Around the start of 2022 even as he returned to competition after his incredible Olympic year campaign, it was clear that Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra was very unfit. Distracted by felicitations and with little control of his diet, he had piled on 10kgs from the physical specimen he was in Tokyo.
He would later say it was the most unfit he had been ever since picking sports as a career. With each passing day, though, Neeraj was concerned about his fitness and just wanted to get back to the playfield.
Cut to half-a-year later, on June 30, 2022, and it seemed that Neeraj was right where he’d left off in Tokyo. The roar that followed him throwing a new personal best of 89.94m to win gold at the Stockholm Diamond League, only seemed to emphasise just how much in the zone he was. Indeed, the Olympic gold medallist was in the best shape of his career, mentally and physically.
Neeraj didn’t just turn a switch to get to where he needed to be. This welcome progression took time and his carefully-knitted training cycle by bio-mechanist expert and coach Klaus Bartonietz. While others might have been worried to see Neeraj in the shape he was at the start of the season, coach Bartonietz was only interested in how to get Neeraj to hit his peak as an athlete when it mattered — at the Diamond League. Peaking in performance is a concept that is well-known in the world of sports. It refers to the process of strategically training and preparing oneself to reach the highest level of physical and mental performance at a specific event like the Olympics or the World Championships. However, it is easier said than done.
A coach has to plan a peaking strategy for the athletes to reach their best performance. Taking into consideration the individual characteristics of each athlete, a coach then works closely with the strength & conditioning experts and nutritionists to develop a personalised plan that addresses their individual needs and weaknesses.
When planning for a training year, it is important to use periodisation in order to structure the year and ensure the athlete’s peak performance at the right time.
Studies regarding the means and techniques for long-term planning (Tudor O. Bompa in 1969 and Ghibu in 1978) revealed that 7-10 competitions are sufficient to peak for major competitions. Also, in a training year, athletes required nearly 32 micro cycles to produce the best performance of a season.
Periodisation and its benefits
But what is periodisation and how do elite athletes benefit from it? It is the process of breaking a season down into smaller time periods to increase the effectiveness of the programme. Periodisation has three main subphases — macrocycle, mesocycle and microcycle.
A macrocycle consists of a training season as a whole. It is an annual training plan that is made with the aim of peaking for the major competition like the World Championships or the Olympics. A mesocycle consists of a specific training block within a season like endurance phase or strength building. During this phase, the training programme emphasises the same type of physical adaptations such as anaerobic capacity and muscle mass.
Microcycle, on the other hand, is the smallest training programme that lasts around a week. The aim is focused block training, which consists of two or three days of load (heavy) training followed by light training and active recovery. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that a periodised training programme resulted in greater improvements in strength and power compared to a non-periodised programme. Another study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, found that a periodised training programme improved running performance in elite endurance athletes. Neeraj, for example, began his off-season in Loughborough University, England. The focus was general conditioning to get himself back in shape before entering the mesocycle phase. After one month in Loughborough, Team Neeraj shifted their base to South Africa, where the training plan emphasised on strength building and fine-tuning the throwing techniques.
As Neeraj moves into the late-mesocyle phase, the focus shifts to event specific training. In addition to structured training, nutrition is also a critical component of peaking in performance. Athletes must fuel their bodies with the right combination of nutrients to support their training and competition. This may involve working with a nutritionist to develop a meal plan that supports their individual needs and goals. While physical preparation is an important aspect of peaking at just the right time, to maintain it is a different ball game altogether.