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The Case for Periodized Training - Benefits for Fitness

Are you training SUP, either for racing or fitness, and struggling to make gains?  Do you find yourself wondering what type of training to do and when?  Do you find yourself just doing whatever workouts the people you are paddling with are doing?  Do you have confidence in the training program you write for yourself?

A surprising number of paddlers know what their goals are, either in terms of fitness or race results, but don’t really have a coherent training plan to get themselves there.  They just kind of do what they feel from day to day, or copy what they saw someone else doing.  

Coming from a background in sprint canoe, where there is access to fairly strong and knowledgeable coaching at most canoe clubs, I’ve always found it surprising to see that people are training hard in SUP without the type of well-organized training plan that kids at canoe clubs, let alone National Team athletes, have access to. 

The data is clear.  Following some type of organized, coherent training program invariably yields better results, both for those training solely for fitness and those training to race, than just training randomly from day to day without any plan or purpose does.  And among those following a program, those training on the most well-organized and properly periodized training programs see the best results, all other things being equal.  

So, what is periodized training and how do you recognize a properly periodized training plan?  

What is periodized training?

Periodization sees training prescribed sequentially by training type and structured around periods of progressively applied training loads followed by periods of rest.  This allows athletes to develop foundational abilities first, before developing higher level fitness or strength abilities.  It also allows athletes to progressively increase training load, and thus the stimulus, without overtraining – reducing the risk of injury and nervous system fatigue, allowing the most important work to be done at the right time and at optimal intensity, and allowing for superior adaptation to the applied training stimuli with regular consolidation of gains made.  It sees those training for fitness achieve superior results, and those training for racing achieve superior performance when it matters most.

How a training year is periodized for competitive athletes depends largely on their competitive schedule.  When are the most important events of the season?  For athletes with one or two major competitions a season, the periodization can take a more linear form, with longer phases of training and one or perhaps two peak performances a season.  This type of periodization is, not surprisingly, referred to as linear periodization.  

Athletes competing in sports that have events of high importance scheduled regularly throughout the entire year need to take a different approach, dividing the year into numerous blocks of training, each periodized to promote peak performance in the culminating event while building on previous blocks and the abilities developed in them.  This is known as block periodization.

When we train, our body is forced to adapt to the training stimulus we’re applying.  That adaptation over time leads to improvement, but for improvement to continue the stimulus needs to periodically change.  Repeated exposure to the same training stimulus for extended periods of time results in diminishing returns in terms of adaptation.  In order to maximize our adaptation, we need to periodically change the training stimulus.

In fact, since the training stimulus is changed more regularly in block periodization than in linear periodization, most athletes with only one or two major competitions a year are now breaking their season into shorter training blocks to ensure their bodies are regularly adapting to new training stimuli rather than seeing diminishing returns from exposure to the same training stimulus for extended periods of time.  

If you aren’t training to race should your program still be periodized?  Absolutely!  At the very least, your year should be broken into different training phases providing new stimuli so that you are never experiencing diminishing returns from the training you’re doing due to the fact that your body has, for the moment, pretty much fully adapted to the applied stimulus.  Switching training to provide a new stimulus will foster new adaptations and by the time you eventually cycle your training back to providing the original stimulus, your body will be ready to again make more notable adaptations to it, leading to greater improvement.   

Whether training for racing or fitness, your training should also be cycled through regular periods of loading and rest to ensure you get the opportunity to consolidate the adaptations your body is making to training, limit the risk of overtraining and injury, keep your nervous system fresh enough to develop and enhance technique and power, and keep your training more interesting.  

Where can you find a properly periodized program?

The easiest way to get on a properly periodized program is to engage the services of a good coach or personal trainer.  Training well takes a lot of focus and mental energy as well as just the physical energy you exert in the workouts.  It’s a lot just to do the work on the training program your coach provides you, let alone be asked to build the training program yourself.  Furthermore, many people find it hard to set their own program as there is a lot of room for second-guessing and indecision when it comes to figuring out what kind of work or how much work they should be doing.  Lastly, many athletes find it hard to stick to the prescribed work when they are the ones prescribing it.  You’re more likely to see a self-coached athlete changing the workout because they are a little tired than an athlete who is following a program set by someone else.  Being accountable to others isn’t a bad thing in training. Having a good coach set your training program has definite advantages.

You’ll need to select your coach carefully though.  If a coach isn’t prepared to talk about the periodization of his/her program and willing to answer questions about it then I’d suggest that they aren’t the kind of coach you want to get involved with.  A good coach-athlete relationship is like a team, where both share a common goal and each have a distinct role to play in achieving that goal.  In the simplest terms, the coach sets the program and the athlete does the work but in fact, the two should work together to set the program with the athlete providing feedback and the coach incorporating it into the program.

In my sprint canoe career, my most successful years were ones where my coach and I worked together as a team to set goals and the program designed to achieve them.  I was asked constantly for feedback on my physical and mental state, the work I liked most, and my response to the assigned work.  My coach was able to take this information and the empirical data gathered from training sessions to refine the training in ways that optimized it and led to superior performances.  When I worked with coaches that employed a different coaching model my results were not nearly as good.  

Look for a coach or personal trainer with a clear and evident love of the sport and a reputation for integrity and being a good communicator.  He/she should have a sound knowledge of technique and training theory and, ideally, a track record of success with other athletes.  When you approach them to see if they’d be interested in helping you, ask them questions.  If your training is important to you consider it like something akin to a job interview.  You’ll want to make sure you have the right person for the job.

What if you can’t find a coach?

Of course, if you can’t find a coach or would rather go it alone the alternative is to set your own periodized program.  I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing this approach rather than just paddling randomly every day.  

If this is the approach you choose to take, my advice would be to invest in a couple of good books on periodized training.  My favourite book is Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sport Training by Vladimir Issurin.  I’ve read it cover to cover a few times and still refer to it occasionally.  When I first began coaching it helped me build on what I’d learned in my own training as an athlete and when I’ve had learning moments as a coach it’s helped me put those lessons in proper perspective.  

While the purpose of this post is more about making a case for periodized training rather than telling paddlers how to periodize their work, I’ll share some tips and things to consider when setting your own program.

Tips for setting your own periodized program

Here are some tips for setting a periodized program that I am sure you’ll find useful if you are going to attempt to do it yourself.  There’s lots to think about and it isn’t necessarily an easy task if you haven’t done it before, but it can be fun for people who enjoy a challenge and extremely rewarding.  

  • Know your race schedule and prioritize your races.  If you’re a racer, these are the events you’re training for.  I suggest the first thing you do is get a calendar and mark down all of your races for the season.  Rank the races into three levels – high priority major events or A-level races, events of medium importance or B-level races, and low priority “training races” or C-level events.  
  • Set your periodization to optimize performance at the A-level races by creating training blocks.  How many weeks away is your highest priority event?  Where, in relation to this highest priority event, do your other A-level races fall?  This information will be the basis of how you set your training blocks.
  • Periodize the work in each block.  Blocks should be anywhere from 6 to 18 weeks in duration.  You’ll want to break each block into training phases, with each phase focusing on different elements of fitness.  In general, blocks should be set in the following sequence: Accumulation, in which the focus is the development of aerobic base; Intensification, in which the work focuses on the development, in this order, of higher-level aerobic abilities like anaerobic threshold and aerobic power (VO2 max), anaerobic abilities (lactate production and tolerance) and neuromuscular speed, and concurrent maintenance of aerobic base; and finally peaking, in which workload is gradually drawn down to provide the body with an opportunity for supercompensation in preparation for the next application of stress – your race.  

Supercompensation works in a way analogous to how a spring behaves when a load is applied to it, compressing it.  When the load compressing the spring is removed, the spring will extend beyond its normal length for a brief time before returning to normal.  Similarly, if we apply a training load to our body over time, adaptations occur to meet the demands of the load.  We feel some cumulative fatigue develop during this process.  When the training load is lessened or largely removed, our body gets stronger and, if a new training load is not immediately applied, actually supercompensates for a brief period in preparation for the load it thinks is coming.   This makes you, for a short time, physically stronger and more prepared to face the challenges of training or racing than normal.  We’ll look at the peaking process in more detail in future posts.  

Separating the development of aerobic base and higher intensity work into different phases allows one to maximize the development of each, while gaining the advantages that come from periodically changing the training stimulus.  Phases can last anywhere from 3 weeks in a 6-week block to 6 to 9 weeks in longer blocks.  If your training block culminates with a race, a one to two-week peaking phase should finish the block.

  • Determine your work/recovery cycle.  Periodized work does not see a constant and uninterrupted application of training load but rather periods of higher loading followed by brief periods of rest and recovery.  Generally speaking, this manifests itself in cycles of 2 to 3 weeks in which the load is higher and progressively increased, followed by a recovery week in which the load is considerably reduced.  

Recovery weeks are necessary to provide muscles, connective tissue and the nervous system a chance to recover from the stresses of consecutive higher load weeks and to allow the body to consolidate gains made to date.  Load is reduced by as much as 50% in order to facilitate this recovery.  This recovery then allows the athlete to complete the next cycle of hard training with a higher level of quality.  This is important as the quality with which training work is completed makes a considerable difference in the stimulus it provides.

When I was young and competing in sprint canoe we often worked on a 3 hard/1 easy week cycle.  My experience in SUP, both as an aging athlete and a coach, has convinced me that for most athletes a 2 hard/1 easy week cycle is better.  SUP involves more hard pulling than sprint canoe because of the difference in shape between the two craft.  This places greater demands on the nervous system which means it requires more regular periods of reduced load for recovery.  

  • Determine your training activities and how many times a week you’re going to train.  Different activities can achieve the same training objectives.  Obviously, for paddling, most of the pre-competitive and competitive season work will be on the water with the addition some supporting land-based work.  Figure out exactly what activities you’ll be doing each week and how often.  For example, paddling 5x/week with 2x/week land-based cardio and 2x/week strength.  
  • Determine how you’re going to structure each week.  There are many different ways to approach how to lay out your training week.  I generally use Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for lighter training loads in paddling or land-based aerobic activity and usually add strength work on these days.  I generally schedule the highest training loads on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and take Sunday off as a full day of rest and recovery.  

What you want to do is provide recovery time between your hardest workouts.  Alternating your highest load days with a day in which the training load is lighter helps accomplish this.  

  • Adjust your work to account for your B- and C-level races.  Generally speaking, these races should not require a full peak.  However, racing “fresh” enough to race reasonably well provides greater learning opportunities which are important.  Adjust the work in these race weeks to account for these races.  I usually take the day before a C-level, or “training race”, easy and I reduce training load for maybe two or three days before B-level races.  
  • Those training for fitness only should follow the same formula.  If you’re training for fitness and not racing, the process outlined above is the same – you just don’t need to worry about accounting for races.  You still want to divide your training into blocks and each block into training phases.  You still want to build in recovery weeks, and you still want to figure out how to best structure your training week and determine what activities you’re going to do and when.  You just don’t need to be concerned about the peaking process.  

Periodization of Strength Training

While the discussion to this point has centered around periodization for paddling training or land-based cardio training, you’ll want to periodize your strength training work as well.  Because most strength training work involves different body systems, or the same systems to a different degree, the periodization involves different considerations and takes a different shape.  

In general, sound periodization of strength training work for paddling should see training phases follow a sequence which looks something like this: 

  • General adaptation to strength work: moderate to lighter, controlled, lifting for 10 to 15 reps without reaching failure
  • Accumulation or “basic strength”: moderate intensity, controlled, lifting for up to 15 reps without reaching failure
  • Hypertrophy (if necessary) to build muscle size: moderate weight with slow, controlled lifting of 10 reps
  • Development of sub-max strength: heavier lifting at 8-10 reps just reaching failure
  • Development of max-strength: heaviest lifting at 3 to 6 reps just reaching failure
  • Power development:  Explosive lifting at 6 to 10 reps
  • Power endurance development: Explosive lifting of 15 to 30 plus reps
  • Concurrent strength: maintenance of various facets of strength throughout the competitive season

Strength work should see progressive loading within training phases and regular recovery periods of reduced load as well.  It is not necessary to align recovery in strength work with recovery in the rest of the program.  In fact, there may be advantages to doing harder strength work in weeks in which the rest of the training load is reduced.

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Training, whether it’s for racing or fitness, should be fun.  While there may be something to be said for just doing what you feel like from day to day, a big part of what makes training fun is having some structure, setting some goals and seeing results.  This is exactly what periodization of training provides – intelligent structure directed towards achievement of goals.  Periodization has been well demonstrated to lead to superior results and higher levels of performance for both competitive athletes and fitness trainers alike.  If you want to take your training to the next level, periodize your training! 

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