Friday, 18 December 2015

Periodization in Swimming

I was swimming at UQ for a month or so before I noticed a pattern: Wednesdays were a lot tougher on me than Tuesdays. I quickly then figured out that the regular squad training sessions followed a week-long plan of sprints on Monday, technique focus on Tuesday, heart-rate set on Wednesday and aerobic set on Thursday (see here for a bit on different types of sets). That was my introduction to the idea of periodization: a one week repeating cycle hitting the major systems in turn.

Since then my training periodization has developed a lot more depth and the one week repeating cycle no longer suffices. Periodization is about creating a plan for the training season with variations of focus in training. Before discussing periodization it is useful to define a few of the key words.

Macrocycle: the longest type of cycle, for many swimmers the macrocycle is about a year, or encompassing the whole season (of whatever length that may be).

Mesocycle: the mid-length cycle, mesocycles are around four to eight weeks and are based around the idea that it takes about six weeks (give or take) to produce significant adaptations to a training regime.

Microcycle: the shortest cycle, microcycles are usually a week long. In my experience, the biggest reason for incorporating the idea of a microcycle is to ensure that swimmers have sufficient rest - by the time I get to Saturday morning training, for instance, I am giving the last of what is in my training-tank for the week, so I really need the weekend rest to recover for the next week of training starting Monday morning.

All coaches use some kind of periodization unless the training sessions are literally random. Even the simple week progression I started with at UQ's adult squad sessions were a (basic) form of periodization. But periodization has benefits far beyond making it easier for the coach to pick what kind of set the swimmers will endure! As I see it, there are two main features of periodization:

1. Training is about overloading a system so that it adapts for the better, and a single training session cannot achieve this. So a benefit of periodization is to decide that the first mesocycle of the season can be dedicated to, for instance, endurance work. This provides enough of a stimulus for the swimmer to positively adapt and improve.

2. Periodization allows the coach to plan when the swimmers will be at their peak. Often there will be some kind of end-of-season meet where the swimmer will want to achieve their maximal performance, and intelligent planning allows the training schedule to produce a well-timed peak.

Having noted the importance of good periodization, what is a coach to do? A plethora of periodization plans exist, but they tend to fall into one of two camps:

- Linear: This is your most intuitive kind of periodization plan, where you take each mesocycle and dedicate it to a particular system. A coach might start with a mesocycle dedicated to endurance, then another to V02 max training, then heart-rate, then speed work and finish off with a week long taper before peaking at the end of the season. The major benefit to linear periodization is that it incorporates an ideal length of overload and allows the swimmer to peak at the right time of the season. This comes with drawbacks, however: the idea behind linear periodization is to peak at the end, so in-season racing is going to be decidedly subpar. Additionally, there is the possibility of atrophy of systems as time progresses and it has been ever-longer since that system was worked - in the example, endurance might be flailing by the time speed work is begun. Finally, what if injury or personal circumstance leads to missing a few weeks of practice? Suddenly an athlete may have missed training an entire system crucial to their race performance.

In an attempt to mitigate these factors, the other camp suggests:

- Non-linear: Instead of linearly progressing through the systems, the non-linear plan says to focus on multiple at a time, whilst still varying over the course of the season. Sometimes referred to as an undulating periodization, this type of plan rotates through more frequently over the course of a season, and so allows for multiple peaks (whilst some kind of maximal peak can still be achieved by taper at the end of the season). It also allows for more flexibility when swimmers miss blocks of training. It seems, however, to have mitigated one of the major benefits of the linear plan: there may not be enough training stimulus for highly trained athletes to improve. Furthermore, some types of systems' training are hard (if at all possible) to combine: sprint sets and endurance/aerobic sets are fundamentally different, so producing training adaptations in both seems difficult.


Added to these considerations, the coach needs to address the particular needs of the individual swimmer. I, for instance, would probably benefit from an increased focus on endurance work. This would allow me to have a greater capacity for training, so provide a platform for training the other systems. I furthermore breakdown in breaststroke over too long a distance, so it would give me the ability to push through fatigue with proper form (particularly turns).

Outside the pool, there is also much to be said for the periodization of dryland activities. That in itself is a universe of controversy - some coaches even reject the need for dryland!

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