Periodization: Basic and advanced techniques

What started out as a mysterious training idea from the other side of the Iron Curtain has become mainstream training philosophy. But periodization is so much more than simply peaking for a particular race, so let's review the basic and advanced techniques of periodization ...

A brief history of periodization

For most of cycling history, until the past twenty years or so, the predominant training philosophy for Western cyclists was simply to ride base miles in the off-season, then race throughout the year. And when not racing, the bulk of training mainly consisted of putting in lots of bike time at the "Long Steady Distance" or LSD pace. The theory was that racing was the best form of training. Besides, riders were all expected to perform at top levels throughout the entire season in all events, leaving little time for focused training anyway.

A few major developments in the 1980s and 1990s changed everything when it came to our understanding of training:

  • The development of cycle computers, heart rate monitors and power monitors enabled precise quantification of effort rather than riding by feel.
  • The Mondialization of cycling by riders like LeMond led to new ideas, such as focusing training solely for events like Roubaix, Le Tour and the Worlds.
  • The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s opened our eyes to the legal and illegal practices enabling Eastern European domination of international competition in many sports. One of the big legal scientific theories to cross the Curtain was the concept of periodization of training.
  • For most cyclists, probably the watershed moment for the arrival of periodization as a practical concept was the publishing of Joe Friel's "The Cyclist's Training Bible" in 1996. Here at last was a clear, readable and practical implementation of periodization.
  • So what is periodization anyway

    I feel that there are two important concepts underlying periodization:

    1. Planning for peak fitness and performance at particular points in the competition year. Pro cycling has become so specialized and competitive that it becomes almost impossible to ride at peak levels throughout the season. In modern cycling, this really highlights for me how special riders like Jaja, Voigt, Bettini, and Cunego are, winning races of differing kinds throughout the year.

    2. The flip side of periodization and peaking is understanding your own strengths and limiters, and targeting your training to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses so that they don't limit your strengths. A prime example is Petacchi's new-found climbing ability. He's never going to climb high cols in the lead group, but his focus on losing a bit of weight and improving his climbing a bit enabled him to get to Via Roma in San Remo to unleash his unbeatable sprint.

    Both of these concepts work in unison and really cannot be separated from the other. What you're ultimately looking to do is to get a clear understanding of your current strengths and limiters, then match them to the requirements of your key races. For example, we all would love to climb like billy goats, but the reality is that the vast majority of amateur races end in field sprints. Therefore, working on your sprinting and bike handling is rarely going to be wasted time.

    If your key races have a mountain time trial and you're aiming for a high GC, then you have to break down the requirements of that effort, assess your own abilities, then adapt your training accordingly. This is nothing really earth-shattering, but too many cyclists still ride to their own liking, then can't figure out why they end up with bad or average race performances.

    Advanced periodization

    That's the basic level of periodization, but there are two advanced concepts that I'll bring forward now (stay tuned to PezCycling News for more on this topic):

    1. Every year is NOT the same in an athlete's life cycle.

    So beyond the annual training program, there is periodization at a very macro level, throughout an athlete's life from adolescent through elite racing and onto Masters competitions.

    Adolescents, being new in the sport and also growing at enormous rates, need to focus especially on endurance and technique. This provides a rock-solid foundation that can be built upon with more specialized training as the athlete moves into the senior ranks, and also avoids burning out the rider with too much intense work and competition too early.

    The same thing applies to Masters racers just taking up the sport. The key goal of the first few years is to put in lots of bike time, learn bike handling and pack dynamics, and experience as many different types of racing as possible.

    I had the chance to experience this first-hand in New Zealand. My host Jim Cotter grew up on a farm and spent most of his youth running in the mountains. By doing this, he built up such a huge reservoir of endurance capacity that, despite his busy career and family, he remains a very competitive adventure racer with only minimal focused training as preparation. In fact, the most painful ride I did my entire stay there was trying to hang onto his wheel, and a knobby MTB one at that!

    2. Within a periodized annual program, one advanced concept is to target and overload one particular aspect of cycling, then move onto another component.

    Many of us periodize our annual program, but every week (microcycle) consists of the exact same schedule (e.g., recovery Monday, sprints/training crit Tuesday, intervals Wednesday, endurance ride Thursday, etc.). So if you're only doing hill intervals once a week, you may not be really overloading your body sufficiently to maximize training overload and subsequent adaptation.

    It's this kind of focused training that has really revolutionized pro cycling, especially as many of the Tour contenders are racing less and training more. For example, part and parcel of the mountain recon trips prior to Le Tour is also to put in intense work, specifically on climbing.

    So if you really want to target time trialing, you might plan a week or two in which, while mixing in other rides, you ditch the sprint work and the primary focus of that period is two to three dedicated time-trialing intervals each week. The caution though is that this really requires careful planning to pull off without overtraining. You need to build up to this type of training, and to carefully note how you're reacting to the intense workload.

    Want to learn more about training? Click here to read Brian Walton's "Establishing a Training Program."

    Stephen Cheung is an associate professor in kinesiology at Dalhousie University. He was recently on a sabbatical visit to the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, where he accomplished his primary goal of conquering Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street (Thanks fellow summiteer Chris Harvey!). Stephen's company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at

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