Undulating Your Training
A few years ago I wrote a research paper titled “Achieving Expertise in Triathlon.” While researching, I came across a few good nuggets that I think can apply to anyone who exercises. One key difference between elites and non-elites, was that elites tend to undulate their training more. I see two main mistakes I think many people can relate to. One mistake is to do the exact same routine each week with little change in volume or intensity, which is great for maintenance, but not good for making a positive change. The other mistake is to try to progress your training linearly. That approach is too artificial and eventually leads to maladaptation because it is not sustainable and that is not how organisms adapt. Non-linear periodization is an important component to long-term triathlon success.
A notion we all need to dispose of is that “if a little is good, then more must be better.” When I council athletes after a poor performance, their solution is almost always to train more and harder, when the reality might be that they did plenty of training but not enough recovery to realize their abilities.
To understand this, we need to go back to the basics on how an organism adapts to stress, called the General Adaptation Syndrome. Exercise stresses many of the body’s systems and when the stimulus is the proper dose and at the proper frequency, super-compensation can result. The three-stage response to training includes shock, adaptation, and staleness. It is during the recovery cycles that the body achieves a higher level of homeostasis and a higher level of performance. When heavy training is carried out week after week, there is a summation of the training stimulus that creates a large amount of cumulative fatigue and can lead to staleness. If you never back it off from that linear progression, there will never be a realization of improved performance.
Most people do a pretty good job of undulating training within a week and they understand the concept of easy days and hard days. But if every week looks the same, then how can gains be made beyond a certain plateau?
The solution is to undulate your training regularly within mesocycles. A microcycle can be thought of as a single week of training and a block of several weeks is considered a mesocycle. Many athletes undulate training unintentionally and unsuccessfully with unplanned setbacks due to overtraining, injury, or life circumstances. A better, more effective, and more proactive approach is to plan a lighter week of training at least once a month if not more frequently. Plan to train purposefully for a 2 or 3-week block, and then drop your training volume by 30-50% for one week. Think of it as a short time period to let some training adaptations set in. You will refresh your body and mind for the next cycle of training. This principle applies to both strength/power athletes and endurance athletes. Undulation of training should occur from day to day with harder and easier days, but it should also occur with short, restorative cycles every few weeks. Often this can be timed with a competition or a field test occurring at the end of one of these recovery weeks.