Strategic periodization: is it like playing chess?

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Strategic periodization: is it like playing chess?

In most of our blogs, we have explained methods to optimize your training schedule during a week. Among others, we have provided guidelines on how to determine the optimal load for your players, how to design your conditional training session, and how to get your players fresh before the start of a match. But once you have integrated (some of) these aspects in your training schedule, you might want to start playing around with these principles. As this may lead to a further optimization of your training schedule. One of the ways to do this is via strategic periodization: “intentional peaking for matches or events of perceived greatest priority or difficulty throughout a competitive season”. But what does this exactly mean and how can you integrate this in your training schedule?

In practical terms, strategic periodization means that you are deliberately manipulating the training volumes (i.e. duration of exercises or repetitions of exercises) and training intensities during a week-schedule to improve the preparedness of the players for an upcoming important match. To get a feeling of how you need to adjust your training load during the week, the model in figure 1 is important. In this model, it can be seen that ‘performance’ is the result of the interaction between fitness and fatigue. When fitness levels are high, but fatigue levels are also high we expect moderate performance of our players (see line (1) in figure 1). However, if we combine high fitness levels with low fatigue levels, this will result in peak performance (see line (2) in figure 1). From this example, it should be clear that the fitness level are the same, but the fatigue levels are making the difference. Hence, the focus of manipulating the training load during the week should be to reduce the accumulated fatigue in the players.

By reducing the total training load of the week, you can reduce the fatigue levels of the players. Total training load can be reduced via a decrease in training volumes or training intensities during a weekly-schedule. Even though there are no strict guidelines on how much you need to lower the training load, it is advised to reduce is to maximally 75% of your previous weekly load. The reduction can be achieved by performing less repetitions of an exercise (i.e. reduce training volume). Or via reductions in intensity, which can be reached via smaller field dimensions of game formats (especially for 7v7-11v11), or lengthening the duration of repetitions of exercises (e.g. 3x6min instead of 6x3min). By reducing one or both of these factors it will become easier for the players to handle the training load. This, in turn, will reduce their fatigue levels.

So when do you decide to implement strategic periodization? When you have an important match coming up, such as a match against a direct competitor, you may want to give the players extra rest. However, match difficulty might also be used as a reason for strategic periodization. Based on the strength of the opponent, the “form” of the opponent, whether it is a home or away game you can determine the match difficulty of the upcoming match. Based on this, you can adjust your training schedule accordingly. So let’s imagine your team is fighting against relegation, and  in the next match you have to play against the leader of the competition. Based on the match difficulty, you would reduce the training load for the week. This strategy would make sure that your team is ready for an optimal performance. However, you might also think that the chances of losing such a game are high even with an optimal performance. If the match thereafter is against a direct competitor, and thus of higher importance, you may also decide to increase the training load in the week before you play against the leader (to enhance physical fitness), and reduce the training load before playing against a direct competitor (to enhance recovery). Hence, we can conclude that there are no strict guidelines on when to implement strategic periodization. However, implementing it in the week before games with the highest importance seems the most logical.

As can be seen from the example above, strategic periodization is a bit like playing chess: deciding which is the best move at the right moment in time. Therefore, one might also question what the risks are of implementing a strategic periodization. Reducing the load for a prolonged period of time will increase the risk of detraining effects. However, if the training load is reduced for only 1 or 2 weeks, detraining effects are not likely to occur. Only when training load is reduced for >4 weeks, detraining effects will most likely occur. However, for players who are not being physically challenged during a match, the non-starters, a reduction in training load for 1 or 2 weeks might already lead to detraining effects. Therefore, for the players who do not play a full match, training load should not be reduced (too much). Furthermore, if you want to make sure that detraining effects do not occur, it is best to keep the intensity of exercises the same, but reduce the total training volume.

Conclusion

If you have found a periodization schedule which sufficiently prepares your players for the match demands, you may want to start playing around with it. By playing around with this schedule, you may further enhance the performance of your team within the most important matches. One of the ways to do this is via strategic periodization: by deliberately decreasing the training volumes and intensities during the week, you will improve the freshness (i.e. reduce the fatigue levels) of the players for the upcoming match. However, be careful with applying a strategic periodization schedule for a prolonged period of time: if you decrease training load for more than 4 weeks, detraining effects are likely to occur.