SFH #25: Periodization

Why you should know this term if you want to make gains

When I first decided to train for a triathlon in early 2014 living in DC, I signed up for an Olympic distance race for that September somewhere out in Maryland. I knew nothing about the race or how to train for a triathlon, but I figured I’d just read and research to get it done. I never made it to race day. 😳 The good news I did make it to my first finish line called St. Anthony’s in St. Petersburg, FL, the following spring, and the experience was life-changing. 🔥

I don’t often tell the story of the half-year I spent kicking my own butt to train for a triathlon. Still, it’s relevant today because I learned the most valuable lesson that I would take with me into the future of all training and physiological development. Without proper recovery and restoration, we do not allow our bodies to appropriately adapt, develop, and ultimately perform to our desired levels. At the heart of this is a method called periodization.

So, what happened to me in 2014? In short, I thought I was hot stuff. 😂 I had always possessed the ability to endure and be active for long periods. I began to read training books, articles, and magazines. They all suggested variations of a similar training regiment. I was to train specific amounts in time or distance of a discipline, followed by rest, followed by a gradual build, followed by more rest, and so on. I figured that my rest could be playing pick-up basketball for 2-3 hours every day on top of training and bouncing around town.🏀 Fate handed me a gift. After about three (3) months of that process, I hit a wall I had never experienced. I couldn’t get off the couch. I literally would be sitting on my sofa at 1729 U Street #2, trying to muster the power to will myself off up. My body would not allow it. I had never experienced fatigue and shut down like that. 🙅🏼‍♂️ It was as if my body was sending signals to my brain to keep me safe from the harm of the continual abuse I was serving up. It was a gift because I experienced overtraining and overuse before I ever crossed my first finish line. From that moment forward, I took recovery seriously.

In the winter of that year, I signed up for Team in Training and met Ed Zerkle. He would change my life in many ways, but one of the first things he preached to us was periodization. Without it, we would end up hurt, tired, and possibly unable to train or race. So what is periodization? Most of us probably know the idea from weight lifting that we should trade off days between our upper and lower bodies. That would be an example of allowing one group of muscles and soft tissue the proper rest before we put a new load on 24-48 hours later. Put simply; periodization is the planning of phased stress and recovery on our bodies. The method was popularized by a man named Tudor Bompa, often dubbed the father of periodization. He would bring his methodology of developing strength and performance to the Russians, which proved to be the backbone of the Eastern Bloc’s domination in Olympic weightlifting for many decades. 🏋🏽‍♀️ Many years later, as the wall came down in Berlin and Tudor’s ideas spread within the West, many scientists, coaches, and athletes started implementing this methodology. And what continues to prove out day in and day out across the board in all areas of sport is that the appropriate phasing of stress and recovery yields more outstanding performance in gains from the specific activities trained.1

In summary, I wanted to share my story about overtraining and learning about periodization to illustrate that using recovery and tuning into your body’s signals for rest is actual the linchpin for gains.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said, ‘It's very important that we re-learn the art of resting and relaxing. Not only does it help prevent the onset of many illnesses that develop through chronic tension and worrying; it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems.’