As fitness professionals and coaches, we thrive on the fact that it’s our individualized and specific overload periodization that gets our clients/athletes to their goals. We put all the science into developing their program, and they implement it with full reliance on what we have on paper.
Long-distance endurance events require long-term training plans to build up the cycles/mileage properly without wearing down the body. There has long been debate over whether it is more beneficial to train more miles per week at lower intensity or fewer miles per week at a higher intensity. The consensus is to do what works best for your athlete. Some are anatomically and physiologically less gifted than others in their ability to withstand the impact of high-mileage or high-intensity work before injury sets in.
Every athlete has an overload ceiling that continually fluctuates based on the current cycle of training. For example, during base building or recovery cycles, the body can only handle minimal amounts of stress before experiencing overtraining symptoms. In later (stronger) phases, such as strength-endurance, the body typically endures great stress for a period of up to four weeks before needing a microcycle of recovery.
Daniels’ Running Formula lists eight principles of training, which include: stress reaction, specificity, overstress, training response, personal limits, diminishing return, accelerating setbacks, and maintenance. They are all equally important to consider when developing a training program. However, from personal and professional experience, the one that truly hits home is overstress.
Prioritizing Deload Weeks
For an athlete to regularly perform quality training sessions or to peak for competition, the progression of training stimuli must incorporate an appropriate amount of de-stressing in order to reap the benefits of the applied stress. Instead of trying to force the body to adapt by loading, then overloading, and then loading on top of the overload, allow the body to repair itself on a physiological level. This will actually speed performance gains and minimize the risk of injury. We can call it: “The less is more approach.”
Daniels mentions the fact that forcing an athlete to do a workout in less than ideal conditions, or that the body is not feeling well-equipped to handle, can lead to long-term physical and psychological damage. If training can be thought of as an internal stress on the system, consideration of the external stresses on the athlete needs to be a similar priority. These external stresses can include emotional stress, financial stress, school or work stress, or even social stress from friends and family. Even with the best training progression, if these factors are ignored, an athlete can suffer from overtraining symptoms and wind up sidelined.Coaches should be concerned with both the internal stresses on an athlete, and the external ones. Click To Tweet
Without consideration of an athlete’s individual circumstances, levels of stress, and reactions to training, the application of a cookie-cutter training plan can have disastrous effects. Each athlete has unique strengths and weaknesses that can be targeted with appropriate programming. Every member of a team performing the same workout can have a multitude of effects, depending on the person and the variables that contribute to a training outcome.
According to Zaryski & Smith (2005), intensity is the most critical factor in overload training; however, it must be balanced effectively with frequency and duration. Unfortunately, there is not a neat formula to calculate the ideal frequency/intensity/duration combination for a given athlete. There is a correlation to the level of experience and the training load/frequency/intensity that can be tolerated, but, again, this is not linear or guaranteed. This concept is known as structural tolerance and can be greatly improved over time, within limits.
Overload is defined as the concept of progressively building the load of physiological work so that the body overcompensates and adapts after a recovery period. The length of an athlete’s season—typically described in macrocycles of 12-14 weeks—will also determine how the program is structured. The nutritional intake and hydration level of these types of endurance athletes are critical to recovery and the ability to withstand subsequent overload stimuli (Zaryski & Smith, 2005). If an athlete is struggling to handle a particular workload that was previously handled without incident, it may be time to check whether either nutritional deficiency or dehydration is the culprit.
The Art of the Taper
Just as there is the need for manipulation in the training variables to stimulate adaptation, there is a need for the same type of manipulation when reversing the trend leading up to a competitive event. In researching more about the benefits of tapering for performance, I found an article that revealed the benefits of a nonlinear taper over the traditional step-down and linear tapers for peak performance. Mujika & Padilla (2003) state that a non-linear taper maintains training intensity by gradually reducing training volume (60-90%) and training frequency (no more than 20%); improving performance by about 3%.
The linear taper drops all variables gradually and proportionally, while the step-down taper drops all variables immediately at the beginning of the taper and maintains low levels of training up until performance. Although maximum recovery may occur with these latter two methods, maximum performance suffers. The maintenance of training intensity and relative frequency is necessary to avoid detraining, but the benefits of performance are not achieved without a reduction in other variables.
McNeely and Sandler (2007) state that the research on tapering is often conflicting, considering the difficulty in replicating the psychological stress that occurs leading up to a peak performance event. Many physiological improvements develop during a taper period, including VO2 max (with a taper of less than 14 days), hemoglobin (+14%), and hematocrit (+2.6%) increases in the first seven days of a taper, all of which help improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of the body. Sport-specific muscle power and contractility seem to increase with the taper as well, possibly due to changes in neuromuscular efficiency as fatigue slowly dissipates.
The idea is that, with reduced volume of training, strength-power mechanisms of adaptation are allowed to take shape. They are normally inhibited by the competing aerobic development that occurs during high-volume training. The peak of strength and power in muscle contraction is typically considered ideal for racing to peak performance.
The date of target competition will also designate when tapering (reduction of volume) needs to occur. The length of the taper will vary depending on the distance of the race, but it typically lasts from one to four weeks (Hug et al., 2014). A successful tapering phase leads to peak performance on competition day; this can be enhanced by preceding the taper with several weeks of overload training (up to a 50% increase), while maintaining intensity all the way through race day.
The physiological response to overload stress causes a high activation of the cardiac autonomic system, specifically the parasympathetic nervous system for the purpose of restoration and recovery. As the taper progresses and no new overload is introduced, the parasympathetic response decreases and the sympathetic tone returns to a balance. This has been indicated as a marker of improved race-readiness and performance.
Periodization, recovery, and tapering are each truly an artistic entity that requires individualized attention for each unique athlete, based on their ability and circumstances. To achieve long-term success without the hindrance of overuse injuries, the recovery phase should be emphasized as much as the build-up progressions.
- Daniels, J. T. (2014). Daniels’ Running Formula (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Hug, B., Heyer, L., Naef, N., Buchheit, M., Wehrlin, J. P., & Millet, G. P. (2014). “Tapering for marathon and cardiac autonomic function.” International Journal of Sports Medicine, 35: 676-683.
- McNeely, E. & Sandler, D. (2007). “Tapering for endurance athletes.” Strength & Conditioning Journal, 29(5): 18-24.
- Mujiika, I. & Padilla, S. (2003). “Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies.” Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 35(7): 1182-1187.
- Zaryski, C. & Smith, D. J. (2005). “Training principles and issues for ultra-endurance athletes.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, 4: 163-170.