Planning Your Program: A New Look at Periodization

Periodization is the process of breaking the year into training blocks or periods. Each period has a set of goals and a training focus so that the physical qualities needed for rowing are developed in a logical fashion so that you peak for your main race of the season. Traditional periodized models for rowing focus on the development of aerobic base early in the off season, move to anaerobic threshold level work and then to specific race pace and speed work just before the racing season. While this progression works well for some it does not take into account your individual needs nor does it take into account what types of training you are most ready for. An alternative form of periodization that is becoming more popular is one I like to call Reactive Planning.

Reactive Planning

Reactive planning uses the results of a set of tests to determine training priorities and periodization. Tests are repeated every 8-12 weeks and new priorities are set. Reactive Planning is an examination of how peak anaerobic power, VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and aerobic threshold compare to each other. In an ideal situation you would expect to see the following relationships: Anaerobic threshold should be 80-85% of VO2 max, aerobic threshold should be 65-70% of VO2 max and VO2 max should be 40-45% of peak power.

Of course if you went to an exercise physiology lab and had all these variables measured you could get a very accurate picture of where you stand but this isn’t possible for everyone. Instead several simple tests you can perform on your own will give you a decent estimate of your proportional fitness. You will need to find all your data using the wattage setting on your erg because it is much easier to do calculations with wattage than it is with time.

VO2 max can be estimated as the average watts from a five minute test. Anaerobic threshold is close to the average watts used during a 20 minute test and aerobic threshold is approximately the wattage that corresponds to a 90 minute steady state workout. Peak power is the maximum wattage you see during an all out 10 second sprint working against a relatively high resistance. Do each of these tests on a separate day so that fatigue from one test does not interfere with the results of another test. Let’s assume you do all the tests and come up with the following data:

Table 1. Sample Data

Test Wattage
5 min 400 watts
20 minutes 295 watts
90 minute 180 watts
10 second sprint 750 watts

From this data we can calculate:

Table 2. Comparing the Sample to the Ideal

Actual Ideal
VO2 vs peak power 53% 45-48%
Anaerobic threshold vs VO2 74% 80-85%
Aerobic threshold vs VO2 45% 65-70%

Interpreting the Data

To understand the data we need to understand the relationship between the physiological points we are discussing and the concept of ceilings. Each of these physiological points can only get so close to the point above before you stop seeing progress. For instance if your anaerobic threshold gets to 85% of your VO2 max it becomes very difficult to move it any higher, this is not to say that you couldn’t get it to 90% but it may take years to get it to do so. You would probably get better race results by focusing your training elsewhere. If your VO2 max scores gets beyond 48% of your peak power you will have a really tough time improving your VO2 until your peak power goes up. Table 2 shows the results of our example and the ideal relationships between the physiological variables.

Looking at the results we see that VO2 max is a higher percentage of peak power than it should be, 53% versus the 45% ideal, suggesting that this person needs to improve their peak power or they will have difficulty improving their VO2 max.

Anaerobic threshold, as measured by a 20 minute test is 74% of VO2 max as opposed to the 85% ideal. This means the person in our example also needs to raise their anaerobic threshold but it is not being limited by their VO2max.

Finally we can also see that aerobic threshold, as measured by the 60 minute test is 45% of VO2 max instead of the 70% ideal, indicating a need for more low intensity long duration work.

Setting Your Training Focus

Now that you have the data and have determined what needs to be trained you can now set training priorities. Peak power always becomes the top priority if it is not within the expected ranges, since it can limit all the other variables. The secondary priority is the area with the biggest percentage difference between your score and the ideal. In the case of our example this would be aerobic threshold, which is 25% away from where it should be.

In our example this athlete would be doing some short very high intensity sprints during their training. It does not matter what time of year it is, their performance is being limited by their peak power so it must be improved before the other variables can reach their full potential. This is not to say they will only do the sprints, rather they become a priority and focus for the next period of training. The other fitness variables like aerobic base, and anaerobic threshold still need to be trained but they are not the priorities. When the tests are repeated before the start of the next training phase there may be a completely different set of priorities.

Reactive planning allows you to modify the traditional periodized training model for endurance sports based on your strengths and weakness and the variables that will be most adaptable. This may mean doing more speed work in the early winter when you may be used to focusing solely on aerobic base building but without addressing your weaknesses first you can spend a lot of time training with very little improvement.


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