Is Periodization Dead?

It depends on how one defines “periodization”. If periodization is defined simply as a systematic training plan, then it is most certainly not dead. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is a popular saying in the military. In other words, combat is highly unpredictable and very difficult for which to plan. Consequently, mission plans are seldom followed to the letter. Nevertheless, military leaders who acknowledge this reality are not advocating that planning be totally abandoned. Some degree of planning allows one to improvise and adapt when unpredictable situations arise. Similarly, coaches need to be adaptable while also adhering to some type of conceptual framework or planning process to better respond to an athlete’s fluctuating readiness. The relationship between forecasting/planning and improvising is really a conversation about rigidity and chaos. The potential need to deviate from a plan does not diminish the utility of planning. Complete faith in one’s planning reflects an extreme degree of rigidity. Totally abandoning planning because life is unpredictable is succumbing to chaos, however, and is equally unhelpful.

If by “periodization” one means things like linear progressions, block training, concurrent training, microcycles, and mesocycles then the answer is less clear. Should the loading parameters for a training program in 2018 be copied directly from a 1960’s Soviet periodization text? Probably not. Is it possible to script a peaking cycle for an Olympic sprinter four years out from the gold medal heat in any kind of detail as some periodization texts suggest? Absolutely not. Contemporary criticisms of classical “periodization” apply to virtually any theoretical model that evolves over time though.

“All models are wrong, but some are still useful,” said George E.P Box. As long as one doesn’t blindly adhere to any singular theoretical model, things like periodization texts can still be insightful. In fact, exposing oneself to different models that are seemingly incompatible, like linear and undulating periodization, as an example, can provide ideological clarity. In practice, hybrid solutions that are influenced by multiple models usually prevail. The various models don’t necessarily have to be equally weighted but as in other endeavors, extreme positions are generally maladaptive.

A world without theoretical models is a chaotic and nihilistic one. Embracing complexity is not synonymous with forsaking all efforts to simplify reality in a way that facilitates comprehension and promotes dialogue. In time, our overly simplistic and incomplete explanations will evolve through trial and error. Sometimes, the present is better understood by visiting admittedly flawed models from the past. Periodization is no exception here. In Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven, John Kiely states, “Eminent periodization theorists and their variously proposed periodization models have contributed substantially to the evolution training-planning practice. However, there is a logical line of reasoning suggesting an urgent need for periodization theories to be realigned with contemporary elite practice and modern scientific models.” In other words, our explanations about how things work should evolve concurrently with what we successfully do and how research informs us. In practice, the rate of evolution at doing usually exceeds the rate of evolution at explaining. So, read Kiely but also read Matveyev, Bompa, Zatsiorsky, and Issurin but don’t forget to, as Derek Hansen says, “just coach” without overly fixating on theoretical explanations.

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