Chart a Course to Fitness

Mapping out the peaks and valleys of your workout program will help you achieve better results in less time.

Natalie Wessel, 31, is a competitive distance runner. Like many serious athletes, she uses the principles of periodization — planned variation in workouts — to guide her training. That probably doesn’t surprise you.

What may surprise you, however, is that Wessel, a New York City–based personal trainer, uses the same principles with her clients. “Including my nonathletes,” she says. Long associated with hardcore sports training, periodization is becoming more popular with everyday exercisers, thanks to trainers like Wessel. The appeal is simple: It works.

“Periodization is a systematic and purposeful way of changing your workouts over time,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, who maintains a weightlifting Web site for women ( “It’s a methodology based on what we know about how the body responds to exercise.”

Whether you’re trying to shed fat, build strength or increase your energy, a properly periodized plan will help you get far better results than doing the same workouts over and over — or changing your workouts arbitrarily.

It Starts With a Goal

Periodization works most effectively when you set goals with various time spans. “When I begin working with a client, we first establish long-term goals,” says Wessel. “Then we break those long-term goals down into medium-term goals, and then break those down into short-term goals.”

The goals you set at each level need to jibe. For example, suppose your long-term goal is to lose 20 pounds in six months. Your medium-term goal might be to ride a stationary bike for one hour without stopping within three months. And your short-term goal might be to establish a consistent routine of five workouts per week by the end of the first month. From there, you begin planning your workouts for maximum effect.

Three Principles

Three core principles of periodization will help you create the most appropriate workout program to achieve your goals:

Exercise produces the best results when periods of harder training are alternated with periods of lighter training. “The human body can’t be pushed maximally all the time,” says Scott-Dixon. “You want to work hard enough to stimulate an adaptive response, but you don’t want to push so hard that your body doesn’t recover.”

Your training should be very general at first and become increasingly specific to your goal. For example, if your primary goal is to build muscle strength, begin by emphasizing simple bodyweight exercises to strengthen your joints, enhance muscle coordination, and improve overall muscle strength and balance. Once you’ve established this foundation, you can move on to more advanced exercises with heavier loads. The same principles apply with cardio fitness: Build an aerobic base before moving on to high-intensity interval or speed training.

The human body adapts to new challenges progressively. If your goal is to run a marathon (26.2 miles) and you’ve never run farther than three miles, your body won’t be ready to run 15 miles your first day of training. You’ll get much better results if you increase the length of your runs gradually. A good rule of thumb is to increase the distance of your runs by no more that 10 percent each week.

Taking Cues From Athletes

Even if you have no interest in sports, borrowing some of the expert methods that athletes use can help you pursue your fitness goals more effectively. Take, for example …

Athletes in many sports aim to achieve a fitness “peak” one or more times per year. The rest of the year is divided into phases of preparatory training, each phase building on the last.

You can do something similar to give your training direction and variety. In the summer, when exercising outdoors is enticing, you might emphasize endurance with longer bike rides or runs. In the winter, you might focus on building strength in the gym. The key is to find seasonal fitness approaches that work with your goals and lifestyle.

You can use structured fitness evaluations to measure progress and to motivate, in the same way athletes have competitions. “One of my favorite evaluations is a good old-fashioned time trial,” says Wessel, who has many of her nonathlete clients regularly test how fast they can run around the Great Meadow in Central Park.

Tests for muscular endurance, balance and flexibility are also good fitness evaluations. Wessel recommends choosing one or more performance tests that are relevant to your goals and repeating them every four to eight weeks.

During the past 10 years, many athletes have abandoned traditional, or linear, periodization in favor of conjugated periodization. In linear periodization, athletes tend to separate different types of workouts into distinct cycles. For example, a runner might do long, slow runs in the first phase of training followed by short, fast workouts in the second phase and moderate-length race-pace workouts in the third.

In conjugated periodization, however, athletes perform a wide variety of workouts every week, with less emphasis on one type of training. Using conjugated periodization, that same runner might do all three types of runs throughout the training process, only moderately emphasizing a specific type in each phase.

“The conjugated method better reflects how the body really recovers and adapts,” says Scott-Dixon. “If you train endurance only for three months and then you drop it to train strength for three months, you eventually lose much of the endurance you worked so hard to develop, and you’re left wondering why you bothered.”

The four-week conjugated periodization schedule shown on page 26 provides an example of how to best employ the variety-filled weekly cycles that most fitness coaches now favor.

A Plan Is Not a Law

Periodization makes working out more productive and enjoyable by providing concrete, proven training plans that are relevant to your goals. But in practicing periodization, it’s important to listen to your body and depart from the plan as necessary.

“You might come into the gym one day feeling sluggish because your sick kid kept you up half the night,” says Scott-Dixon. “That might be a good day to take it easy.”

In other words, every plan should include room for a little flexibility — and a solid structure you can return to with confidence when the time is right.

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books, including Brain Training for Runners: A Revolutionary New Training System to Improve Endurance, Speed, Health and Results(NAL, 2007), and the editor of, a sports-nutrition Web site.

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