is then a 'basic fitness' or 'maintenance' phase which might last until February. This is followed by the 'build-up phase' and the 'pre-competition phase'.

With a winter sport such as rugby there will be a six-month competitive season, and with soccer there may be an eight-month season. The long competitive season poses a particular problem, one which has no really satisfactory solution, but this article may help to clarify the coach's thoughts.

The two-season sports

British distance runners usually have a track season, May to September, and a cross-country season that runs until March and may start in October. To this one must add road relay competition in spring and autumn, indoor racing in winter, and the never-ending season of road racing. The current decline in British distance running standards, in spite of increasing numbers of participants, may well be attributable to the surfeit of competition, which makes phasing more difficult. The sportsman who spends the European winter competing in Australia or the person who plays tennis in the summer and squash in the winter is in the same position.

Three-season sports

It might be better to speak of 'three peak' sports here - a rugby player who has a pre-Christmas peak, a Sevens tournament at Easter and an overseas tour in August, or a distance runner who runs 10,000m on the track in the summer, a marathon in the autumn, and cross country from January to March. All-the-year round sports
The majority of road runners come into this category, as do those who have reached international level in golf or tennis.

The problem?

The difficulty is that the human body cannot tolerate a high stress level indefinitely. When a small amount of stress is imposed, the body responds. Hormones are produced which raise the level of performance and speed up the rate of recovery. If the stress increases, the body responds yet again, but if the stress persists at a high level the system will eventually 'crash', leading to the over-training syndrome described recently by Dr Richard Budgett (BMJ, vol. 309,13 August 1994). The obvious signs of this are:

  • loss of performance
  • depression and irritability
  • disturbed sleep pattern
  • increased resting pulse rate
  • loss of weight
  • frequent minor infections

When the training and competition regime is being worked out, it must be borne in mind that the body responds to the Total Stress Load, not just to the stress of training and competition.Thus, if the athlete is getting married, taking important exams, or moving house (or all three at once), he or she.should not be subjected to the normal amount of training stress. Competition should either be deferred or restricted.

The next thing to bear in mind is that competition and hard training are destructive processes. Muscle cells are damaged, electrolytes are leaked, glycogen stores are depleted, blood cells are destroyed, and in contact sports the damage may be even more severe. The rate of recovery from the hard work is an individual thing and even the fittest full-time athlete cannot train hard every day.

On the other hand, most sportsmen are a long way from reaching their full fitness potential. A top-class distance runner can put in three running sessions a day, totalling over 120 miles (200km) per week, plus two swims and a gym workout, and he can maintain this for weeks on end, if carefully supervised. Contrast this with the club rugby player who complains that he is too tired from his weekend match to train two evenings a week!

The solution?
If we think of the body as a machine, then there should be at least one time of the year when we take the whole thing to pieces, replace or strengthen the worn-out parts, oil it, protect it, put it together again and test it. For the human body, this involves analysing the sport and deciding which parts really need building up and which can be left to repair themselves. The resting phase
Proper rest is vital and must be programmed into each day, into each week and into each phase of the year, but in addition there should be a resting phase, if only a brief one, at the end of each competitive phase. During this time the stress level should be at its lowest, enabling the anti-stress system to regenerate. This does not mean that physical exercise should stop - I am convinced that it should not - but that there should be a complete change of routine. The rower should get out of his boat, the footballer should go fishing, the runner should go walking and the walker should get on his bike. Two weeks of this will probably be enough.

The basic fitness phase
Here, as far as possible, one should be training the whole body, but even so there will be differences between the sports. Those who rely more on muscle strength will spend more time on weight training, while others will devote more time to flexibility, to endurance or to oxygen uptake, but any serious sportsman should be covering all these fields, because without them he will not be fully fit and will thus be less able to meet the demands of the hard pre-competition phase.

If the athlete is trying to upgrade himself from the previous season, he will have to get used to putting in more hours per week. It makes sense to increase the volume of the training first and then to gradually introduce training of a higher intensity, first one hard session a week, then two. The length of this phase is really governed by the time which needs to be spent on the next, most vital, phase.

Pre-competition training
Training is specific to the event. It is no good being the best at training four hours a day if you cannot produce your best in the competition, so you need to analyse the demands of the competition. The runner is getting ready for a race which might last for less than four minutes (a mile), less than 14 minutes (5000m) or over two hours (a marathon). A footballer (any kind) has to be fit for intense 10-seconds bursts of running and for brief but extreme exertions of strength, but he must also be able to cope with spending ninety minutes or more on his feet at a time, maintaining his mental and physical agility under conditions of great stress. His training programme must therefore include a lot of endurance work as well as the skill, speed and strength training which are his normal lot.

Hard training is most effective if one can train different elements on different days, or at different times of day. Adding a training load to an already tired body is a recipe for disaster, and the coach must choose the right balance of rest and exercise. In the beginning, 'little and often' is a much better way of building up fitness than the 'train till you drop' method.

At a low level one might start with one hard and three easy sessions a week, with the hard day being similar to the competition but less intense. In the easy sessions one could incorporate different elements of the necessary training - one day long and slow for endurance, one day with some leg-speed training, one day in the gym for strength and flexibility.

A year later the same athlete might be doing six sessions a week, two hard and four easy, and a couple of years further down the road he might be doing 12 sessions a week, six for endurance and recuperation, three for hard event-specific training, and three others for minor elements such as speed or flexibility. An example of an event-specific workout might be 4 X 3km for a marathon runner, while for a footballer it might be a circuit of sprints and drills with short recovery breaks.

As the competition season approaches, one tries to integrate all the different aspects of training. The total. training load is reduced and the hard training sessions come closer to simulating the competition conditions, but they are spaced out by longer recovery intervals. Practice games and trials lead into the next phase. The competitive phase
This is not as simple as it seems. If one did nothing but compete and recover from competition, the performance level would soon flatten out and then start to drop. In my view it is hard to perform consistently at a high level for more than six weeks without a break. There should be some sort of 'refresher course' after six weeks. This can be done either for the whole team, or, if the programme does not allow for a break, certain members of the squad should be taken out and put through a mini-cycle of training before going back into competition.

During competition, there must be some training to maintain the basic strong-points. The runner must preserve his aerobic fitness and endurance, therefore his total mileage must not drop too much. The 'explosive' athlete must maintain his strength levels, so time must be found for strength training.

Monitoring

The coach has to keep a close eye out to spot the signs of over-training or over-competing as soon as they start to occur. Merely keeping a daily check on the athlete's resting pulse and body weight will give a good indication, and getting either the athlete or the coach to keep a diary, recording the athlete's response to each session, is even more revealing (see my piece in the November PP). The more the coach is aware of the athlete's condition, the more likely he is to keep him fit through a long season. He must try to control the environment so that stress does not become too great. Above all, he must realise that if there are to be peaks in a sportsman's life, there must also be troughs.

Bruce Tulloh

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