Friday, August 7, 2009

Periodization controversy?

Last night, while perusing the September 2009 issue of Runner's World, I came across an article by Bob Cooper titled "The Rules Revisited". I usually like these kind of articles, in which old and accepted wisdom is reviewed and sometimes debunked based on the latest research findings. This is most-common with ideas about nutrition, so it's good to keep on top of what's new. However, under the sub-heading "Build to a Peak", the claim is made that runners can "Train the same year-round". What?!

This contradicts what I started to write about in my previous post. Let's explore that.

Periodization is not only conventional wisdom, it's backed by research study after research study. As the author states, "No training system is more widely accepted". However, he then goes on to note that "critics say that all training elements can be woven into a one- or two-week cycle that's repeated throughout the year." He also quotes coach Scott Simmons, who seems to think that you can keep increasing your training load infinitely, "As you become fitter you recover faster, so you can do harder workouts ... Why should you ever cease development and start over again?"

Well, he's quite the optimist, isn't he? I hope he only coaches young, strong runners, and then only for a short period of time. His recommendations are a recipe for disappointment and/or disaster for most of us. In the least they will lead to staleness and require much more context, but in the worst case scenario they are irresponsible and may lead a lot of inexperienced runners to think that they can just keep ramping up their training forever, next stop the Olympics!

Sorry, but life just doesn't work that way. If you keep on building up and building up over an extended period of time, you will either (a) plateau - reach a spot where any kind of training doesn't make you even the least bit faster, or (b) crash and burn - end up injured and/or wiped out by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or something of that ilk. It is quite naive to think that you don't need to plan for the rest you need.

Another issue I have with this point of view that is that it isn't the kind of training program that will help individual runners achieve peak performances. If what you want is to be basically fit and mediocre, then go ahead and train the same way all the time. Sadly, perhaps that is the goal we now aspire to as a culture, let's not strive against our perceived limits to see how far we can go, instead let's all just plod along at a medium-effort-level like a herd of sheep. After all, everyone gets a medal now, don't they? Ironically, in the same issue of the magazine is an ad by Pearl Izumi, where they riff on the idea that even though marathon participation has increased a lot over the past 30 years, the average finisher's time now is over an hour slower than it used to be. Yeah, but everyone gets medals!

At the end of the article, in the fine print, Simmons contradicts himself and admits "Most people need some time off, if only for the mental break ..." Yeah, right, mental break. How about resting appropriately in order to avoid complete physical collapse?

The purpose of periodization is to plan ahead, proactively, for the times in your calendar when you will push yourself to your limits as well as the times that you will recover. The basic precept of endurance training is a simple stress-response formula: you stress the body, it adapts, you stress it again, it adapts, etc. But this is not an infinite cycle. Any stress, if applied over and over endlessly, will break down a system. Even if that system is strong and holds up for a long time, eventually something will give. What goes up, must come down.

I am an advocate for periodization based both on my reading of the literature and anecdotal experience. Not mention the fact that it's simply logical. For a parallel illustration: In long-distance horse races, a veterinarian is on hand at various check-points to monitor the health of the horses, because the poor things are so well-trained that if you just keep whipping them and riding them for long enough, they will dutifully follow your orders until they are dead. That's right, dead. Don't be a slave to your training program or allow a coach to ride you into the ground like one of those poor horses. Build in the rest you need to keep yourself healthy and ready for the next build up in your training. Life is about cycles, ups and downs, waxing and waning. It's the natural rhythm of things. Embrace it.

And be wary of those who claim to debunk all forms of common wisdom. It's fine and necessary to question orthodoxy in order to make sure it holds up under actual research, but we should never lose sight of the fact that some wisdom is actually rather wise.

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