The concept of periodisation was first introduced in the world of athletics by the Russian sports physiologist, Leo Matveyev, in the 1960s. Simply explained, periodisation involves varying the intensity and volume of assignments of an athlete’s or a sportsman’s training and conditioning programme throughout the length of the year in order to prevent over-training, burnouts and boredom as well as to improve the quality of output. Periodisation involves shifting training priorities from non-sport specific activities of high volume and low intensity to sport-specific activities of low volume and high intensity over a period of many weeks to prevent over-training and optimise performance. (Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning by Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle.)

International sport has long lost the definite boundary between off-season and competitive season. Sport for top athletes is now almost a yearlong battle of attrition and resilience. One season ends, you blink, and presto! You have the ensuing challenge staring at you in the face. However, it is unreasonable to expect an athlete’s body to maintain the same level of efficiency throughout the year. He must have some cooling-off periods built into his annual schedule. Some recovery time, a little window of recharging and winding down before he or she can spring back into action. The challenge for sports trainers is to build these little toned-down activity periods into an athlete’s training regimen without affecting conditioning and fitness levels.

According to Matveyev the major divisions of training are the preparatory, competitive and transition periods. Later, Stone, O’Bryant and Garhammer added a “first transition” between the preparatory and competitive periods. Thus, the conventional periodisation model included four distinct periods —preparatory, first transition, competition and second transition. Although these concepts may be a bit dated in today’s world of calendar-packed sports events, the basic protocol they used are still very much in existence, and sports physiologists tweak the principles now and then to make them relevant and specific to the athletes under them. Let us look at what these periods represent.

Preparatory Period

This is where everything starts. This is the longest and occurs during the time of the year when there are no competitions. During the initial part of this period, there are very limited numbers of sports-specific skill practice or game strategy sessions. The major priority during this period is to establish base level of conditioning to increase the athlete’s tolerance to more intense training and physical stress during the later phases.

Conditioning activities begin at relatively low intensity and high volumes: long, slow distance running, cycling or swimming. This could be coupled with light to moderate intensity strength training or plyometrics. The strength training exercises for a runner, for example, may not necessarily be bio-mechanically or structurally similar to running (hip sled, leg curl etc). The idea would be to allow the athlete’s body to breathe a little easy with low-load, low-stress activities. So, a top golfer could wind down with long cycling sessions, while a footballer may enjoy swimming or playing low-impact sport like badminton or volleyball.

As the Preparatory Period extends, the athlete makes a natural transition from high endurance activities to more intense workouts. For example, a sprinter will graduate from longer distance runs to include more interval sprints of moderate distances and more complex and specialised plyometrics.

Similarly, the resistance-training programme becomes more specific to the sport (for example, lunges and squats for a footballer and say clean and overhead presses for a swimmer). Loads also get heavier for fewer repetitions. The high-volume training of the early Preparatory Period seamlessly blends into a slightly more intense schedule.

The last stage in the Preparatory Period is the power phase where field training intensifies to near competitive speed. A sprinter’s interval and speed training will step up to short bursts of speed training drills and plyometric drills mimicking sprinting. Sportsmen like football and tennis players will perform agility and speed drills very closely resembling the stop-start nature of their sport. The resistance-training programme will also involve explosive/power exercises at high loads and low volumes.

Once the Preparatory Period ends, the athlete goes through the First Transition period to denote the break from high-volume training to high-intensity training.

Competition Period

The goal for this period is to peak strength and power through further increases in training intensity with additional decreases in training volume. Commitment to skill technique and game strategy assumes primary importance, as time spent in physical conditioning decreases proportionately. For example, a tennis player will place even more importance on ball drills, practice time, short speed and agility bursts and technique training, much of which is actually gained through actual competitions. For most organised sports, the competition period will last several months. This prolonged time will require some manipulation of the intensity on a weekly or daily basis — where the trainer will vary the load depending on competition stress — but in general the period is characterised by very high-intensity and very low volume training activities. This intense phase will allow the athlete to peak for three to four weeks.

Trying to push or overextend this will inevitably lead to over-training and possible drop in performance or injury. For sports with multiple major contests spread across many weeks, the goal would be to preserve strength, power and performance levels by following a maintenance programme of moderate intensities and moderate volumes.

Second Transition Period (Active Rest)

Immediately after the Competitive Period, the athlete typically goes through the Second Transition phase. This period commonly referred to as the active rest or restoration period takes the athlete away from his main sport and focuses on unstructured and non-sports specific recreational activities performed at very low intensities and low volumes. It is very important for the long-term progress of the athlete to allow time to rehabilitate any injuries and rest both physically and mentally. Ivan Lendl, the legendary tennis star, used to take time off from the court to play, maybe, a round of recreational golf. The great Sir Don used to enjoy playing both tennis and golf while nearer home. Sunil Gavaskar was an avid badminton player. The purpose of this unloading period for 1-3 weeks is to prepare the body and mind for the relentless demand in the next phase or period.