Podcast, Science

Periodisation Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth with John Kiely | EP#148

 September 24, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

​Periodisation Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth with John Kiely | EP#148

Triathlon periodisation and periodisation in general is tradition-driven more than evidence-led. John Kiely is a researcher on the one hand and a coach and practitioner on the other, and today he explains why periodisation is no holy grail, and certainly not backed by the scientific research. 

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The flaws in the available research on periodisation, and the incorrect conclusions drawn from these flaws.
  • The importance of buy-in and the psycho-emotional state of the athlete.
  • How training variation and a good decision-making process beats periodisation.
  • A 21st century approach to decision-making in training. 

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About John Kiely

0:53  -

  • John is a researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, as well as a coach and consultant. 
  • John does a lot of practical work and has worked directly with the coaches of Olympic and World Champions in three major sports.
  • He has coached a Paralympic track medalist, a European Champion, numerous combat sports athletes as well as kids. 
  • From a team sports perspective, John has worked as a consultant for rugby teams, and he is the Director of Fitness for the Gary Owen rugby academy. 
  • John has also been an advisor for top professional football clubs. 

Research on periodisation

5:40 -

  • Periodisation hasn't been studied extensively. There is more work from the strength training realm, but less in other areas. 
  • Strength training lends itself to academic study as it can be easily quantified. 
  • If you review the literature, it generally suggests that if someone has a structured training programme they perform marginally better than someone without. 
  • 'Structured' in this context can still be simple, for example:

    An experimental group in a study may have more variation in their training but in an organised way. 

    A control group may have no variation or random variation.
  • The best resource is the research by Greg Nuckols in the USA. 
  • The research findings have been translated into 'periodisation works', but periodisation is a lot more complicated and multi-phasic. 
  • The research in multi-phasic training programs is minimal, and thus tells us very little. 
  • Essentially we have no idea what the best way to organise training is based on the research. 

Perception of periodisation

10:55 -

  • Periodisation came from the Soviet Union and it was a very regimented design.
  • The length of training phases depended on the theorist but was generally 3-5 weeks. 
  • There is a difference between a periodised programme and a planned programme - i.e. there are more guidelines in a periodised programme. 

    It is a pre-planned, pre-organised, non-reactive way of organising your training. 
  • For example: If I want to develop my power, first I have to do strength training for a specific period of time, then I do power training for a specific period of time. It's a very mathematical process which you follow regardless. 
  • If you drill down to the key differences:

    Periodisation templates offer a way to plan a long-term training programme over the course of a season.

    Coaches may set a structure to their training, but will alternate that structure based on emerging information (e.g. observation of athlete or athlete feedback). 
  • We have all accepted that 'periodisation is best', but individual periodisation theorists have argued back and forth about which way is ideal. 
  • The most well known theorists that have argued back and forth are Matveyev, Verhoshansky, and Vladimir Issurin but this has left us with a belief based system. 
  • If you try and dig into the science of why a certain way of periodisation is best, the scientific rationale is extremely weak.

Other problems with periodisation

19:01 - 

  • The periodisation logic has been a quest for finding the best training plan, which suggests such a thing exists.

    This isn't necessarily the case, there may instead be what is best for a particular person at a particular time. 
  • Periodisation is a mechanical procedure: if you work at this intensity, this many times, for this duration, you will get X. It assumes a predictability about training outcomes.  
  • Training studies introduce an intervention, average all the responses to it, and make decisions on its effectiveness based on that. 
  • However, the response of individuals to training is extremely broad and unpredictable, which is not factored in to periodisation. 
  • In periodisation there's an implicit belief that how much you improve is based entirely on how much you put in, which may well not be the case. 

    I.e. you could put genetically engineered twins through the same training plan, but if they're in different nutritional states they may respond differently. 
  • Your psycho-emotional state (e.g. what mood you're in, your interpretation of the relevance of the training session) impact on your individual response to the training you do. 

    Periodisation theory fails to account for this.
  • It's an academic disconnect - the periodisation literature that has been published neglects these factors.  

Impact of stress on periodisation and training 

24.52 - 

  • There are some emerging studies assessing periodisation and other impacting factors.
  • There has been more research around athletic injury, showing that if you are an individual predisposed to stress, and currently under stress, you are more likely to get injured. 

    You will also be slower to rehabilitate, either due to the injury or due to illness.
    • Stress being psycho-emotional stress, such as relationships, disagreement with coach, perception of injury. 
  • Health is fundamentally influenced by what we think, how we think, our history of stress and how vulnerable to stress we are. 
  • This isn't an argument necessarily against periodisation, but again, our training culture in general. 

    We haven't really bought into this understanding of the impact of stress on health. 
  • This needs to be built into how we deal with athlete, plan training, and communicate that plan to the athlete. 

    Although there isn't a 'best plan', a plan that is well thought-through and clearly explained to the athlete,  who believes in it and has high expectations for it, the athlete will perform better. 
  • Anything that gives coaches the message that an ideal plan is decided separate from the athlete without considering all the other impacting factors, is a fundamental problem.
  • Traditional training programmes only focus on the mechanical stressors, not on the psycho-emotional (e.g. the 'why' of the training plan).  

Stress theory

29:12 - 

  • Defining stress is difficult. It can be any stimulus that changes chemistry in your brain, and can be both positive and negative. 
  • The change in chemistry drives downstream chemical changes - for example, it may change the amount of circulating hormones in the body, or inflammatory agents. 
  • We have rhythms in our brain that are set up to prepare us for the forecasted challenges of that day. 
  • Things go wrong when we are stressed for prolonged periods (e.g. worrying about work). 

    This puts you at risk of disease and disability factors. 
  • From a training perspective, too much stress can mean you get injured or unwell more, and you'll take longer to recover. Your adaptation for training will also get blunted. 
  • If the chemical foundation on which you're overlaying the training stimulus is different between two people, the adaptation will be different. 
  • My interest is in how can we be better at organising, planning and managing training - ultimately, I don't care if the club or person I'm working with calls it periodisation or planning.
  • The important part is how it's implemented and managed, and how information is collected and used to inform what you're going to do next. 
  • It's easy to knock traditional periodisation because it's so clear that people respond in diverse ways to training.  
  • A lot of periodisation logic was built on archaic stress theory from the 1930's based on Seyle's work, but this has now evolved dramatically. 
  • He argued that stress was a medical and physiological condition, and psychological stress was something separate.
  • Since the mid 1960's, stress has been considered a bi-directional phenomenon, with physical stress affecting your mental state and vice versa. 

    We've been slow to absorb this in our coaching culture. 

Improving training planning

36:09 - 

  • Athletes need some degree of organisation to their training, but there is no one best way to do this. 
  • Coaches need to look at the athlete and their training history, to gain a sense of what this athlete adapts to and what they need. 

    From this you can construct a logical starting point. 
  • There's a number of trade offs: e.g. variation versus monotony. 
  • We know that variation helps, and spending time at low intensity for long periods can help.
  • Seiler's research can provide a guide when planning training. 

    He recommends judicious use of high intensity work, but offers no indication of how to organise that. 

    My suggestion is think sensibly about your planning.  
  • Change is good but sudden change is bad as it increases the change of injury or illness. Change must be managed all the time.
  • There are many stress related and emotional factors that the coach has a significant influence on, which then influence fitness adaptations.

    For example, the relationship between the coach and the athlete will influence how well the athlete responds to training. 

    They have to trust you and know that you have their best interests at heart, and also believe you care and can raise their expectations. 
  • If an athlete goes to do a session but they don't understand the focus or purpose of it, that will mitigate their positive training responses. 

    Coaches can easily influence this sense of buy-in by spending time with the athlete and explaining the training programme carefully, and having regular check in's. 
  • Although this hasn't been bought into in the coaching world, the evidence is clear that this will increase positive outcomes. 
  • You need to create an atmosphere in which the athlete is embedded within - they are at the centre - so they can feed back into the programme as well. 
  • Having structure with flexibility is key. 


44:02 - 

  • When it comes to periodisation, nobody knows exactly the right structure. Design the structure that works best for your context. 
  • Once you manage the change in training intensities and volumes carefully, the structure may be less important. 

    There's a trade off between structure and agility. You can adapt training because of various reasons related to your athlete. 

    The better the communication between athlete and coach, the better the training planning will be. 
  • As a coach, you can't plan effectively if you're not setting aside time to discuss how your athlete is getting on. 

Rapid fire questions

46:43 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to your field of expertise?
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
    • I am not particularly talented in any particular area but I am stubborn, and can stay with a problem for a long time. 
  • What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
    • There was a period of 4-5 years when I didn't work as hard as I could. 

Key takeaway

  • There is a difference between planning and structure, and periodisation. 

    We're not saying you shouldn't have structure, but templated patterns of periodisation may not be the best way to plan, not even as a starting point. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with John Kiely

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  • I found this to be thought provoking discussion. I’m a self-taught, self-coached triathlete with 1 IM and a couple of 70.3 events under my belt. I’ve read the books of Friel, Vance and others, using that information to guide my training, and that of my wife. From this you could say that I’ve bought in heavily to the Periodisation approach and was a little disturbed at the podcast title that suggested to dismiss Periodisation. Having listened to Kiely’s points I can understand perspective, but still consider Periodisation the best approach for me, and possibly athlete’s like me.

    My understand was that Kiely suggests that Periodisation is too prescriptive considering the huge variation in the training response of athletes. The research suggests that structured training is beneficial, but Kiely says that coaches should be taking feedback from their athletes to influence the mix of training and for that feedback along with the coach’s experience. That works for coaches with his credentials, but not for newbies like me.

    Whilst it may have weaknesses, I believe that the Periodisation approach (and all the documentation surrounding it) provides an effective hand-rail for self-coached athletes in particular. When you are 40 weeks out from your ‘A’ race, a blank training calendar can be a daunting view if you have little coaching experience. However, with a little help from Mr Friel’s Bible and some advice from Mr Vance’s data driven approach, I have a good change of putting together a structured plan that will ensure that I have included roughly the right amount of training of the right type. When you have little experience, prescriptive process allows you to build on the knowledge of experts. It may not be optimal, but you get what you pay for.

    Thanks for a very interesting discussion.

    • Paul,

      Great comment, thanks for taking the time to write that!

      I definitely agree that periodisation templates can be very beneficial for athletes like yourself. As you say, having that hand-rail versus a blank sheet is in all likelihood going to make you train much more effectively.

      But what I would suggest is that even for self-coached newbies there are ways to build in some form of feedback loop. For example, regular testing, which at least Friel suggest you do every 4 weeks. So, if you follow his template, make note of when you seem to progress in your tests, and when you don’t. Maybe you don’t change anything this season, but for next season, maybe you change your training to include more training of the type you did when you saw good progress in your test results, and less training of the ind that you didn’t seem to respond to.

      This is very objective, so you don’t need to be an experienced coach to do this. And it’s just one example of how you can build in feedback into your training planning.

      So I guess what I want to say is, periodisation templates are fantastic starting points. But even for self-coached beginner athletes, a few simple ways of gathering feedback and using it in future training planning (or right away to change the current training) shifts the template from being just a template, to something more personalised, like you would get from working with a good coach.

      Hope this helps. Really glad you enjoyed the episode!

      • Thanks for your reply.

        This season I’ve been doing regular assessments of my progress, changing the measurements points depending on the phase. What I haven’t been doing is using that information to then tune my training in the later sessions, other than to adjust training zones.

        I think with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained this year I’m better equipped to close the feedback loop and make the training plan more reactive. As you say, the information is an objective measure of the current state of play so should be a solid base on which to make the necessary decisions.

        Obviously with all the information I’m picking up from your podcasts I’ll be fully equipped to make all those decisions, thanks for that. Keep up the great work!

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