In preparation for the first Olympic Games, ancient contenders lifted the same calf daily, and the amount of weight they could lift increased as the calf grew. Clearly, this rudimentary approach had its drawbacks, but over time, "periodization," as it's called, has been honed. Today, elite athletes employ it to trigger substantial fitness gains.
A periodized exercise calendar alternates hard and easy days, and hard and easy weeks, in a way that respects the time each system requires to recover and improve. So, say you want to flourish in Vancouver -- or in a local marathon, or at your next doctor's visit -- you might follow this hypothetical periodized exercise calendar:
Tuesday: Warm-up and run (biggest aerobic day)
Wednesday: Warm-up and upper-body muscle strengthening
Thursday: Warm-up; swim, bike or yoga
Friday: Warm-up and run
Saturday: Warm-up; yoga or Pilates, and swim (optional)
Sunday: Warm-up and lower-body muscle strengthening
Start week again
After Monday's rest, you're aerobically fresh so you do your hardest aerobic workout on Tuesday. On Wednesday your cardiovascular system is spent, thanks to Tuesday's workout, but your muscles are fresh so you do upper-body muscle strengthening. This allows your cardiovascular system and legs to rest and recover, but takes advantage of that time to challenge another part of your body. On Thursday you rest your upper-body muscles, but by now your lungs and heart are rested, so you do another aerobic workout, this one geared to also help you recover from lifting the day before using what's known as "active recovery." (Research shows that light exercise actually improves recovery from muscle-strengthening exercise.) Since your abdominal and back muscles are rested, you also do core strengthening via a yoga or Pilates class. On Friday you do another aerobic workout. And so on. A periodized month might include hard exercise for Week 1, easy exercise or tapering for Week 2, competition or hardest exercise in Week 3, and active rest in Week 4. (Active rest in this context means doing the same workouts but at a lower intensity and volume, or working on specific techniques you need to develop to avoid injury or improve your performance.)
It sounds complicated, but periodization actually simplifies your exercise schedule. When I was skating, I used one mode of periodization in the early phase, but when I wanted to have a big peak, I used another mode. (To see all four modalities, go to www.fasterbetterstronger.com.)
Periodization ensures that you are providing enough stimulation to trigger improvement in each of your body's systems while alleviating the risk of overburdening any one of them. It also acknowledges normal fatigue. My colleague Max Testa, M.D., and I often hear that people have given up exercise because they interpreted normal fatigue as a signal to rest completely or to stop exercising. Periodization recognizes normal fatigue as the positive signal that it is and gives you a heads-up on when to anticipate it.
In addition, as many an Olympic athlete has discovered, it's the best way to maximize the return on an exercise investment.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenortho.com)