One of the hardest subjects for people to grasp is periodization. For proof just see how many athletes fail to set personal bests at the Olympics every four years. Even at elite levels, with the best minds in sports science working at bringing athletes to a peak, it is still an elusive and hard to attain goal.
So if the best coaches and athlete sin the world struggle to get it together come game day, what chance do you have of getting it right if you’re on your own? The following are some of the key ways I have used to prepare myself for everything from military recruit training to Ironman to the RKC.
1. Start With Strength
Strength is a basic motor skill and can be used as the base layer for a lot of other physical skills. Dr. Leonid Matveyev stated that, “Strength is the physical foundation for the development of the rest of physical qualities.” Charles Staley talks about it being the bottom rung of the ladder, from which speed, power, and other forms of athletic explosive strength can be derived.
Many endurance athletes shy away from strength work, fearing that it will make them heavy and slow. It boggles my mind that this is still the case when there are studies around like the ones the Norwegians did in 2008 and 2010. These researchers found that a 4x4RM half squat program done three times per week improved endurance in their sport. (This protocol also increased strength, but unless training brings actual improvements in race times it is a waste of time, so only the improvement of performance matters.)
Joe Friel, noted endurance author, states that all endurance athletes need strength work prior to the season, and that all females and older men need it year round. I’ve personally found when dealing with the training load needed for any event that the stronger I am the more resilient I am. This resiliency comes into play in more than just my endurance activities, as well.
When it comes to getting ready for an RKC event you need to focus on strength first. While you will put in a lot of volume over the weekend, if you can’t press a 24kg bell for more than a few reps, how do you plan on being able to do it all weekend? You need to be strong enough to lift it, not just for a few reps for testing, but all weekend so that you can get to the testing portion without being too fatigued.
This is what happens with beginner runners, too. They lack the leg strength to do many hills in a single run. Each hill requires significantly more strength to run than flat ground. A one-percent gradient increase will see either a drop in speed by 0.82kph or they’ll need to burn some matches and increase their oxygen consumption (i.e. work harder) by 2.6ml/kg/min.4 If you’re already running near your redline you may not be able to increase effort by that much, so some extra running efficiency via increased strength may help.
While strength is great, you need to remember what it is you are training for. If it’s a weightlifting meet of any kind then you’ll want to end up at your 1RM so you can lift heavier than you have previously. But for many others - like those attending RKC or off to run a Spartan Race - you’ll want to do what is called reverse periodization.
Physical ability is very specific. There’s this little old thing called the SAID principle - specific adaptation to imposed demand - and everyone forgets about it. They see a small increase from an aspect of training - it could be strength, it could be anaerobic training - and then they forget that they need to focus on the goal event.
Let’s use the RKC as an example. Test weight for men is a 24kg bell. Once you’ve been through step one and gained the strength you need to press it, now you need to work on the strength endurance to press it many times over the course of a three-day weekend. So the final lead in to the event should include plenty of strength endurance training, not just maximal strength work.
It’s at this point those who focus solely on maximal strength start to lose their way. Have you even seen what happens to someone really strong who is only used to doing a single rep at a time when they’re asked to do one hundred snatches? I have, and it’s pretty funny to watch a man with a 700lb deadlift unable to complete the snatch test because he ran out of grip endurance. That’s a lack of focus on the end goal.
The same goes for when people enter a Spartan Race. There will obviously be all sorts of obstacles and challenges, but one of the main ones is all the hills that will be encountered. Let’s suppose they’ve built up their maximal strength with the 4x4 program. That’s great, but if their event is going to last two or more hours what are they supposed to do for the next hour and fifty minutes once they’ve exhausted all their strength? They need some reps in training.
I’ve spent a number of years working my legs in the five-rep range and always wondering why I seemed to run out of steam. But a recent change to using sets of ten or even higher has seen some good changes in my ability to keep pace later in an event, or maintain pace after multiple hills. If you’re training for an endurance event then you need to step away from low reps and get some higher reps in closer to your event.
The opposite is true for the weightlifters. They’ll start with higher reps to slowly build tolerance and work on some form with lighter loads before heading towards their projected max closer to a meet. Start with what you need to accomplish your goal and make sure you’re doing that exact form of training near your event, not accidentally doing the polar opposite.
3. Don’t Test It
It is normal to feel stress before your event. Everyone worries that they haven’t done enough. In many cases it’s true, but you can’t gain fitness in the last days, only tire yourself out. I’ve received text messages from athletes only days before a competition telling me how they felt great and as a result they did about double what I’d told them to do in training. Then come game day they fell flat. They left their peak in the training room. No one wins medals for training.
As you taper and rest up before your event, the body and mind become restless. Used to a certain level of activity and fatigue, you start to feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. Your times come down and your lifts go up - all because you trained right. But in the last few days resting is your priority and not training. So, are you resting properly, too? Now is not the time to play a game of pick-up basketball and hurt yourself or dig a new garden bed. Now is the time to put your feet up, sand down your calluses, or whatever is specific to your event, and rest. Don’t blow all your hard work by being undisciplined for a few days prior to the big day.
The good thing about signing up for an event, any event, is that it forces you to focus on a few things. After your event is a great time to either assess how your plan worked and change things around, or find some new goals and start working towards them following the same plan. I like to break my year into two halves, one that I know I’ll need to mostly train indoors for, and one when the weather is beautiful and I’ll want to be outdoors. The indoor part of the year is a perfect time to build strength and bulletproof my body for the beating it will take over summer when I log a lot of miles. As summer gets close, my training shifts to speed and strength endurance work to get me ready for whatever challenges grab my attention.
1. Støren O, Helgerud J, Støa EM, Hoff J. (2008) Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Jun;40(6):1087-92.
2. Sunde A, Støren O, Bjerkaas M, Larsen MH, Hoff J, Helgerud J. (2010) Maximal strength training improves cycling economy in competitive cyclists. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Aug;24(8):2157-65.
3. Joe Friel, The Cyclist's Training Bible (Velo Press, 2009).
4. Jim Gourley, Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed (Velo Press, 2013) 144.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.