Periodization is the process of dividing an annual training plan into specific time blocks, where each block has a particular goal and provides your body with different types of stress.
This allows you to create some hard training periods and some easier periods to facilitate recovery. Periodization also helps you develop different energy systems during various phases of training (e.g., aerobic, anaerobic, creatine phosphate). Most significantly, periodization is the best way to promote the training effect, which consists of changes in your cardiopulmonary and musculoskeletal systems that result in greater speed and endurance on the bike.
To develop an effective training program, it is important to understand the foundation of periodization. This foundation consists of three cycles: macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles.
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The macrocycle is the longest of the three cycles and includes all four stages of a periodized training program (e.g., endurance, intensity, competition and recovery). Because macrocycles incorporate all 52 weeks of your annual plan, they provide you with a bird's-eye view of your training regimen and allow you to facilitate long-range planning.
For example, if you want to peak for a national championship event one year from now, you can mark that date on your calendar and work backwards to create a program that allows you to peak at that time. You can use the same process to identify several major events throughout the year and develop a plan that facilitates multiple fitness peaks. Remember, because of its length, you will always make changes to your macrocycle throughout the year.
The mesocycle represents a specific block of training that is designed to accomplish a particular goal. For instance, during the endurance phase, you might develop a mesocycle designed to enhance your aerobic endurance (the ability to use oxygen to produce energy for the muscles over an extended period of time). This mesocycle might consist of three weeks of increasingly long rides, and one week of recovery.
Similarly, you could develop a mesocycle for the intensity phase that is designed to improve your functional threshold power (the highest average power, measured in watts that you can sustain for one hour). This mesocycle might include three weeks of lactate threshold intervals followed by a week of recovery.
During the competition phase, you could develop a mesocycle that improves your neuromuscular power, which is the ability to pedal a very big gear, at a very high cadence for a short period of time (i.e., sprinting). This mesocycle might include four long sprint interval workouts and four short sprint interval workouts over a three week period.
You can even develop a mesocycle for the recovery stage of training. Of course, the primary goal of this mesocycle will be to rest and recuperate, but it will also include a series of easy rides designed to enhance the recovery process.
Mesocycles are typically three or four weeks in length. Two very common mesocycles consist of 21 and 28-day training blocks. For example, a 25-year old experienced competitor might use a 23/5 training pattern (i.e., a 28-day mesocycle). This consists of 23 days of relatively hard work followed by 5 days of recovery and easy spinning. Conversely, an older or less-experienced cyclist may opt for a 16/5 training pattern (i.e., a 21-day mesocycle) that includes 16 days of hard training followed by 5 days of recovery.
If you are unsure about which option to choose, I suggest you begin with a 21-day mesocycle and shift to the longer option when you are ready for a harder challenge. Conversely, if you are currently using a 28-day mesocycle and are dealing with recurring fatigue, use the shorter mesocycle, which provides you with more time to recover.
A microcycle is the shortest training cycle, typically lasting a week with the goal of facilitating a focused block of training. An example of this is an endurance block where a cyclist strings three or four long rides together within one week to progressively overload training volume.
Another example incorporates block training, which consists of very hard workouts for two or three consecutive days followed by an equal amount of recovery (days off or very easy rides). This would constitute an intensity microcycle where the goal is to improve key physiological abilities such as lactate threshold (the highest intensity a fit cyclist can maintain for 60 minutes) and aerobic capacity (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can consume during high intensity exercise). Generally speaking, three or four microcycles are tied together to form a mesocycle.