The concept of periodization has been a part of cycling training for decades, and creates a stepwise method for reaching peak fitness, as Chris Case explains.
The training concept known as periodization is a time-tested method for reaching your peak form and preparing for the demands of race day. Organizing a training regime into distinct periods helps you graduate to a professional approach, one driven by purpose, backed by science, and propelled by long-term vision.
That said, periodization can also be intimidating—some athletes find it overly regimented or confusing. Rest assured, it doesn’t have to be.
Adopting a periodized training method requires that you understand some basic concepts like training blocks and specificity; once you get the fundamentals, you’ll be better able to maximize the productivity of your training time—which is a great benefit for those with jobs, families, or other time constraints.
At its core, periodization is simply a system to structure your season to prepare for your target event—whether that’s a race, a gran fondo, or a personal challenge. If you’ve ever used base training in the winter and done intervals in the spring, you’ve put periodization into practice.
Periodization is simply a system to structure your season to prepare for your target event—whether that’s a race, a gran fondo, or a personal challenge.
“Periodization is simply a way of dividing the year into periods of time and then training in ways that prepare for the specificity of the race or event we’re getting ready for,” says legendary coach Joe Friel, author of the Cyclist’s Training Bible. The first edition of the book, published in the 1990s, introduced periodization to cyclists.
The four pillars
There are four concepts that represent the pillars of traditional “linear” periodization: overload, specificity, reversibility, and individualization.
The principle of progressive overload dictates that an athlete’s training must increase over time, from week to week—either through greater duration or intensity—in order to challenge the body and elicit an adaptation that leads to improvement. This so-called supercompensation is one of the fundamental concepts in exercise physiology.
A word of caution: This one concept is not enough to constitute periodization. If all you ever do is continuously ramp up your training volume or intensity, you will eventually reach a limit—and worse, you’ll be overtrained, burned out, or both.
The next pillar is training specificity, which dictates that your training must be like the event you’re training for. Furthermore, it must become increasingly more specific as the event approaches, such that in the weeks prior to the event, the workouts mimic the demands of the race. (This isn’t always true, of course; for example, if you are training for an ultra-distance event, you would never ride the full distance of the event beforehand. However, in traditional road races, time trials, criteriums, and cyclocross races, more often than not, the principle holds true.)
“The farther you are away from your race, the less important specificity is,” Friel says. “Specificity becomes increasingly important as you get closer to your race.”
The concept of reversibility states that when you cease training, you will gradually lose the fitness gains that you had acquired through the adaptation process. You can see it play out if you stop doing high-intensity interval work—you quickly lose top-end fitness. This concept also applies to the recovery process, the off-season, and why we need time off the bike at certain times of the year.
Finally, there’s individuality. Each athlete is unique, and our physiological characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, time and lifestyle constraints, goals and objectives, among other things, must be considered when creating a training plan. Just because, for example, Tabata intervals are key to your training partner’s fitness gains doesn’t make them right for you. Likewise, what works for pros often doesn't work for amateurs.
Putting periodization into practice can also be a relatively simple process. Imagine your target race, a long road race with lots of climbing, is six months away. What would training look like six months out from the race? Three months? And what would it look like three weeks from race day?
When you’re several months away from the race, the workouts don’t have to be specific. In fact, focusing on general endurance is most effective. This nonspecific training would consist of things like long, slow rides. This is typically called the general preparation phase.
Imagine your target race is six months away. What would training look like six months out from the race? Three months? And what would it look like three weeks from race day?
Next comes the specific preparation phase, when endurance is still a focus, but some intensity is introduced. During this build, the training becomes increasingly like the race. In the case of this hypothetical event, that might mean hill repeats, threshold intervals, and other workouts to mimic the demands of the event.
Then in the closing weeks of this hypothetical training plan—usually 10 days to three weeks, depending on the athlete and their race schedule—there would be a taper phase, when the duration of rides would decrease and the intensity would remain.
“In a good periodization plan, there is a flow,” Friel says. “We’re going to take small steps; there won’t be gigantic leaps between these periods. Consequently, we want to realize where we’re starting from, where we’re trying to get to on race day, and what’s required to get there.”
Think of training as filling a gap. With any athlete who has a race objective, the assumption is that he or she does not have what it takes to reach that objective right now. The job of the coach, or the self-coached athlete, is to determine what stands between the athlete and reaching the goal set out at the beginning of the planning process.
“It starts by measuring what the athlete is capable of doing right now, and what they have to be capable of doing on race day to achieve their goal, then to determine what the difference is between these two places, and create a plan to address these issues in training,” Friel says. “Those become the most specific aspects of training as we get closer and closer to the race.”
In this introductory article, we’ve only touched upon classic, linear periodization. This has proven to be a highly effective training method for countless athletes, used to great success by world champions and amateurs alike.
And there are other advanced forms of periodization. For example, reverse periodization is one form that gets substantial attention when it comes to professional cyclists. There are also non-linear forms of periodization, including undulating periodization and the most recently developed strategy called block periodization.
It is beyond the scope of this article to address them, but it’s worth noting that some of these other methods may be more effective in certain situations or certain disciplines of cycling. And if you are someone who gets bored very easily, classic periodization may not produce the results you’re looking for if you’re unable to stick to the plan. In that case, it may be worth exploring one of these other forms.