TRAINING: A “shocking” 4 weeks–periodisation models

“My God, this is awfully slow,” was pretty much what went through my mind. And worse, it was the third day in a row of increasingly slower running. It felt like nothing was working and it was time to panic. Except: things were working exactly as intended. Welcome to the wonderful world of shock periodisation or in my case a dramatic “ramp-up” into four consecutive 100 km weeks after a long period of significantly less volume, as illustrated below:

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The graph shows the last half of 2013 by week number and the first four weeks of 2014. Notice that overall training volume is very low – in some cases because of illness (week 48), then there’s a slight from rise 47 onwards to prepare for the shock to come: and then suddenly overall volume jumps sharply.

Although it’s a well-known concept among athletics coaches, II first took notice of “shock periodisation” when researching Tudor Bompa’s works “Periodisation – Theory and methodology” back in early 2011. I did not pursue it then but preferred the traditional linear periodisation you find in most training plans including Arthur Lydiard’s. To illustrate the difference – instead of four weeks of ~100km, linear periodisation would look more like this:

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Linear periodisation is generally safer, easier to use and creates more stability in performance throughout the entire training period . During my first experiments with Lydiard training the effects of it were so good I could recover from every workout within 48 hours and run at strong pace 5 days out of 7. So why abandon this tried-and-trusted method? Let’s look at the benefits by quoting Bompa:

“Shock macrocycles can be used in the preparatory phase to induce significant improvements in performance once fatigue is dissipated <sic> performance improvement in this type of macrocycle are delayed: The higher the training stress during these macrocycles, the longer the time before the athlete shows improvement in performance or a supercompensation effect.” – Bompa/Haff 2009

A side-note on “The Shock Method”

Shock periodisation can be easily confused with the “shock method” pioneered by Yuri Verkoshansky perhaps because the “shock method” like shock periodisation shares Russian roots (although as we’ll see the principle predates the Soviets) and because both terms are regularly referenced in the writings of Verkoshansky himself as well as Issurin, Zatsiorsky and others . Perhaps because of the Soviet roots, many athletics coaches I have spoken to have their misgivings about this method because a doped athlete would benefit disproportionately from shock periodisation. The chequered history of many athletes using these protocols, especially from the former East bloc, makes it easy and tempting to dismiss “shock periodisation” as simply a “way to train for dopers” who can recover quickly enough to almost nullify the risk. One prominent Western coach went as far as dismissing work on the subject as “Russian gobblygook” but that’s a topic for another day.

To add to the confusion – you can do “shock protocols” or “shock periodisation” both at the workout level (one extreme set), microcycle level (one week with usually three “big shocks” and four easy days) or macrocycle level (a number of extremely heavy weeks). My experiment focused on the macrocycle level.

If you want to read up on that subject (highly recommended) – go here or here for Verkoshansky’s direct word, here for one of many distilled versions available on the net or check YouTube for original footage.

Experiment of 1 (N=1) or “load me up for 4 weeks”

So let’s first turn back to my personal reasons for risking “experimentation” with shock periodiasition and then I’ll speculate about why I think this way of training is not entirely “unnatural” and would have an evolutionary precedent and thus be something that “we all benefit from experiencing every now and again.”

For coaches: My personal experiment over the last 4 weeks did not seek to emulate the specifics workouts or even weekly plans laid out by Bompa, Verkoshansky and others writing on the topic – rather I extracted only the most basic principle from the concept, that is, condensing a very large amount of similar training into a limited period to completely tire myself out with the hope of gaining a bigger “rebound” effect than would be possible with a more patient approach.

Two key words that appear in Bompa are “sudden” and “saturated”: essentially I needed to return to my old quantity of training (100 km plus) as quickly as possible. My race timelines dictated that I long build-up looked unlikely to bring me back where I was as fast as was needed. So like any good gambler, I decided to roll the dice. I prepared myself in December by getting back into a routine of running every single day. Then the moment I felt I was ready I “loaded” 100km of mileage onto me for as many weeks as possible – no matter the cost to pace.

Most coaches planning this approach pick a 3:1 (three hard, 1 easy) or 2:1 (two hard, 1 easy) loading pattern but I decided to wing it and ended up doing 1 “preparation week” (97k), 3 weeks “loading” (105, 102, 107) and one week “step-back” (100 km even slower). In the study “”Time course of performance changes and fatigue marks during intensified training in trained cyclists” the researcher Halson and his colleagues found that 2 weeks of such intensive loading required at least 2 weeks of stepping back and suggested that it may even be prudent to have a whole macrocycle (what we runners tend to call a “training phase”) dedicated to easier work after a “shock macrocycle”.

With a big training week in Portugal coming up for me next week, I am banking on recovering faster than this, haven taken just one step back week (and not as dramatic as the literature would suggest). Had I followed the “letter of the law” stepping all the way back to 50km or similar would have been recommended. Normally shock macrocycles tend to include several “shock days”, however, or very high intensity. I used neither of these methods as I was only looking to increase my time on my feet and to force an extreme degree of what strength training programmes often refer to as “anatomical adaptation” – building the necessary “structural integrity” for faster high volume training to come later in the season. Essentially all my running was highly aerobic and while it was tiring it was not stressful. A few runs were long enough to induce heavy fatigue but not to the degree I employed in 2012, for instance, where, among other things, a 38 km trail run was done early in training (which you can consider a “shock workout” – it being “sudden” and “saturated” stimulus of your endurance capacity).

Next week in Portugal will tell the tale of whether I got it right. If you decide to experiment with this protocol essentially you need to see this pattern:

  1. Initial impression of fitness gains as you suddenly increase your training level
  2. Sudden and dramatic drop in workout performance and paces, sometimes combined with heavy tiredness
  3. Slow recovery in the first days after “unloading” and then a sudden rapid jump in performance in the weeks subsequently with workout performance returning to levels well above levels before the shock period

I am hoping that Portugal will find me right in the middle of “3”. If I loaded on “more than I could chew”, Portugal might just be “a good week” but the true jump will only come in the 14-21 days after.

Would you “shock me”?

When it comes to my own athletes, I make an informed choice of what scheme to employ: if I trained you, for instance, I’d look at the time available and your previous history. Most beginners would, almost as a rule, be given a simple linear progression. Another periodisation model (called “non-linear”) would be used for runners with “odd recovery patterns”. Some great ones are described by Jan Olbrecht in the “Science of Winning” – a swimming book I highly recommend even to running coaches. A non-linear pattern could be doing 60k, 65k, 55k, 75k,50k, 50k over a six week cycle for instance. The idea here is that the third week offers some recovery after the first two, then you bounce back strongly in week 4 before taking the gas off completely for two weeks to be ready for the next system. This has historically not been as successful as linear progressions in athletics so it’s something to experiment with. Personally I find it very useful for “greedy runners” who tend to go off the rails on a linear model.

Evolutionary basis

“This shock theory doesn’t sound so healthy,” you may very reasonably be thinking by now and indeed there are grave risks if not approached carefully. First of all you need to be injury free, have general physical preparation done and be confident that you are moving well enough not to get injured.

But I can imagine scenarios where these “shock periods” where part of daily life. Hunter-gatherer life was not the dire existence it is often made up to be, but neither was it the Garden of Eden that it is sometimes portrayed at as part of today’s trends (I recommend Jared Diamond’s “The world of yesterday”  for a field anthropologists view on this).

Essentially during my four weeks of “shock” I wanted to send a strong signal to my body that it “had to run at least an hour every day – no matter what”. Not so different from what is expected by a hunter in an area of sparse resources or to a band of nomads who need to move significant distance every day. Our bodies adapt to our environment, so this type of “quantity shock” was my way of trying to trick my mind into thinking that daily running was an absolute necessity to force it to create the adaptations I want for endurance racing.

To understand how you can take this too far, imagine another scenario as it might have unfolded during the wars between the hunter-gatherer societies of Papua New Guinea only last century: your tribe is attacked by another tribe. You stand your ground and fight but can see the situation is lost and you begin to flee. Each day the attackers harry you and try to wear you down. The weakest die or drop behind. You can also think of Napoleon’s fatal retreat from Moscow and similar military retreats.

The point is: such a situation is not beneficial even from an evolutionary perspective. Sure – the strong survive – but as has been shown on numerous occasions – they tend to be weakened and traumatised. So while we want to shock the systems – do not apply a situation that makes your body think it’s fighting for its life every day for a long period of time – or you’ll face the atrophying experience of the fleeing tribesmen.

Key take-away

So if you have read this far and want to know when and how to use this method rather than your traditional type of build-up, the short answer is to use it only when you know you are well-prepared – physically and technically.

Also ensure that you are going into a period where you can get adequate rest and recovery or expect your work and other commitments to suffer (and expect to become a miserable git). The stress levels in my life took a big turn for the better in December and mentally I was incredibly motivated towards new goals. I also entered into a period where I could get 9 hours sleep regularly. So using shock periodisation was “seizing the opportunity” that presented itself. Everyone who goes on a training camp holiday with 3-4 daily workouts is essentially doing the same. Even with those positive settings in your life be prepared to feel “slightly down” or “harbour doubts” as training paces drop as the training takes its toll – it can be hard to convince yourself at this stage that you are “going forward” when all indicators seem to say the opposite.

It also goes without saying that you should be healthy and uninjured when you start. Finally, you should be in a rush as  I am. Otherwise there’s no need to risk loading up this heavy for 3-4 consecutive weeks and risking being wiped out for weeks after – or picking up an injury on the way. Use the linear model instead if you have plenty of time. If you are an elite athlete and have plateaued shock periodisation could be a very useful tool for you – find the training variable you would like to focus on and try 2 or 3 weeks of pushing it to the limit.

Finally, don’t do too many other new things (preferably none) when attempting this. I had to pause my keto-adaptation experiment because I could not tell if my rapid drop in paces was caused by the accumulation of fatigue or glycogen depletion. Since I needed to know, I went back on a low-carb/high fat diet with carb-cycling after workouts to remove the doubt about this area.  With those words “good luck” or “read on!”

Read on , or stop here…

As this length of this article grew I realised that my piece on “Lydiard and shock periodisation” really warrants a separate article. If you have “had enough” stop reading here and if not I have included my initial thoughts on the subject as “a bonus” below:

Lydiard and “shock periodisation” or “Shock periodisation by any other name”

Lydiard essentially practiced both the shock periodisation and the “shock method” principles without naming  either as such with his original hill phase of training – six days of hill springing/bounding and other plyometric exercises with a long run on the seventh day.  This lasted for four to six days and took place after the general conditioning phase and before the specific conditioning. Using six hard essentially plyometric workouts in seven days is the very definition of a “shock microcycle”.

In later publications, Lydiard reduced the volume as he found later athletes struggled with this type of training density (he simply concluded “modern athletes are too soft”). The take-home message is that to undertake a shock such as doing six hill sessions in six days requires the athlete to be basically complete: technically and physically at the outset of the training.

Lydiard describes a similar effect in runners doing the hill phase of his training as what is often described in shock protocols today: an initial dramatic drop in speed and performance followed by a rapid resurgence once training was changed to allow recovery.

When we tested the hill protocol back in 2009 both Jason and I had a tendency to pick up niggles on 1-2 sessions per week – showing how ill-equipped we were at the time to deal with this sort of training compared to the material Arthur Lydiard had to work with. It’s interesting also that the Lydiard Hill phase simulates many of the benefits (maximising the potential of the stretch-shortening cycle) many years before Fred Wilt introduced it to American track and field readers in 1964.

Very dense training phases

In fact, Arthur Lydiard’s use of the shock periodisation principle went even further: after successful completion of the base phase and the hill training phase, his intense training weeks of anaerobic training had huge density compared to what many athletes today are accustomed too with 5-6 days having some type of interval or speed work, for instance this week from “Running to the Top”:

  • Mon: intervals
  • Tue: easy fartlek
  • Wed: intervals
  • Thu: fast relaxed strides
  • Fri: easy trot
  • Sat: intervals
  • Sun : easy long run

Five out of seven days have some degree of faster running and this is a generic programme. Because Lydiard’s athletes were so well-conditioned he could “shock them” with an extremely intense “anaerobic phase” before taking the volume right down in his “Coordination phase”. Essentially he intuitively did was has later been labelled as a “shock macrocycle” followed by an easier macrocycle to freshen up. With many modern athletes, this cannot be done exactly like this – very few runners that I coach can handle three hard interval sessions as well as doing easy strides and fartleks on recovery days. So here again we can revert to a more “linear” model with a slightly less intense phase of interval training (say 1-2 interval sessions and a tempo run) – based on what level of “shock” we think the athlete can take and still recover and freshen up for their race and without “knocking them out for the count”.

In conclusion and with the benefits of hindsight: Lydiard took full advantage of the big jump in performance from the intense hill phase by then hitting the anaerobic systems with extreme training density – almost every day featured some kind of fast running. Just the type of training needed to survive several heats in the Olympics and still be fresh at the end. When he suddenly took all this load away, a short time before events, it’s no surprise that he generally succeeded in creating dramatic peaking – and marvellous success.

All this also would have been impossible without the foundation laid in the base phase – the basic endurance and anatomical adaptation which will be the subject of my next post. Like “shock periodisation” it is a term popularised in the writing of Russian coaches – but one that goes all the way back to Arthur Newton and likely his primary inspirations (the names of many of which are now lost to us).

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