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Periodisation: Myth and Reality


Valery Obidko explains the fundamentals of periodisation for the extensive training cycles.

In an extensive training cycle (such as annual or semi-annual) there are, as usual, three periods: preparatory, competitive and transition. Initially, the competition calendar and climatic conditions were thought to be reasons for the periodical changes in the training process. However, a thorough analysis has shown that neither these nor some other external factors determine the essence of training; these factors are not sufficient to explain periodization fundamentals. An important point to recognize is that, according to a concept by the Soviet experts (Novikov A.D., Matveev L. P., Ozolin N. G. and Farfel V. S.), the reasons for the cyclic alteration of training periods are, first of all, the regularities of athletic shape development.

Athlete's adaptation to training effects

In a modern sport, performance improvement depends upon proper levels of physical, technical, psychological and tactical preparedness. Different means and methods exist to achieve this high level of readiness.

It is accepted that adaptation is one of the primary forms of the existence of living things. In essence, this term refers to a human being's general biological ability to adapt to various external and internal stresses. The human being, interacting with nature, changes his view. We monitor this phenomenon in a sporting practice every day. Affecting the organism's systems by a particular combination of training loads, we cause corresponding changes in a specific direction. Each adaptation process may lead to purposeful changes in the organism's whole system and separate muscle groups. Through the adaptation processes, the athlete's body systems are balanced in an external and internal environment. The organism exists while it can adapt to the surrounding environment (Pavlov I. P., 1924). As soon as this balance is broken, the organism does not exist anymore.

The state of balance is achieved through adaptation, which goes on throughout the whole life. Thus, adjustment is necessary because humans cannot live without this process. In a sporting practice, adaptation processes occur as follows: in a given time, the coach suggests to the athlete one or other combinations of training loads, to which an athlete adapts to after some time. In other words, the athlete changes his corresponding body systems (i.e. neuromuscular system, respiratory system, etc.), enhancing his functional abilities.

Practically, sporting performances rise until the athlete's body adapts to a specific combination of training effects. Adaptation to certain training combinations ends when an athlete obtains the so-called athletic shape. This means that the body has adapted (changed its functions) to given training loads. For further improvement of results, it is necessary to reorganize the organism again. For that purpose, new and more efficient training means and methods have to be used in the training process.

Each stage of sporting perfection suits its stage of adaptation. One combination of training loads is suitable for one level of sporting performance but is inefficient for different performance levels. The degree of training affecting the athlete's body systems has to increase with a higher level of an athlete's performance.

The athletic shape and its criteria

The athletic shape is a state of optimal (best) readiness for sporting performance which is acquired under specific conditions in each big training cycle (annual, semi-annual) (Matveev L. P., 1977). The athletic shape represents a harmonious unity of all components of the athlete's optimal readiness: physical, psychological, technical, and tactical. We can say that an athlete is in athletic shape only when all these components are present. No matter how high an athlete's physical preparedness is and how perfect his technical and tactical skills are, he would not demonstrate high performance in important competitions if the athlete does not have adequate psychological preparedness. Therefore, the athletic shape is characterized not only by the presence of various characteristics but the balanced ratio of the four parameters.

It is crucial to appreciate that the term optimal readiness is relative. In a sense, it is part of a process of sporting perfection: it is correct (right) for each given cycle of athletic shape development only. As the athlete improves results, these optimum changes - athletic shape, both qualitative and quantitative.

Actual competition results are the main integral parameters of athletic shape. Only in sporting results we can see all aspects of the athlete's readiness for high performance. However, results are a significant parameter of athletic build only when demonstrated with a specific frequency in comparable conditions and evaluated objectively. The selection of qualitative criteria of the muscular body has a significant theoretical and practical meaning. In this regard, studies have shown that there are two groups of such standards: progress criteria and stability criteria.

Progress criteria characterize athletic shape by the degree of increment and absolute level of the athlete's performance in a given big cycle of training. Parameters here, in particular, might be:

  1. Differences between the personal best achieved in a previous training cycle and the performance in the current.The more the latter is better than (exceeds) the last cycle's result, the higher the possibility that the athlete is in a state of athletic shape and vice versa. However, the athlete's training record and his personal best results have to be considered. Athletes with a long training record (7 to 10 years) and an outstanding personal best result often have no increment in their performance level in a given training cycle. Repetition of the athlete's personal best result or a result close to personal best can be a conditional criterion of athletic shape (within 1 to 3% of personal best, depending on the specifics of the sport)
  2. The difference between the considered result of a control competition and results of first competitions in a given big training cycle: the more the athlete exceeds his results shown in the first competitions, the higher the possibility that the athlete is near a state of his athletic shape.

The following parameters can be considered as stability criteria:

  1. The number of results demonstrated by an athlete within a so-called rated zone of athletic shape. The lower limit of this zone must not significantly deviate from the personal best result for the high-class athlete. For example, in cyclic sporting events (excluding long distances) the lower limit of a zone of athletic shape is a result, which is about 98 to 98.5% of a personal best result; in acyclic sporting events, the zone is not less than 95 to 97% of a personal best result. In other words, if an athlete (fully mobilizing his forces and without unusual interferences) shows results below this level, it speaks that an athlete is not in a state of athletic shape (they are out of shape). However, if the athlete's competition results are higher than a given level, he is in a state of athletic shape. Recent evidence suggests that high-performance athletes manage to demonstrate up to 1/3 of all results within a given zone in the annual training cycle.
  2. The average time interval between results in a rated zone of athletic shape (i.e. the frequency of demonstration of results, which are not below a lower limit of a given zone). The more the athlete can demonstrate such results in a given big training cycle, and the shorter the time interval between them, the greater the athletic shape's stability.
  3. The total duration of the competitive period, during which sporting results with systematic participation in competitions do not drop below the level of the athletic shape zone.

These criteria are significant only if the athlete participates in competitions quite often. There are not informative if, for example, the athlete competes once a month, but they provide meaningful information if there are weekly competitions, which is typical for the competitive period of high-performance athletes.

Since different relations characterize the progress criteria and the athletic shape's stability, the relationships between them are not uniform. The total number of competitions in one big training cycle is usually correlated positively with the increment and absolute level of performance. However, the number of important competitions often has a negative correlation with these parameters. It is important to remember that the state of athletic shape can be determined when all criteria are used to evaluate individual characteristics of an athlete's preparedness and specialized methods of functional control (medical, biological, psychological).

Phases of Athletic Shape Development Recent evidence suggests that the process of athletic shape development has some different phases called acquisition, retention (or relative stabilization) and temporary loss of athletic shape (figure 1).

Picture 1
Figure 1. Athletic shape development (mono-cycle)

Picture 2
Figure 2. Athletic shape development (bi-cycle)

The first phase is the phase of the formation and improvement of conditions that are the basis of the state of athletic shape, and the first phase concludes with an integrated system of specific components. At this stage, the general level of the athlete's body's functional abilities is increased with a multilateral development of their physical and mental qualities and the formation and perfection of necessary motor skills. It seems reasonable to assume that performance levels due to athletic shape depend firstly on the quality of its foundation.

Picture 3
Figure 3. Athletic shape development (tri-cycle)

The second phase is characterized by relative stabilization of athletic shape as a system of components providing (ensuring) optimal readiness for sporting performances. A total restructuring of these components in a given phase is not possible because this will lead to a loss of athletic shape. However, with a process of athletic shape stabilization, there is a further perfection of all those factors, which are essential for high sporting performances. That is why results grow in limits, which the regularities of the given athletic shape allow.

The variations of results at this stage of athletic shape are common (figures 1, 2 and 3), that is because, on the one hand, the operative athlete's readiness is expediently regulated at the stages of his preparation and participation at different levels, and, on the other hand, the body's functional conditions periodically fluctuate at this particular stage. Such variations of results are not a sign of athletic shape loss (if, of course, their deterioration does not become a stable tendency).

The third phase is distinguished by direction changes in adaptational processes in the body's functional regime (rehabilitation, recuperation). Relationships and links, which acquired athletic shape and stabilised earlier, are now partially weakened or destroyed. However, it does not mean that the fundamental functions of the athlete's organism are violated. When an athlete's general life regime and training regime are organized rationally (correctly), the temporary loss of athletic shape does not affect the athlete's regular life activity.

Some athletes and coaches might ask: why cannot an athlete be permanently in a state of athletic shape? In this regard, studies have shown that, firstly, athletic shape acquired at one or another stage of an athlete's sporting career is a state optimal for this given stage. For the next higher stage, this state is no more optimal. The athlete's desire to keep permanently a once acquired athletic shape would be similar to a desire to mark time. To advance, the athlete has to get rid of his old athletic shape and create conditions for acquiring a new athletic shape. This needs many more changes and improvements in all components of the athlete's preparedness.

Secondly, because of the prolonged effect of training and competitive loads necessary for acquiring and stabilization of athletic shape, the body's protective reaction is developed sooner or later to prevent overstraining of adaptation mechanisms. If a coach forgets about these factors, the same loads which led to athletic shape will become stressors producing overtraining.

Thirdly, maintaining a complex dynamic balance between different biological functions and the processes guaranteeing athletic shape is already a hard task, especially for the athlete's central nervous system (CNS). This task becomes even more difficult because it must be resolved in the continual change of the organism's internal and external environment in the stressful conditions of sporting activity.

Thus, maintaining athletic shape is fraught with difficulties of both external and internal character. They might become excessive and lead to unpredictable consequences if an athlete tries to retain athletic shape for too long. However, it is not necessary. On the contrary, conservation of once acquired athletic shape would hinder the acquisition of a new athletic shape, i.e. it would be an obstacle to new performances.

Athletic Shape Maintenance

Many researchers studied the problem of the maintenance of athletic shape starting from the early 1930s. Different authors have various recommendations. Some authors advocate that it is necessary to increase the duration of the preparatory period between 2 to 6-7 months because the stability of adaptational changes depends upon both usages of a concrete combination of training loads and the length of their effects.

Former Soviet specialists designed the so-called 'Principle of Pendulum' (PP), Figure 5, for the distribution of training loads during the final (pre-competitive) stage of preparation for the main competitions (Arosiev D. A.). The Principle of Pendulum suggests the systematic alteration of two types of training microcycles - model-competitive and contrasting. The main aim of model-competitive microcycles is direct preparation for the main competition, and the aim of contrasting microcycles is compensation and super-compensation after the competition. More specific exercises are used in the first type of microcycle; and less specialized and less intensive exercises in the latter type of microcycles. In addition to model-competitive and contrasting microcycles, there are so-called intermediate - developmental and maintenance microcycles. Thus, alteration of training means helps to maintain the athlete's athletic shape. In this regard, five different models of training have been studied at the retention phase of athletic shape (Bondarchuk A. P., 1991):

  • Maintenance of the same volume and intensity of training loads using the same training means
  • Maintenance of volume with the growth of intensity
  • Lowering the volume (up to 50%) with the growth of intensity
  • The growth of volume (up to 50%) and the intensity of training
  • Change of training means (50%) and methods. Training intensity in models 2, 3 and 4 rose by 50%

Changes made to the training combination applied before the second acquisition of athletic shape helps to maintain the present level of athletic shape between 1 to 3 months. The athlete loses the state of athletic shape. The duration of athletic shape retention in most cases, do not exceed two months. Only in a few cases this period is either slightly shorter (1 month) or slightly longer (3 months). With the end of this period, the athlete has to change his training means, if there is an aim of further maintenance of athletic shape. The optimal duration of athletic shape retention for all athletes is four weeks. IIn one study done by Bondarchuk, one of the experimental groups changed the combination of training means every 3 to 4 weeks. In this experiment, athletes could be in a state of athletic shape for as long as five months.

Picture 4
Figure 5. The principle of Pendulum at the pre-competitive phase of preparation

Athletes' characteristics in the process of athletic shape retention differ not only by the duration of the period of retention but by the direction of the fluctuations of sporting performance. Thus, in the first two weeks, one group of athletes improved their results after changes in a combination of training loads. In the next two weeks, the tempo of improvement slightly decreased compared to the first two weeks (but the results were still in the 3% zone of retention). In the second group of athletes, the opposite trend of the results was observed: in the first two weeks ,results were slightly lower, and in the following week's improvement by several per cent were observed. It seems reasonable to assume that there might be other reactions of the athlete's body systems to changes in combinations of training loads (i.e. specific dynamics of sporting results).

Athletic shape maintenance becomes possible because of adaptational changes in the corresponding system of the body. It seems likely that the body receives new stimuli for further functioning following new external conditions after a given time interval. Active rest becomes very important for the recovery process. Thus, active rest assists in athletic shape maintenance.

Temporary Loss of Athletic Shape

As mentioned previously, there are three phases of athletic shape development: acquisition, retention and temporary loss. The loss of athletic shape can be either of long-term or short-term duration. The long-term loss of athletic shape is observed in two cases:

  • When an athlete is in a state of athletic shape and continues using the same combination of training means
  • When an athlete excludes one or the other exercise from a training process for a particular time (from one to several months) during periods of either acquisition or retention of athletic shape

Athletes experience the loss of athletic shape in most cases after the transition period. At this time, results usually decrease by 5 to 10% (sometimes even more) compared to previous annual cycle results.

The short-term loss of athletic shape can be observed in the second period of athletic shape development. The duration of the loss varies from 2 to 8 weeks. The short-term reduction of performance levels during periods of athletic shape development after active or passive rest cannot be considered a loss of athletic shape. This phenomenon is a part of athletic shape development (adaptation processes to training loads is a basis of athletic shape development).

Duration of Periods of Athletic Shape Development

As previously stated, the time needed for athletes to obtain a state of athletic shape varies from one individual to another. From one perspective, it depends upon the functionality of the athlete's body systems, and, from the other side, it depends on incoming training effects and other factors. It should be pointed out that the duration of the acquisition of athletic shape depends on an athlete's age. Thus, at the age of 20 to 30 years, this period usually is 2 to 8 months. When an athlete becomes older (older than 30) period of athletic shape acquisition extends. The longer duration of acquisition of athletic shape happens because of mechanisms of body systems' functioning change. This concerns not only CNS but also other systems (i.e. yielding of conditioned reflexes, the chemical structure of the brain, etc.).

The duration of athletic shape development is increased with frequent alteration of training means if a period of athletic shape acquisition starts after active or passive rest. In some cases, periods of athletic shape acquisition might be longer when athletes use high volume training loads. TThese periods also increase when there are interruptions between training lessons and micro and mesocycles of training (i.e., athletes' bad health condition). The time duration of preliminary general training (without using competitive exercise) does not affect (influence) the duration of athletic shape acquisition. The same is correct in the case of simple and complex coordination exercises.

Phases of Athletic Shape Development concerning Training Periods

The natural requirement for the periodisation of the training process is the phase character or athletic shape development. Acquiring stabilization, and temporary loss of athletic shape is a result of strictly defined training effects. The character of these effects regularly changes depending on the phase of athletic shape development. There are three periods, which alternate in training:

  • Preparatory period. During this period, the foundation of athletic shape is formed
  • Competitive period. During competitive period athletic shape has to be stabilized, retained and realized in sporting performances
  • The transition period, which helps an athlete to regenerate the body's adaptation abilities and guarantee continuity between the two stages of the athlete's training process.

It seems reasonable to assume that these periods are consecutive stages of controlling and managing the development of athletic shape (Matveev L. P. 1997). Objective possibilities allow manipulating the phases of its development, appropriately shortening or lengthening them. Naturally, any coach or athlete cannot limitlessly lengthen or shorten these phases, because, in general, their durations are determined by internal regularities of organism's development and depend on several specific conditions (athlete's basic preparedness level; his abilities; specifics of sports; competition calendar etc.). The preparatory period, for example, cannot be shorter than it is necessary for given conditions for athletic shape acquirement. The competitive period must not be longer than what is allowed by the possibility of maintaining athletic shape. The length of the transition period depends, first of all, upon the total volume of preceding loads and the time necessary for the body's full rehabilitation.

The total duration of an extensive training cycle is often near to one year. It is widely accepted that this time (one year) in many cases is enough to develop athletic shape. However, in many sports (mainly in power or speed-strength dominated sports), the athletic shape can be renewed in the annual and semi-annual cycles. Cycles, longer than annual, might be, in some cases, expedient but needs more investigation.


To summarize, the following periods of such cycles can be pointed out:

  • Preparatory period - from 3 to 4 months (in semi-annual cycles) to 5 to 7 months (in annual cycles)
  • Competitive period - from 1.5 to 2 months to 4 to 5 months
  • Transition period - from 3 to 4 to 6 weeks.

Rational duration of periods can be chosen within these limits in various sports and for the athletes with different qualities. The difference in the duration of the period depends upon the differences in the athletes' basic preparedness and training loads and the peculiarities of the chosen sport or event.

Page Reference

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About the Author

Valery Obidko is a former national representative long jumper and has a PhD in sport science from Moscow State University of Physical Culture and Sports. He has worked as a lecturer at the biomechanics department in Georgian State Institute of Physical Culture and Sports and a lecturer at an athletics department in Russian State University of Physical Culture and Sports. Valery is currently a track and field coach in a Singapore Sports School. This article has been produced here with his kind permission.