Saturday, November 19, 2011

Periodization Made Simple Part II: Periodizing Intensity

In Part I of this series I discussed one of the major types of periodization, periodizing by physical attribute.  Basically, this means rotating your training to focus on one major physical quality at a time - building muscle, getting stronger, getting faster, or gaining endurance.  You do this by designing workouts that focus on one of those qualities, and either rotating the workouts one after the other or focus on just one type of workout for a block of time - from 3-8 weeks - then switching to another "type."

Periodizing Intensity:  This is a very different idea than periodizing attributes (though they can work together).  To periodize intensity means to vary how hard you're working at whatever you're doing.  Remember, any type of workout - strength, speed, hypertrophy, or energy system - can be very hard, or very taxing, on your body, or comparatively less taxing.  People just can't charge full speed ahead week in and week out forever without crashing and burning.  To prevent this we build planned de-loads or rests into our training.

There are a few different ways to handle this, and I'll go over the most common.

When do we periodize intensity? 

This is a great question.  There are roughly two ways to handle this.  The first is to do planned deloading periods.  That means that you, or your coach, or whoever, figures out ahead of time that you're going to go full blast for, say, 8 weeks, then do a 1 week deload.  (There's nothing special about 8 weeks, it's just an example number - fill in your own block of  time).  This is especially handy when you're working towards a competition or a meet.  I've written before (read this and this) that you should prepare for a promotion or a competition by resting in the days immediately preceding the "event."

The downside to this style is that if you're just training - if you're not heading towards any specific goal date, like a contest, but just trying to generally improve - you still need rest occasionally but it's really hard to say with confidence, "oh, I'll work this hard, and I'll definitely need a rest after 6 weeks - not 5 or 7, but definitely 6."  If you try that, and you don't have a team of physiologists planning things out for you, you run a real risk of going too long without a break or getting rest you don't need.

So what's the alternative?  Many people advocate resting or de-loading when you physically need it.  That sounds kind of obvious - rest when you need to rest!  But how do you know when you need to rest (as opposed to just being lazy)?

If you've been training for a long time you might be a very good judge of your body's status - you might be able to accurately "feel" whether you're ready for a hard training session or need to back off.  That's great!  But if you want a more scientific measurement, or if you don't have that level of physical awareness yet, you can go with a couple of other choices.

One common method is to measure your waking heart rate.  Get a heart rate monitor or use the finger + stopwatch method and measure your heart rate when you first wake up - ideally before you get out of bed.  After a few days you should get a pretty good idea of what's normal for you.  If one day you're feeling tired and your waking heart rate is higher than normal, that's the day to rest.

A better (probably) method is to measure heart rate variability.  If you're worn out your heart rate variability (how much it goes up and down in response to normal getting up and moving around type of activity) will decrease, and that's the time to rest and recover (high heart rate variability = good).  I know of no easy way to measure this without some kind of sophisticated equipment - please post to comments if you do!

If you're kind of in the middle, body-awareness wise, and aren't sure if you're being lazy or genuinely need rest, I like to go to the gym and do the warmup before re-evaluating.  If I warm up and still feel like crap I'll de-load.  If I'm just not in the mood and don't really need the rest I'll usually find that I'm good to go once I finish my warmup.

How do we periodize intensity?  So you've decided that it's time for a de-load.  There are roughly two ways to back off on intensity.  The first, and probably simplest, is to rest.  And by rest I just mean skip workouts or reduce their frequency - take a few days or a week off.

There are two downsides to resting this way.  The first is that you lose momentum.  I don't know about you, but I find it easier to get to the gym or dojo if I'm going regularly - once I take some time off I find it hard to get back.  If that doesn't apply to you, that's great, you can judge that for yourself.  The second downside is that you might recover faster doing something than doing nothing.  That means you're probably better off with what they call active recovery.

Active recovery means some version of doing relatively easy workouts.  You can do the same workout you're resting from, and back off on the weight used (back off a lot, not just 5-10 lbs) but do the same style of workout.  If you were working on speed, do some relaxed speed work - don't go all-out.  Run hard, but don't sprint, and don't do a lot of volume.  If you were working on strength, drop the weight and just "go through the motions."  It can be hard to restrain yourself, especially if you're feeling okay and are doing a planned de-load before a competition, but do it anyway!

The trick with active recovery is to move enough to get blood pumping through the muscles - delivering nutrients and clearing away waste products - without doing any additional damage.  In other words, don't make new inroads into your recovery system!  That means no brand new exercises, lots of full range of motion movement, and nothing so vigorous that you feel like throwing up after the set.

How do we put it all together?  I'm going to give you the cheapest possible answer:  wait for my next post.  I'll describe a periodization schedule that's manageable for the amateur martial artist!

One tough thing about periodization is that in the traditional martial arts we tend to have a go-hard-all-the-time mentality.  It feels like wimping out to take time off.  Additionally, it's really hard to take it easy in the dojo, in a class.  When your instructor tells you to do 25 pushups, few of us have the gumption to say, "actually, I'm only going to do 10 because this is a de-load week for me."  I don't have an easy answer to this problem, other than to say that if you need a de-load, cut back on classes if you can (this would be a great time to volunteer to teach, which is usually less physically demanding), and really cut back on your outside-the-dojo training.

If you're teaching classes you might consider the idea of scheduling de-loads into your class structure.  Have an easy set of classes every few weeks where you cut back on the conditioning type stuff.  That may or may not meet the needs of your students.  You don't have to waste the week - focus on skill work, really focus on technical details, etc.

Remember, it's not laziness, it's strategy!  You can periodize on purpose or you can be forced into it through injuries and illness.  There's nothing heroic about working yourself into the ground.


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