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Professional Fitness Coach Explains Why You Should Include Periodisation in Your Training

Coach Georgia Smith dives deep into the reasons why periodisation is paramount for every fitness enthusiast – professionals and recreational athletes alike.

Periodisation, which involves adjusting the volume of your training throughout time, can be key to improving performance and maximising results. But reaching your peak for a specific event is not the only benefit of systematically planning your sessions, and there are a handful of strong reasons why you should include periodisation in your training.

When we think about periodisation, we tend to think about it being for elite athletes in specialised sports, athletes who are looking to peak at a certain time of year for their big event.

On the other hand, athletes in functional fitness or CrossFit, as well as those who coach functional fitness, often assume periodisation flies in the face of the whole purpose of their sport: to be ready for anything.

News flash: This simply is not the case. A periodised training plan can, and should, be applied to both high level advanced CrossFit athletes, as well as intermediate and beginner lifestyle functional fitness enthusiasts training for health and longevity.

Why you should include periodisation in your training

I first understood this concept in this free OPEX Fitness course and learnt that training cannot involve random tests every day. It goes without saying that this will lead to burnout. 

  • Periodisation, on the other hand, allows for a longer term plan that considers volume and intensity to avoid overtraining, possible plateaus and burnout, and ultimately leads to constant improvement over the long haul. 

The 5 phases of periodisation

Keeping it simple: As complicated as creating a long-term program based on periodisation might sound, it can be broken into five very specific phases:

  1. Accumulation
  2. Intensification
  3. Pre-Competition
  4. Competition
  5. Deload

Phase 1: Accumulation

build your engine with periodisationSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

The accumulation phase of a periodised program is all about building volume safety over time, the idea being to build a broader base of skills and fitness level, almost like the foundation of a house. If the foundation is strong, the rest of the house will be more stable, and you’ll be able to build it higher.

Nuts and bolts

  • Whether you’re an elite athlete or a lifestyle one, this phase is about high volume, lower intensity and lighter loads. 
  • Second, it’s a time to work on new skills and fix any weaknesses you might have, such as muscle imbalances. 
  • Slower tempo work and spending more time under tension are also valuable training tools during the accumulation phase, as is slower aerobic work, which goes a long way in building a solid base. This doesn’t mean anaerobic work can’t be done in the accumulation phase, but there’s a bigger emphasis on aerobic work. 

Note: For the general population, novice CrossFit athletes, this phase should involve things like long Assault bike and rowing sessions, whereas more technical skills can be developed in a low volume environment with a lot of rest. In comparison, the more experienced athlete will be able to employ more mixed modalities, technical movements into their aerobic work, as they have the capacity to do so.

Tip: The accumulation phase is going to be where the novice athlete spends more of their time. That being said, it will also be where the advanced athlete spends most of their time, as they usually need more time to recover. The intermediate athlete, on the other hand, should spend a little less time here in favour of the intensification phase. 

Phase 2: Intensification

Now that we have built volume and improved skills, things can be taken up a notch in the intensification phase.

Nuts and bolts

  • During this phase, both novice athletes and experienced ones will start increasing intensity, such as through lifting heavier loads. This means both volume and overall time under tension will decrease. 
  • Second, faster aerobic work can be introduced. And for more experienced athletes, so can more technical skills in a more fatigued setting.

Tip: Though intensity can increase from the accumulation phase, most general population, novice clients should still stay away from pushing beyond their threshold, as doing so isn’t connected to their goal of being functional for life.

On the other hand, for the experienced competitive CrossFit athlete, now is the time to begin more “for time” based work, where they’re asked to go as fast as they can (this will develop an ability to learn how to pace themselves a little more effectively), opposed to the more AMRAP-style work they did during the accumulation phase, where they worked for a set amount of time. 

Phase 3: Pre-Competition

recovery is part of training periodisation Source: StevieD Photography

This phase is all about sharpening, refining, peaking and tapering for the upcoming competition. Essentially it acts as the bridge between the intensification phase and the competition itself, and it’s important to note that this is only really relevant for competitive athletes looking to peak for a specific competition.  

Nuts and bolts

  • During this phase, volume will be lowered, but intensity can be kept high, and both will be determined by the nature of the competition. For example, is it a single day event or a five-day event? 
  • The pre-competition phase should also involve some competition simulations—things they weren’t exposed to in a regular training sessions but that they might experience in competition, such as setting a video and filming themselves like in the CrossFit Open—so the athlete can experience the logistics and the stress they might feel during a competition, both physically and mentally.

Note: The way this part of the program is laid out will largely depend on the individual athlete, including the athlete’s psychology. For example, does this athlete feel comfortable with a longer taper or a shorter one?

Tip: Though at OPEX we focus on principles of concurrent training—for example, a training session will start with strength work, move to aerobic work and finish with anaerobic work—this effectively get thrown out the window during the pre-competition phase for competitive CrossFit athletes.

Why? Because the sport demands an athlete to be prepared to handle any type of task at any given time. So during this time, the athlete might be asked to do a one rep max right after a 5 km run, because this might also happen during their competition. And again, this doesn’t apply to the average general population client, who doesn’t need to know how to lift heavy right after a 5 km run.

Phase 4: Competition 

Tapered and ready, it’s time to put the hard work to the test. The goal here, of course, isn’t to try to get stronger or faster or fitter, but simply to express the hard work in a competition setting. 

A competition doesn’t necessarily have to be an organised event, it could simply be a time where you choose to test your newly acquired skills. Seeing progress is a positive feeling, reinforces the drive to continue training and might even be an inspiration to set for new heights.

Additionally, putting your training to the test can provide you with invaluable information for your future training plan from your preparation, execution, and results.

Phase 5: Deload

The deload phase comes right after the competition, and it gives the athlete the space to recover and regenerate. 

Nuts and bolts

  • During this time, the athlete needs low volume and low intensity in order to recover and come back ready for the next accumulation phase. 
  • And while general population lifestyle athletes don’t necessarily need an organized deload, as they’re not pushing beyond their capabilities via a competition, life itself tends to throw deload phases at them. Maybe they take a three-week vacation, or their kid gets sick or they get busy at work, and having these planned or unplanned deloads can be valuable for them, as well.
  • Further, sometimes it’s also useful for the lifestyle CrossFit athlete to take a transition week between an intensification phase and the next accumulation phase. This can include some re-testing to see where they’re at physically before beginning the next accumulation phase. 

Why periodisation is important in functional fitness

Periodisation is most effective when it’s personalised. This means the individual’s schedule, priorities, psychology, lifestyle, needs and goals should be considered before developing a long-term periodised training plan. We take a deep dive into this in the OPEX Coaching Certificate Program.

Georgia Smith wears many hats in the fitness industry: educating coaches with OPEX Fitness, remote coaching with the Big Dawgs team, and instructing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She is passionate about helping others realize their physical potential and making fitness a part of their lifestyle.

She got her start in fitness after moving from Australia to the US, where she got her first gig coaching at and managing a successful CrossFit gym. When she’s not talking to coaches, writing programs, and creating awesome fitness education content with OPEX, you’ll find Georgia in her happy place—on the mats practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

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