Periodization of Resistance Training for Endurance Athletes

by David Renne MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

You have to get slower in order to get faster. What? Please hear me out.

Interestingly enough, it is difficult to maintain the body at a peak level for a long time. Therefore, it is critical to plan your off season program so you can take advantage of your peak performance at the time when you need it the most. This means that you will not always be fast, but fast when you need to be. You have to get slower in order to get faster.

Periodization: A training plan with varying specificity (how closely the training program matches the demands and mode of the actual chosen event/sport), intensity, duration, rest, and recovery ultimately leads to peak performance at the desired time. Peak performance is the synergy of mental, emotional, and physical adaptations accumulating at their highest point to allow the individual to perform at their best.

Periodization involves a series of training cycles or planned changes that maximize adaptations for the current cycle while preparing you for the next. It can be applied to any individual and any sport.  It is not just for elite athletes and goes beyond just resistance training. The focus of this article will be to present a periodized resistance training template for beginning, intermediate, or advanced endurance athletes. Please keep in mind the concept of individuality and consult with a strength and conditioning coach to assist you in creating an individualized, sport specific program that is tailored to your capabilities and to the demands of the sport.

The benefits of following a periodized resistance training program will become evident during the next season. It just takes time. The key to achieving these adaptations is consistency (showing up), planning (periodization), rest/recovery, and intensity (overload principle). A properly designed resistance training program will focus on getting results outside of the weight room, which I refer to as “carry over.” As long as an individual is consistent they will improve in the weight room (i.e. increase weight lifted), but if it does not carry over to their chosen sport then the program is not entirely effective. As you progress through your resistance training program, exercises should begin to replicate the mechanics and demands of your chosen sport.

For example, leg extension is a machine that is designed to isolate the knee joint and fatigue the quadriceps. How often are you walking down the street producing the same movement as the leg extension? Unless you kick a soccer ball everywhere you go, this exercise is not required. If you feel you must use it, perform it in the endurance phase while you are preparing and practicing your squatting or lunging technique. Remove the exercise once you can replace it with a weight bearing, perpendicular, force-producing exercise (i.e. lunge or squat).

If you are new to resistance training or have never taken this approach before, I highly recommend researching and interviewing a qualified strength and conditioning coach or fitness professional who is familiar with the concept of periodization. Ask them point blank if they know what this means; if they don’t, go somewhere else. Research supports the overall effectiveness of following a periodized resistance training program. They must also be very familiar with the demands of your specific sport (biomechanics and physiology). Education, certifications, experience, personality, and attention to detail (individuality and specificity) are key traits to finding a quality strength and conditioning coach.  “Cookie cutter programs” do not work. Individuality and specificity (to the sport and individual) are critical to your success. The resistance training program should be made only after the initial consultation and assessments.

The Plan

The plan is 35 weeks long. It begins in October and ends in June, with a maintenance phase carried throughout your competitive season. The nice thing is you can manipulate this plan by adding or removing weeks or delaying its start so it fits your schedule and season. This plan focuses on maximizing your time and quality of training.  It should only take you 40 to 50 minutes to finish each workout. Therefore, it is critical that each workout applies the overload principle.

Cycle one: 8 weeks (block)

Muscle Endurance:  The muscle’s ability to contract over time with light to moderate weights in the range of 12 to 20 repetitions. The intensity is considered low because of the light to moderate weights, but this does not mean it is easy.  The rest periods between sets are purposefully short (less than 60 seconds). You will begin with large muscle group, multi-joint exercises for the first 2 to 4 weeks. You can then add in single joint and smaller muscle group exercises after the 2 to 4 week prep phase. Muscle failure during the last repetition of the last set must be attained for every workout, excluding the prep phases.

Cycle Two:  5 weeks (block + descending)

Muscle Hypertrophy: Muscle growth or increasing the muscles cross-sectional area/size. In our case, we will use it to maximize muscle recruitment (see terms and definitions) in preparation for the upcoming strength phase. Endurance athletes may not want their muscles to grow because increasing muscle mass will increase body weight, which may cause changes in economy/efficiency. This is why I have limited your time in this phase to only 5 weeks. Below is an example of a descending cycle.

Week 1:            12 repetitions (prep)

Week 2:            12 repetitions

Week 3:             10 repetitions

Week 4:            8 repetitions

Week 5:            Recovery (OFF / 50% original values)

Week 5:            6 repetitions (prep for strength)

With the exception of the first two weeks, repetitions drop every week. This means the weight must increase each week (i.e. overload principle). If muscle mass is your goal, research supports that resistance training with multiple sets to failure within 6-12 repetitions and little rest (i.e. 60 seconds) between sets is highly effective. Just add weeks to this cycle (2 weeks per repetition goal). As with muscle endurance, muscle failure during the last repetition of the last set must be attained within the goal repetition (i.e. 10) for every workout, excluding prep phases. 

Cycle Three:  7 weeks (undulating)

Muscle Strength:  The maximal force that a muscle or muscle groups can generate at a specific velocity. The goal of this phase is to maximize muscle recruitment by lifting heavier weights. During the strength phase you will eliminate single joint and small muscle group exercises and focus your attention on large muscle group exercises only. We are not neglecting the small muscle groups; they will receive enough attention assisting you with the large muscle group exercises. The strength phase requires much more rest and mental focus, so rest is increased to 2-5 minutes. The speed of the exercise should also be slow, 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down. This ensures maximal muscle involvement in each repetition (see speed of contraction in terms and definitions). During the strength phase you will only lift 2 days per week, separated by 3 days. The first day will be more intense, lifting at the bottom range of the repetition goal and the second day will be performed at the top range of the repetition goal. This means the weight will be heavier on the first day (hard day) than on the second day (moderate). This is an undulating plan.

The strength phase is where you will notice your times possibly get slower. This is okay. You have to get slower in order to get faster. You will surpass any personal best if you stick with the plan and reach the payoff phase: power.  The power phase should also coincide with your speed, tempo, interval, and above race pace workouts. Trust the plan and don’t wear a watch.

The goal of the endurance, hypertrophy, and strength phases is to work the muscle groups to failure or volitional exhaustion on the last set of each exercise. The next phase, power, does not work the muscles to failure. So at the end of each set during the power phase you will not feel the same as in the three previous phases. This ensures that each repetition within each set during the power phase is as explosive as possible without compromising technique.

Cycle Four:  8 weeks (undulating)

Muscle Power:  Time rate of doing work. It can also be described as force over time. The idea is being explosive, moving the weight as fast and controlled as possible. This is the pay off phase. This requires lighter weights than the strength phase (refer to speed of contraction) but the intensity and focus is high because you are moving the weight as fast as you can. Rest time is the same as strength and you will also only be performing large muscle group/multi-joint exercises. Similar to the strength phase, you will only lift 2 days per week, separated by 3 days. Please follow the same undulating plan described in the strength phase.

With each new training cycle you are willing to give up certain adaptations/performances to gain others. It is a process of give and take that ultimately leads to peak performance at the desired time. Each cycle of training will prepare you for the next. You have to get slower in order to get faster.

Do not go through three cycles in one exercise. For example, the first set a person selects 100lbs for a squat and is able to perform the desired 15 repetitions (endurance). On the second set they can only get 10 (hypertrophy) and on the third they can only get 5 (strength). This indicates that the starting weight was too heavy, not allowing the individual to perform all 3 sets within the desired training goal of endurance. Reduce the weight making repetitions the priority, not the weight.

The overload principle (see terms and definitions) must be applied each week to ensure quality workouts. There must be specific goals for each phase of the training plan. Where you start depends on several factors so I will only provide a template realizing that individuality will determine your specific starting point and exercise selection. Please consult with a physician and strength and conditioning coach prior to starting a resistance training program.

Cycle FiveIn-Season

Maintenance:  Minimize any losses in strength and power by lifting only one time per week. The key is intensity.  Much like during a taper, your maintenance workout will be intense but purposefully short. Perform only 1-2 sets of 1-2 whole body exercises and then leave. Your focus should now be on your season and competition. I would also avoid any resistance training when close to an important event/competition.

Final Coaching Tip

One of the most difficult aspects for an endurance athlete to buy into is that you will get slower in your chosen sport/mode of exercise during parts of the off season. You have to get slower in order to get faster. This does two things. First, it allows your body the time it needs to recover from the specific mode of exercise you have chosen (i.e. swim, bike, or run). It has been my experience that endurance athletes are notorious for over-working their specific sport/mode of exercise. Second, it provides an opportunity to gain muscular strength and power that is critical for improving your speed or pace. The benefits will become evident during intervals, hill work, or above race pace training just prior to the start of your season (i.e. carry over).

Please stick with it.  It’ll be worth it.

Terms and Definitions: 

Prep Phase: Each program will begin with a prep phase. The prep phase is designed to introduce your body to the new demands without overtraining it. The length of a prep phase depends on your response to the new program and previous resistance training experience. Typically, the first prep phase of the first cycle is the longest (2-4 weeks) with preceding prep phases lasting 1 to 2 weeks. This is because your body has become familiar with resistance training and responds much faster to the new stimuli.

Overload Principle: Providing a stimulus that is greater than what the body is accustomed to. This is something that must be routinely evaluated (daily/weekly) and applied if you want to maximize your gains in the weight room. Your body will adapt to its level of use. A good rule of thumb is if you can lift two repetitions higher than you are supposed to on your last set then you must increase the weight during the next training session.

Rest: Rest dictates your performance on the next set and is critical for you to perform these exercises at your best.  As someone progresses through endurance to power, the demand placed on the body increases. Rest becomes more important as the exercises become more intense and complicated. This allows the individual the time required to recover and perform the next set. In the endurance and hypertrophy phases rest is short because you are aiming for accumulated fatigue. When a person progresses to strength and power the exercises become more sport specific (carry over) and require your maximal attention, focus, and energy. Therefore, rest is increased to 2-5 minutes.

Recovery: Recovery allows your body time to adapt to the new stimulus. Having planned recovery weeks in your routine is critical. Recovery weeks will occur approximately every 4 weeks during the program and also between each phase. You can perform exercises at 50% of their original weight and intensity or just simply take a week off from the gym. You should also aim for 1-2 days completely off per week.

Speed of Contraction: Speed effects muscle recruitment. The faster the contraction the less muscle involved. Going slow ensures maximal muscle involvement, two count up and down. In the power phase, the weight must be decreased to allow for correct explosive lifts.

Muscle Recruitment: As intensity increases your body recruits more muscle to meet the demands of the exercise. Only the muscle fibers involved in the exercise will adapt. With resistance training, we can manipulate muscle recruitment by adding or removing weight. The higher the weight the more muscle is involved. Resistance training will enhance your body’s ability to recruit muscle during exercise. The initial adaptations to resistance training are from muscle recruitment, also called neurological adaptations.

Assessments: The cycles of your resistance training program are going to be based on assessments that you perform at the beginning of each new training cycle. There are several ways to assess. I prefer the multiple repetition maximum. This allows you a specific assessment for each phase vs. using percents or prediction scales.  For example, in an endurance phase you may perform 15 repetitions, therefore, you will assess your ability to lift a certain weight 15 times. This is your assessment weight. For your workout weight you will reduce this weight 5-15 lbs when performing multiple sets.

Block: This is a periodization cycle where the repetitions and intensity remain constant for every workout during the week. For example, an endurance phase set at 15 repetitions. The only adjustments in the 8 week phase would be an increase in weight when applying the overload principle.

Undulating: This is a periodization cycle where you cycle intensity within a week resulting in a hard day and a moderate day. For example, Monday you lift 3 repetitions and Thursday you lift 6 repetitions. Monday is a hard day because the low repetitions (i.e. 3) means the weight is heavy vs. 6 repetitions where the weight must be lighter in order to complete the increase reps. This is a great way to allow the body to adapt and recover, especially during the most intense phases of the program, strength and power.

Warm-up: Warming up should be performed from general to specific. You will begin with a general warm up that is usually performed on a treadmill, bike, or elliptical. This prepares the body for the next activity. Then, perform your first resistance training exercise with moderate weight as a specific warm-up. This will allow the specific muscle groups, connective tissue, and joints to become accustomed to the movement. As you progress through the cycles, add an additional specific warm-up set to better prepare the body for the more intense and complicated exercises in the strength and power phases.

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