Does periodisation matter in training?

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The most interesting training talk at last month’s Endurance Research Conference at the University of Kent was Stephen Seiler’s - and the good news is that it’s now freely available online. (For what it’s worth, so is my talk from the same conference, titled “It's All in Your Head! Brain Training, Neuroscience, and the Limits of Endurance.”)

Seiler, from the University of Agder and the Norwegian Olympic Federation, is best known for his work on polarised training, the idea that top endurance athletes tend to spend about 80 per cent of their training at low intensities, 20 per cent at high intensities, and not much in the middle. That’s the idea presented in Matt Fitzgerald’s latest book, 80/20 Running - and, as Seiler put it, when someone sums up your life’s work in a few sentences, it’s time to move on to new questions.

Two of the key new questions Seiler is interested in involve the details of what you do during that 20 per cent of high-intensity training:

  1. How do the intensity and duration of intervals interact?
  2. Does periodisation matter?

To explore the first question, Seiler and his colleagues published a paper back in 2013 that compared three basic interval sessions, which the subjects completed twice a week for seven weeks: 4 x 4:00; 4 x 8:00; and 4 x 16:00. Each session was supposed to be done “as hard as possible” - but interestingly, it turns out that people are able to push harder (as measured by perceived exertion) in the shorter session.

The punchline of this study is that the 4 x 8:00 group produced the best overall outcomes for VO2 max, peak power and other outcomes. That workout seemed to make the athletes work hard but not too hard: in a 5-zone system, it’s Zone 4. Of course, in real training programs the athletes don’t do the same workout over and over twice a week, so the real message is that not all workouts are equal - intensity and duration do matter, and you can get better outcomes if you figure out the right choices.

The second question, about periodisation, is also controversial. There are lots of different models that claim to bring you to your peak right at the right time, but - as others have also pointed out - they’re based more on tradition than evidence.

In the talk, Seiler offers a peek at some results from an ongoing unpublished study comparing different periodisation methods. An impressive group of 63 athletes underwent a 12-week training program, broken down into three four-week mesocycles. The workouts they did were the same as the previous study: 4 x 4:00 (Zone 5), 4 x 8:00 (Zone 4), or 4 x 16:00 (Zone 3), but the order they did those workouts in depended on which periodisation method they were assigned:

(1) Traditional: Zone 3 for four weeks, Zone 4 for four weeks, Zone 5 for four weeks

(2) Mixed: Zones 3, 4 and 5 throughout each mesocycle

(3) Reverse: Zone 5, Zone 4, Zone 3

So which method produced the best results at the end? There are two ways of looking at the results. One is that they were all about the same, with no statistically significant differences between them. But if you look more closely (and with different statistical approaches), it looks like the traditional approach, going from low intensity to high intensity, produces the best outcomes for VO2 max and time trial performance, followed by the reverse (from high intensity to lower intensity) and mixed.

Seiler’s talk presents the interim results in much greater detail and nuance; if you’re interested in this topic, it’s definitely worth taking the time to watch it. Again, this particular study doesn’t prove that everyone should follow this particular periodisation approach for all types of races. Instead, the basic message is that, looking beyond the basic 80/20 approach, the details of how you program your workouts do matter, but the effects are small. There will be plenty of debates to come about the best workout plans and periodisation methods, but none of them matter if you’re not getting the basics right.