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Periodization – What It Is and Why It Is An Important Component of a Swimmer’s Program

You are a dedicated swimmer that trains on a regular basis. You have the best of intentions with your training, but lately, no matter how hard you work out, you aren’t making any gains. You have plateaued. What has really happened is that your body has adapted to your workouts and it needs new challenges to get stronger. It is unrealistic to think that any athlete can perform at peak level throughout the entire year.  The body has to be provided the opportunity to develop various energy systems through specific workouts. For long-term improvement, a window of time must be provided to rest and recover from the stress loads applied to the muscles and cardiovascular system.  This is where periodization comes into a swimmer’s program.  Periodizaton creates phases of training or “periods” to keep your body working hard, while still giving it adequate rest. It answers how hard, how long and how often a triathlete should train to reap the benefits of training without burning out or getting injured.

With training encompassing so many elements of your life, it has literally become a lifestyle – sleep, eat, train, repeat.  However, this lifestyle of training, doesn’t effectively get your preapred for the season’s first big race. On the other hand, going for a long swim the Monday after your big race and training every day until your next race isn’t productive for you either.  The reason being, you will not be able to push the body beyond its normal performance level and then you don’t allow enough time for the body to adapt to the stress loads.

We recommend breaking the year into four training “seasons”: Pre-Season, Pre-Competitive, Competitive and Off Season.  Each season has a different performance objective to optimize your training time for maximum results. The duration of training cycles vary based on individual identified weaknesses during assessments, but typically consist of the followings:

Pre-Season (12 weeks): Develops maximum aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility; this is also an ideal time to work with your coach to help with technique and mechanics relative to swimming.

Pre-Competitive (8 weeks): Continued development of aerobic engine, final stage of maximum strength development, and the implementation of slight lactate tolerance intervals.

Competitive (4 Cycles of 7 weeks): Specialization is the main component of this season.  Your anaerobic threshold and sprint training should make up the high-quality workouts during the week.  Also during this phase is the increased need for rest – ideally one complete day of rest per week to help you recover both mentally and physically.

Off Season (4 weeks): This is where you deviate away from heavily structured training. Instead of structured training, you are back to casual athletic activities.  You don’t want to become so inactive that you begin to lose the conditioning you have worked so hard to achieve throughout the year; you do, however, what to remain active and healthy.

Periodization – Step One: Establishing Goals

This step involves establishing your long-term goals and developing a plan for achieving each of your goals.  This step needs to be quantified, simple, optimistic and realistic. Though this sounds like an easy task, it takes real brainstorming to narrow this first step down and onto paper.  An example of an unrealistic long-term goal: “I want to be fast”.  There is no way to quantify fast and there is no time line established to complete it.  It also doesn’t tell you what you are setting your standards against.

If you say: “I want to make the podium for my age group the OUC Half Marathon in December” – this is quantified, specific and with a little research you can determine what it will take to surpass the current top age grouper to achieve the status you are looking for.

We recommend setting three sets of goals – 3-month, 6-month and 12-month.  The most important thing to remember when you are sitting down to establish your goals is that they need to be specific and each should have a date applied.  Without specific goals, you will quickly lose your motivation to stick to the homework, especially when it becomes difficult (due to either the duration or intensity levels required) or boring (i.e. stretching).

Periodization – Step Two: Determining a Starting Point With Your Training

If you are starting at a minimum fitness level, you will have to increase your overall strength and endurance before your dive into a comprehensive performance training program.  As a general rule of thumb, strive not to increase your duration of your overall workouts by more than 5-8% every other week.  Once you have been consistent with some level of training for six to eight weeks without any physical set backs, it is time to determine exactly where your fitness levels are – this will identify your strengths and weaknesses and what to address with daily training to maximize your training time (especially for those of you that work and/or have a family to balance).

The main concept to keep in mind when it comes to training is to strengthen weaknesses which have been specifically identified through field testing.  Triathletes, like any athletes, have a tendency to complete workouts focusing only on the elements where strength already exists.  For example, in the gym, you rarely see anyone working their legs due to the high levels of lactic acid and associated increased heart rate levels.  Instead they avoid these uncomfortable exercises and complete lower intensity exercises which do not address their physical limiters.   If you are riding your bicycle, and you are not a strong climber, how often do you go out and complete hill repeats to increase your strength and lactate tolerance?  It is not that you are soft; it is simply human nature to do the activities where we feel strong and confident.

When it comes to assessments, it is imperative that you capture three key testing data points in field testing: aerobic capacity, muscular strength and lactate tolerance.  We suggest testing these three variables within the training modalities that you have been using over the last six to twelve months.  The important thing to keep in mind with establishing base line assessment numbers is to be consistent with your testing protocols.  For example, if you use running for your cardio training, it would not be a wise choice to use a Concept 2 Rower for your lactate tolerance and aerobic capacity testing due to the different muscle groups and demands on the cardiovascular system – ultimately your testing data would be inaccurate.

Periodization – Step Three: Establishing a Training Program Based on Your Field Testing Results

This is where a human performance specialist can be an asset to a swimmer’s development program – identifying where the most progress can be achieved in the shortest amount of time.  As an illustration, a runner gets a running coach to help work on their biomechanics relative to running. They may become more efficient at the 5k distance, but if he or she doesn’t have the strength and cardio capacity to run long distance, they will literally run out of gas long before reaching the 13.1 finish line. The same applies to developing the training protocols that are going to maximize the appropriate energy systems to enhance the elements of aerobic capacity, muscular strength and lactate tolerance specific to swimming.

If you are serious about making performance gains, periodized training will ensure that you continue to make measurable progress and steps towards achieving your goals.

How to Fuel Properly for Optimum Performance

Proper nutrition is such an instrumental component of performance, yet is overlooked by 90% of the racers at the starting line. A few years back, a research project associated with human performance (equipment, altitude training, endurance training, strength training, etc.), revealed that the most powerful influence on performance was attributed to hydration and nutrition habits.  Nail your nutrition and the results were stellar; miss your nutrition (even by a little) and the results were devastating.

After spending the last six to eight months training for your big race, the last 24 hours should be quite simple – exercise lightly, hydrate properly and eat correctly (quality & quantity).

Fighting Fatigue

With proper nutrition, you can offset the negative effects of fatigue in three ways:

Muscle Glycogen Depletion

Muscle glycogen is the major energy source during training and especially racing.  When your sugar storages (in your liver and muscles) are depleted, your ability to go fast for any period of time will be diminished.

Decreased Blood Sugar Levels

Blood sugar is the major fuel for the brain (from your liver) and muscles during training and racing; the higher the intensity, the quicker your body depletes itself of sugar.

Dehydration

When a muscle becomes dehydrated by as little as 3%, that muscle can lose between 10-20% of its contractile strength and also incurs an 8% loss of speed.

Nutritional Timing

Proper nutrition is all about topping of your body’s natural fuel tanks (muscles and liver) to ensure that you have enough stored energy to finish your race strong.  By choosing the correct foods at the correct times, you can delay the onset of fatigue on race day (as outlined below).

Day before a Race (8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight) –  Consume six to eight small meals distributed throughout the day approximately two hours apart.  Choose items made from high quality carbohydrate sources: real food smoothies, brown rice, pasta, quinoa and dark breads.  Convenient snacks include fresh fruit and high quality energy bars (the Paelo Ranch Protein bars are ideal!)

Morning of the Race (75-150 grams of carbohydrates depending on your body size) – Consume your last meal two hours before your race start time to allow for complete digestion and purging in a relaxed environment.  Food items should be easily digestible and of the highest quality: real food smoothie, almond butter on a bagel or toast, slow cooked oatmeal with raisins, 2-3 egg omelets with a bowl of brightly colored fresh fruit.

After the Race – Liquid calories  are the easiest to consume and are converted quickly to “feed” the body’s needs: protein for muscle regeneration and sugar for the muscles and the liver.  

By implementing these nutritional tips and hitting proper hydration levels, you will see your body produce new levels of speed and a new level of performance! Work Smart, Not Hard!