Cycles of work and recovery: Thoughts on periodization

by Evan Morrison. 17 June 2010.

Between May 29 and August 1 this summer, I have 6 races. Actually, 11 if you include events with multiple races - but the point is, I have to be ready to swim fast on 6 occasions in 9 weeks.

These races are, in many cases, quite physically grueling: a 6K this weekend (at 4800′ elevation) in Colorado, a 10K next month in Indiana, and a total of 11K over 5 races (also at elevation) in Oregon at the end of July. So, while I need to be “ready to swim fast” in all instances, I also can’t afford to moderate my training much, or I risk losing conditioning. If anything, my training volume in the past year (~15,000-25,000 yards/week) is actually insufficient to race a 10K (though it’s sufficient to finish a 10K).

In club/age-group swimming, we trained right through mid-season meets, tapering only in January (for short-course championships) and August (for long-course championships). The most we got mid-season (usually for a “travel” meet) was a couple days of below-average volume. During the high school dual meet season, we had meets almost every Friday between late February and early May. Did Coach give us Friday mornings off? Nope.

In mid-season dual meets, though, our competitors were also training hard, so “peak performance” was neither expected nor necessary. This summer, because I’m doing primarily USMS national championship races, the competition is actually pretty strong. In all cases, I will be racing against at least a few swimmers faster than me - and even more who, if I’m fatigued, won’t hesitate to smoke me.

Another difference is the actual events involved. It’s one thing to race a 100 Back (my high school specialty) at the end of a tough week of training. However terrible you feel, it’s over after a minute or so. It’s another thing entirely to race a 10K fatigued. I wouldn’t call it suicidal, but it’s probably a bad idea.

So, how do I train hard enough to race a 10K, but leave myself sufficiently rested to swim fast in the other races?

Basically, I time the intensity of my training around the races. What that means in practice is that I do my most intense workouts (including weight-lifting) near the beginning of the week, and reserve the end of the week (Friday, and possibly Thursday as well) for recovery. Then, come what may on Saturday, I’m ready to perform.

The elegant part of this strategy is that recovery days should already be part of the training plan - whether or not I have a race on the weekend. Work followed by recovery is how the body gets stronger. Training intensity that follows (approximately) a sine curve over time will be more effective than a flat line.

The only adjustment I make is that my recovery days are fixed - always at the end of the week rather than scattered at random. If I don’t have a race on the weekend, I’ll use Friday for recovery anyway - but then do something intense-ish on Saturday to keep the cycle going.

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