Thursday, April 26, 2007

DF Tip #26: Periodization and You

figNow and then I'll be at a party and an acquaintance will sidle up to me at the hors-d'oeuvres table and ask me about my favorite topic. Muttering something about the little-known healing properties of the French bread-with-brie-and-fig-jam that I'm jamming down my gullet, I'll be hit with a question that goes something like this: "How's this fitness routine: I take two soup cans, lift them overhead fifty times. Then I run up my attic stairs and do 10 deep knee bends. Then..."

The fitness freak in me wants to stop them before they go any further, because their question -- "What do you think of this routine?" already tells me there's something amiss. The question implies that their exercise program -— whatever form it takes -- is a static and unchanging habit, like tooth-brushing or fingernail-clipping. Still, I'll usually wait till the end of the speech before I ask, as innocuously as possible, "So how long have you been doing this?"

The answer varies from six months to 12 years, and therein lies the problem.

As I've suggested in the past, getting fitter requires that you overload the body: stress it in a way it's not used to, forcing adaptation and improvement. It's a fairly simple concept, though as I've written at length, people fail to grasp it all the time. Your body is always seeking stasis, and has dozens of functions and systems in place that check and balance one another in an effort to preserve the status quo. Start a new exercise program and you introduce a new stimulus. After a brief period of improvement, your newly strong, supple, and enduring body becomes the new status quo, and you've got to make it adapt again by introducing, you guessed it, a new stimulus. This could take the form of greater resistance in your weight training, more mileage on the bike, more workout sessions a week, or simply, more intensity. Assuming you're resting and eating to support your fitness program, you just keep nudging the stakes higher, surprising the body with new stimuli, getting healthier, shattering plateaus, breaking through to new heights of fitness and performance with each passing year.

That’s the ideal, but so often it fails because people develop these accursed fitness "routines" that they run by their trainer pals at hors-d’oeuvres tables the world over.

Let me pause -- nay, backpedal -- for a moment here to first commend all those people who have fitness regimens going at all. Though I'm convinced there's a better way of doing things, I will say that the folks who have such regimens in place, even unchanging, repetitive ones, are already light-years beyond their sedentary brethren and sistren (?) who are trying to muster the resolve to commit to ANY form of exercise beyond curling mint juleps whilst reclining in their backyard hammocks.

I'd like to start a modest movement, here and now, to wipe the concept of routine from our collective fitness-minded consciousness. What if, instead of seeing our fitness practices as an unchanging daily task, we thought of it as a learning process, akin to practicing a musical instrument?

violinStick with me here: no one in their right mind would practice ONLY the scale they learned on their first day over and over again and expect to get better at anything but that one scale -- and pretty soon they’d even cap out on that simple drill. And no one short of Mozart would expect to become a master at a fingering technique, rhythm or picking style that they'd never tried before. In order to get better, you've got to do new stuff. It doesn't matter if that first day routine were designed and patented by the Phil Jackson of guitar teachers: keep doing it over and over and you'll stagnate, never reaching your goal of playing for writhing masses of screaming groupies.

Yet that's in effect what thousands of exercisers do every day (no, not the screaming groupies part). They repeat the same thing ad infinitum and expect improvement.

The carry-over lesson is that, like learning a new instrument, fitness should be approached not as a rote routine but as a skill you're trying to master, so that each workout is geared not towards maintenance but towards the incremental improvement of some skill or ability.

So progression -- and thereby, variation -- is essential. But the next, quite reasonable question is, how? Just keep lifting more and more all the time until you look like Lou Ferrigno? Run until your friends start referring to you as Mr. or Ms. Gump? Learn one new sport or skill after another until you win the decathlon or get headhunted by Cirque du Soleil?

lougumpWell, one short and flippant answer would be... yeah. I don't wholeheartedly suggest this for everyone, but that's sort of how I've stayed in shape for the last 20-odd years: by discovering some activity that interests me, going into it half-cocked until I get bored or intrigued by something else, and then jumping into that new thing with equal abandon. In addition to my decidedly average genetics, a major reason I would never have made much of a pro athlete is that I could never commit to one physical endeavor for very long. The closest I've gotten is triathlon, a sport I've kept up for a whopping two years -- and that's probably because it's actually three sports in one (four, if you count peeing whilst riding the bike). That, and the fact that it allows me to take about half the year off to direct my focus towards strength training, martial arts, and other bright, shiny objects.

cirqueThrough no great plan of my own (I assure you), I've managed to avoid the injuries that many athletically inclined guys my age suffer because I just don't have the attention span to cause myself any serious harm. And, to my astonishment, my athletic tomcatting has actually made me better at the sports I do practice.

A few years ago I discovered that fitness folks have a word for this type of training: they call it (with their usual tin ear for coinage) periodization. And since there's a word for it, it must be good, right?

Periodization was born in professional athletics. The idea was to create a training schedule that would allow athletes to progress steadily, avoid injury, over-training, and burnout; and, most importantly, achieve their peak performance in a given year when the stakes were highest, during the competitive season. The best way to achieve this, they found, was to break the year up into -- wait for it -- periods during which the athlete would focus on one particular aspect of athletic performance, be it endurance, strength, sports skills, agility, or something else. Without getting too much into the details, the point was to bring the athlete, over the course of a year, from general fitness towards greater and greater focus on the specifics of the athlete's competitive sport right up through the end of the season, when the athlete took some well-earned active rest. Such a system worked far better than simply practicing the sport at full tilt all year round, or performing drill after irrelevant drill until the cows came home, and this system remains in use by most trainers of professional athletes the world over.

So okay, you're not a professional athlete, you're not even an amateur athlete, and all you want is to look good, feel good, and stay healthy for as long as you can, and therefore, what does this have to do with you?

Just this: a pro athlete is really just an overpaid, overexposed, spoiled and egotistical version of you and me. Their training needs differ from ours not so much in kind but in degree. Like the pro athlete, the average trainee also wants to avoid injury and burnout, while continuing to improve. Like the athlete, he will also probably have a point in the year when he wants to look or feel particularly good: a trip, a reunion, a wedding, the holidays or the summertime. And like the athlete, he will want to have sex with thousands of beautiful women and make millions of dollars for doing very little work (periodization won’t help with that).

powderImplementing a layman's version of periodization into your training program just takes a little bit of planning: figure out when you want to peak -- look your best, feel your best, or perform your best -- and work backwards from there. Say you've got a reunion in two months. You might spend four weeks focusing on building muscle and another four focused more on losing fat so your newly toned muscles show and you look your best. If you've got more time, you might go through the muscle-gain/fat-loss cycle multiple times before your peaking date so that you arrive in the best shape of your life.

golfIf you do compete in a sport or a recreational activity like golf or skiing, you can structure an entire year of training specifically to get in top shape to play so that you hit the links or the slopes healthy and ready to go. Your off-season might include specific strength, power and flexibility drills to help you peak right when the season begins. When your season is over, take a few weeks off to relax and engage in some alternate activity that you haven't had time for when doing your sport. Then take some time to figure out what you might want to work on for next year's season. If you've got an injury, your off-season could be spent shoring it up so it doesn't hold you back next year. If you have more than one activity you enjoy, say, martial arts and tennis, figure out when you want to be at your best at each sport and cycle your attention accordingly. At no time should you stick with exactly the same program for more than six weeks.

The point is for your training to support your lifestyle, to help you live and enjoy yourself more fully in whatever activities you choose to participate.

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