By Carl Valle
If you believe everything you see, it seems that periodization is dead again. However, like the zombies from The Walking Dead, somehow professional and lower-level sports manage to keep the need for smart planning alive. A few weeks ago, a great review article from the ETSU group was posted on social media, and it was a breath of fresh air.
Just as Dr. Freeman disputed Verkhoshansky’s “Periodization Is Dead” article nearly 20 years ago, we still sometimes have to do the same today, such as with Hans Selye and his proposed GAS model. True, opportunities to train are shrinking at all levels of sport, including the youth level. In order for progress to occur, we need to do a better job with the resources we have, such as time and energy, so we as coaches have a right to ask for more.Thanks to modern twists like vertical integration & agile periodization, good planning still exists. Click To Tweet
If we are going to make a change with sports injuries and poor performance, we need to stop complaining and start demonstrating responsibility. Classic periodization may never have been alive, but with modern twists such as vertical integration, agile periodization, and other creative options, good planning is not extinct.
Planning Training Based on Coaching Theory and Science
We can define periodization easily as the planning methods of a coach. In theory, periodization got out of hand because some coaches took things too far, and the hard science was lost and replaced by science fiction. Simply put, periodization was always a Wild West of coaching theory because it is hard to measure and evaluate.
While periodization needed a reboot, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Since the dawn of sports, the practitioner has known that it’s not just about the workout; it’s about all of the variables in and out of the session. Coaches wear multiple hats, so being one part psychologist, one part teacher, and several parts conditioning professional is hardly new.
The most difficult part of teaching modern training theory is that so many options in training tend to get very similar results, mainly because talent always seems to rise at the right time with coaches. If an athlete believes in themselves, they will be successful in nearly any coaching program. If a coach has a solid system, athletes will see the results of the past, and believe in the goal with even stronger conviction. Separating the belief from the biology is hard, but it is an exercise in futility to put both factors against each other like they are mutually exclusive.The hardest part of modern training theory is that many training options get very similar results. Click To Tweet
I don’t have a hard line to soft theory that may just be slick guesswork with some scientific language and hard laws of training. Enough information exists that we can draw very logical conclusions of what is probable with outcomes. Straying too far from simple adaptation models or stress response is fine, but you had better back up your beliefs with radical changes to the competition level you are working with. If record books are being rewritten, then by all means, you have a right to share your opinions.
Adaptation – Why the GAS Model with Classic Periodization Are Under Fire
Recently, coaches and scientists have questioned if we should even use General Adaptation Syndrome, also known as the GAS model, in sports training. Hans Selye, a scientist who wrote the famous book The Stress of Life, proposed a very rudimentary model of stress and how the body responds to it. The model was primitive and very limited, but it was useful enough to help coaches learn that loading the body requires the right dose and timing of rest to improve—otherwise, we are playing with fire.
Nearly all books on training and training planning include some form of adaptation model similar to Hans’ work, but the currents are now shifting to more complex models, and rightfully so. The GAS model needs updating, but to treat it like a scientific black sheep is a little extreme. The body can’t be summarized as a line plot over time; hence, the reason that data visualizations of training loads bother me. We can even criticize or attack the brilliant work of Dr. Jan Olbrecht showing multiple body systems, but the goal was to show concepts and let coaches build from there.
The advancement of artificial intelligence is improving models of learning and adaptation, but they are still embryonic and not at a point that they are reliable. Just as the GAS model falls short of being a perfect representation of load response in a complex environment with athletes from different backgrounds and genetics, even the present algorithms and programs still need work. The difference is that the GAS model is a concept for understanding a cause and effect for stress; it’s not a blueprint for training or a perfect physiological explanation.
The replacement of Selye’s GAS model with another model that can get to the heart of adaptation has yet to be accepted by everyone in the sports science community. No model will ever be perfect, so should we just shrug our shoulders and not try? What model demonstrates success with scientific scrutiny, such as a Cochrane review or meta-analysis?
I think it’s safe to say most coaches today see Hans Selye as a pioneer in explaining ideas about work and rest, not as the developer of a periodization model. The GAS model is still relevant today because it was a catalyst for further ideas and better models, and eliminating it wouldn’t be very wise.
I personally have no affinity or attachment to Hans Selye or his work, as I was born three decades after the publication of his first book. However, I do find the information to have some viable connection to the challenge of training today. The model is a working one because, although it is a reductionist summary, it is useful. You will not see me with a glass of brandy reading Selye’s book and reminiscing about the good old days, but those who scoff at simple models like they have no value should look at the medal count of those who have used the information successfully.
A respectful way to look at the past is to share the ideas that led to progress, as well as the information that detracts or deviates from the solution. Arguments against the GAS model are more about what Selye was missing or the details of biology that are easily updated, not a powerful rationale for it derailing athletic careers.
Periodization – Beyond Loading Patterns and Does It Work?
There is a lot of criticism of periodization in the research, but much of the findings should also note that replacing old theories with new theories is just buying time for someone else to be critical years down the road. Much of the proposed theory-slaying is great for bar room debates at conferences, but it has yet to revolutionize the coaching game. Once liberated from their dogma, what coaches are now creating monsters with the new avenues that they are unbound from with past models?
I admit, periodization, or coaching theory of programs, can get into a lot of fuzzy logic and unrealistic expectations, but that is the entire point of the exercise—find a better way to get results. Most athletes don’t get better, not because of poor periodization, but likely because bad luck and genetic ceilings are in the way. Peaking and tapering does work, but you need a healthy athlete with a stable life situation to win. Training is sometimes analogous to gourmet cooking, but the analogy fails because each year the expectation is that the meal will get even better, something that may not always be possible.
An important series of questions from John Kiely really kicked a hornet’s nest about 10 years after Yuri Verkhoshansky’s claim of periodization being dead. Kiely was similar to Verkhoshansky, but instead of proposing that periodization was dying off, he merely questioned its very existence with some cloudy concepts. Kiely was right, as it’s easy to toss in a term that isn’t validated and just use it blindly, and it was an important milestone. It’s not that periodization is a myth; it’s that the science is shaky and needs more study. Not much of periodization is really tested at high levels, since most elite athletes will not simply not do something they believe in because of the need for research.It’s not that periodization is a myth; it’s that the science is shaky and needs more study. Click To Tweet
Still, many studies have looked at modalities and methods and found differences between each group, so planning strategically works. However, how many theoretical concepts work over the long run, such as block training and specific phase work, compared to less-divergent approaches? I agree that we need to close the gap on uncharted theory with evidence-based approaches, but the issue is that middle-ground thinking isn’t exciting to anyone. Either periodization is just an illusion, or secret Bulgarian methods are locked up in an underground training facility hidden in the Balkan Mountains. Frustrated, we should probably think of a compromise—periodization concepts are relevant, but they are not mythical.
There is plenty of research on how training variables elicit different responses, but the major arguments outside of sets and reps is that other confounding variables exist, such as emotional factors and environmental elements. Those arguments are noted, but no coach training in a poor weather location and working with high-pressured athletes is unaware of those influences in their program. Other issues like residual fatigue, nutrition, and team culture all make or break programs, but how have those not already been accepted?
It’s not that periodization doesn’t work, it’s just that it may be enough to just fix bad living situations, team coaches who sabotage great programs, and old traditions that add no value to getting athletes better. We may have programs still in the Dark Ages, but several guiding light programs are working very well. Now that genetics and better profiling tests exist, we are more likely to see how tailored programs work better than training systems, but plenty of coaches get results year after year with their workouts. Training is still effective; it’s just that in most situations, the program isn’t good or the environment isn’t conducive to let training do its thing.
Which Periodization Ideas Are Valid, Sometimes Overrated, or Just Unfounded
Most block training is overrated, as the physiological duration of training blocks is far longer than the current theoretical practice. A block of time is an enigma, as nobody can pinpoint the exact length of time due to the fact human biology is a little more complicated than mesocycle charts on a wall. The expectation that a human body can radically shift in short periods of time is insane.The expectation that a human body can radically shift in short periods of time is insane. Click To Tweet
An example of this came from one presentation I saw years ago, where a two-week period of six conditioning workouts was named an aerobic capacity block, and the speaker claimed all sorts of morphological and physical changes to the body. I was the only one there even near the age of 40, and I expected there to be an angry mob of coaches wanting their money back. Instead, everyone took notes frantically. I watched in horror as an entire generation of young coaches took a viable planning concept such as extended training periods focused on a specific need, and made it so bastardized that recovery would be difficult in the future.
Conversion phases are also a little fuzzy, as improvement in speed or power takes time and more than just a rise in load on a strength or speed test. Some experts have called this delayed transmutation, but the idea is still more about transfer to performance and time, and sports practice usually solves general training advancements. Conversion phases are great on paper, but what usually makes the specific preparation work is that it includes both a reduction in general load for fatigue management and the inclusion of specific sports practice that elicits most of the work. I would love to believe that plyometrics connect the weight training in the general preparation phase to the competition phase speed abilities during the specific preparation phase, but we are not really sure what happens scientifically.
Peaking and tapering are very connected to psychology, but nobody makes the Olympic team or World Cup because they are great at visualization on the couch and skipping training. Physiological components maximize physical abilities, whether mainly genetic or from hard work and coaching over time. Perhaps nothing in periodization is more dramatic or coveted than peaking, as it is the end piece of a training program.Physiological components maximize physical abilities, whether genetic or from hard work & coaching. Click To Tweet
Peaking and tapering are indeed science, as reductions in volume and/or modulation of intensity will create a performance improvement, but many coaches are so infatuated with peaking that they underestimate the value of adrenaline and simply being in shape without overtraining. More scientific work needs to cover championship season plans for teams, but we are seeing enough internal data from teams to know what is going on and what they don’t know is happening. Time will tell how players find a way to bring about amazing performance, but it’s not just the brain, as we have seen bad performances from injuries and lack of preparation.
Obviously, shaky training theory concepts need more investigation, but the main point is it’s more important to get away from sexy terms and cloudy training “inventions” and stick to what is tried and true. I think terminology and unnecessary training glamor are more about the coach being bored or wanting attention than true need and the evolution of preparing athletes. Periodization has always been a bit of a nebulous area that gurus take advantage of, and science is shedding light on the truth more and more.
Modern Approaches – How to Keep Science and Practice Working in Sport
So, what can be done with few resources, such as athlete motivation, time, and energy? Don’t be depressed or give up—it’s always been a grind. For example, look at professional basketball, a sport where many involved are struggling for answers, and rightfully so. Like many sports, the league has a congested schedule with a lot of competition, little rest, and very little availability for training. Practices have become glorified shoot-arounds, and strength training is nearly voluntary for more teams.
Coaches should leverage pre-season assessment, in-season loading, and off-season recommendations. Click To Tweet
Now terms such as minimal effective dose, stimulation, and activation session are euphemisms for not really training, but looking like we are doing something. The NBA needs to manage workload, but game preparation seems to be either a thing of the past or a platinum unicorn. Some teams have great coaches who are doing some amazing work under the radar, but unless you win the big one, those success stories are lost behind the champions, since history is written by the winners.
Solving the crisis of training isn’t hard; again, it’s about managing expectations and raising standards. If someone doesn’t take a stand, we will watch as the staff keeps growing while the actual training shrinks to nothing. I see three powerful opportunities for coaches to leverage, and they are the following:
Pre-Season Assessment: Athlete testing, not monitoring, is the key even more now in the modern era than before. Athletes are global, and may not even live on the same continent as the team that employs or pays them. Coming in ill-prepared is a constant issue with many athletes, but sometimes athletes are well-trained and ruined by team incompetence. The best way to use sport science is to know how to evaluate an athlete’s readiness to compete, and prove that their battery of tests is valid and accurate to show the athlete was honest in the off-season.
In-Season Loading: The competitive phase is the period of time when the most skin is in the game, as injuries and fatigue are the most graphic variables that can leave a coach unemployed at the end of the season, as well as the medical staff. The most challenging issue is that even knowing an athlete is ill-prepared, coaches would rather be employed and safe than take a risk on doing something proactive with training. The only chance teams have is to add razor-sharp precision to every session, so that risk is mitigated but training is still productive. Warm-ups and warm-downs, along with brief training sessions in the weight room, can be safe and aggressive with modern approaches to monitoring, recovery, athlete profiling, and velocity-based training.
Off-Season Recommendations: Most athletes need a report card of sorts with their training, nutrition, and sports medicine records. If athletes are accountable, it’s a haunting reminder that it’s their responsibility to ensure they are meeting the expectations for next year. Most athletes are very smart with their bodies, and if given well-presented information, they will make changes in the off-season to be properly prepared. End-of-year or end-of-season reviews complement pre-season assessments because they tell athletes what they can expect to happen during their break if they elect to train away from the organization and follow up with objective testing when they come back. If a coach can’t control their training, at least they can guide them smarter.
Periodization – A Calendar and Training Principles
Don’t stress that you are missing out on the weapons of the past or that the training limitations of today are out of control—it’s always been a mess in sport. Remember when it was said that weight training would create bulky and uncoordinated athletes? Now it is accepted as a part of athletic development to strength train, but with reasonable goals and expectations. Treat periodization as just using time and variables to create a better sequence of results, and nothing more. Periodization isn’t dead, and while options to train are harder to find than a few decades ago, coaches always find ways to get the job done.Treat periodization as using time and variables to create a better sequence of results—nothing more. Click To Tweet
Coaches need to think about objective and transparent information being a negotiation or bargaining chip, and use the resources they have better, even if it’s not a game changer. Trying and failing will usually send a better message to everyone about the intent than just giving up early and resorting to training that you know doesn’t work, and that poorly represents you. It may take a long time for management and athletes to understand what is wrong, but giving into training you know will never work just because it helps you keep your job will only make everyone, including you, hate your job later.