What is periodization? Surely you have to know that before you can appreciate what the essence of periodization is! Periodization is described by Tudor Bompa as a "process of structuring training into phases." Vladimir Zatsiorsky, an expert in biomechanics and strength and conditioning consultant to the Soviet Union, describes periodization as: "A division of the training season into smaller and more manageable intervals (periods of training, mesocycles, and microcycles) with the ultimate goal of reaching the best performance during the preliminary competition(s) of the season." Within this commonly used structure of periodization you see the terms mesocycle and microcycle. The microcycle is the infrastructure of the longer mesocycle. A microcycle is generally a grouping of several days, usually one week. Microcycles are commonly different lengths for different sports so that the undulation between work and rest expresses a periodicity similar to the actual competitive environment; if an important tournament lasts three days, the microcycle length will often be three days to replicate a similar duration and/or magnitude of stressors in training. A mesocycle is a system of several microcycles and can range anywhere from two to six weeks. A seldom discussed, but critical aspect of effective periodization is goal setting. There should be a goal structure for each micro-and mesocycle.

While the micro- and mesocycle time increments serve as useful methods of periodizing stressors, this system is not commonly used and often proves unsuccessful for the following reasons:


1.       Proper management of an athlete or anyone using highly structured exercise protocols requires skilled management. In most countries today, there is insufficient practical training of health and exercise professionals in the related fields of expertise necessary to successfully manage athletes (or people in general) with this model. More than managing exercise stressors, true periodization includes management of all psycho-physical stressors and requires good leadership! 

2.       Very few coaches, trainers or therapists have adequate knowledge of how to set and achieve goals, and therefore can't effectively guide their subjects beyond their own capacity to achieve. There appears to be an unwritten Universal Law which indicates that players, clients and/or patients can only achieve a level of success (health, performance, emotional, mental, or spiritual) equal to or less than their mentor(s). The occasional exception is that at some point, there is a role reversal, at which time the subject may overtake their mentor and inadvertently shower them with success they would otherwise not obtain with a lesser subject! In my observation, this is one of the most common reasons that ineffective exercise and rehabilitation technologies endure, often becoming traditions that are hard to break! Examples are the "no pain, no gain" mantra, the magic sponge, and high-carbohydrate diets for all athletes.

3.       Many sports and activities don't lend themselves to classic periodization schemes because there is no seasonal break or no structure to the sport. For example, tennis pros play year round and can easily play a tournament every weekend of the year, making mesocycle construction very challenging. Skateboarding professionals, squash players and many multi-sport athletes also face the challenge of the endless season. The only goals most such athletes maintain are 1) to win, 2) to survive, and 3) to earn a living. Neither the micro- or the mesocycle effectively deals with the most intricate subordinate cycle of all, the circadian (24-hour) cycle or rhythm.


How to Win Any Battle, One Day at a Time!

As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and we all know this to be true. What I will now share with you is yet another reliable truth, which is that no matter what your battle, it must be won one day at a time. It is only when you have mastered one revolution of the short hand on your clock that you can ever become successful with the larger micro or mesocycles; larger cycles can only compound the gains or losses accumulated in their circadian predecessors. To facilitate your mastery of the 24-hour day/night cycle, we will now explore:


·         Evolution and the day/night cycle

·         Day/night cycles and hormonal tides

·         Working with the sun and resting with the moon


Commonly Made Mistakes That Disrupt Essential Cycles

·         Incorrect time of going to sleep

·         Incorrect workout time

·         Use of stimulants

·         Poor food choices

·         Dysbiosis


Evolution and the Day/Night Cycle

In Nature, all living things are under the influence of the 24-hour circadian cycle. Evidence of the long-term, hard-wired effects of circadian cycles over our mammalian ancestors was demonstrated during the solar eclipse on August 11, 1999. During the eclipse, birds, horses and many other creatures in the path of total darkness went to sleep in the middle of the day (3)! When we consider that the first real humans (Homo habilis) evolved from our primate ancestors about 2.3 million years ago, (4) and the first use of fire by humans is projected to have been 1.9 million years ago (5), one can see that a great deal of time prior to this was spent living by the natural day/night cycle. Even after humans began using fire to cook and keep warm, it is doubtful that our natural sleep wake cycles were altered to any great degree. Anyone who has gone on a camping trip for a week or more soon finds their biorhythms synchronizing more closely with the natural day/night cycle. In the process of becoming human beings, potentially billions of years of evolutionary development, our physiological systems became synchronized to the light stimulus provided by the sun.


Day/Night Cycles and Hormonal Tides

In your body, the system that controls your sleep/wake cycles is called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPAaxis). The HPA axis controls cortisol synthesis, and therefore has a major influence on your sleep/wake cycles.

The region of your brain called the hypothalamus contains the specialized timekeeper cells that act as our internal clock. The pituitary gland, also located in the brain, is called the master gland by physiologists because it controls the release of a huge number of hormones in the body, including adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is the hormone that gives the message to the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids, a group of hormones that include cortisol, are referred to as both stress hormones and activating hormones. Cortisol and the other glucocorticoids are produced by your adrenal glands, which sit right on top of each of your kidneys. The adrenal glands are innervated only by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (often referred to as the "fight or flight" nervous system) and serve many very important functions that help us manage acute stressors. For example, thousands of years ago, if you were chased down and bitten by an animal in the wild, there would have been a burst of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) within a few seconds, followed in about 15 seconds by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and in minutes, glucocorticoid stress hormones (the primary being cortisol) would surge in the blood stream. Cortisol, considered as a primary stress hormone, has many vital functions in the body (see side bar), yet chronic exposure to stressors commonly inflicts the body with the burden of too much cortisol! While excess cortisol causes many problems, we will discuss a few pertinent ones below. 

Another important feature of cortisol is that it is an awakening and activating hormone. When sunlight touches your eyelids, or skin anywhere on your body, special cryptochrome proteins in your skin cells send light messages to your timekeeper cells in your hypothalamus. In a complex series of hormonal actions, the HPA axis responds to light stimulation that for millions of years could only have meant that morning had arrived. Inducing the release of cortisol would normally have been preparation for a day of activity. As the sun reached mid-day, cortisol levels would have begun their natural decline, ushering in the release of melatonin, the sleepy time hormone. With melatonin, there would be a progressive increase in blood levels of both immune and anabolic hormones to repair and rebuild damaged or dying body cells.


Working with the Sun and Resting with the Moon

If we could all control our clients' (and our own) daily schedule to allow training at the opportune time, our natural cortisol rhythm would suggest that training should take place between sunrise and about noon. During this period, cortisol levels are naturally elevated, providing stimulus for the nervous centers as an awakening hormone, and keeping inflammation in check so that we function, ideally, without pain. Since most conditioning programs induce stress, any exercise regimen perceived as invasive to the body's regulatory systems will surely serve to elevate cortisol (glucocorticoid) levels. While there is a much more comprehensive catabolic/anabolic balancing act taking place after any conditioning session than I can detail, there are some general guidelines:


·         Resistance training performed at bodybuilding intensities or higher (=/< 12 RM) performed for short periods of less than 40 minutes tends to elevate anabolic hormone levels, therefore facilitating an increase in lean muscle mass.

·         Resistance training programs extending beyond 40 minutes, endurance training with weights (>12 RM sets), using extensive interval methods (< 50% Max loading for high rep sets), or steady state cardiovascular training tend to elevate glucocorticoid levels, facilitating a reduction in lean muscle mass if performed frequently.

·         Interval training, as used by cyclists, runners, rowers and others can, and often does produce an anabolic response in the body. This can be seen quite well in the legs of many sprinters, tennis players, cyclists, the legs and backs of some rowers and others who are not using resistance training, yet their interval training is of sufficient intensity to trigger an anabolic response. If interval training is performed too frequently, or, if the interval sessions are separated by long sessions of low intensity, the catabolic response tends to dominate and muscle mass is not added.

·         Anyone training too late in the day to metabolize the cortisol their workouts are producing is likely to find that they can't get to sleep by the suggested 10-10:30 PM; they may feel tired and wired. If this continues, usually within a few days to a few weeks (depending on the person stature and reserves), the person stressed by excess cortisol will have a hard time rising with the sun in the morning at the ideal 6:00 AM. In addition, if your life stressors (finances, diet, relationships) are producing more cortisol than you can clear from your system, your growth and repair cycle is disrupted. The body naturally focuses it's immune and anabolic energies on the physical body between 10 PM and 2 AM, at which time the focus shifts to psychogenic and immune system repair, continuing until the sun comes up at about 6:00 AM.


While some of you may be saying "I keep the curtains closed and don't wake up till 8-9 AM and I get 8 hours of sleep anyway", you must remember that your hormonal tides are triggered by and directed by both day/night cycles and the energy (information) from the sun, just as a female's menstrual cycles are influenced by the energy (information) and cycle of the moon.


Functions of Cortisol

      Among the many important functions of cortisol in times of stress are:


  • Making sure your blood pressure doesn't drop too low by regulating the firmness and stiffness of your arteries.
  • Controlling water regulation.
  • Mobilizing energy to your brain:
    • Cortisol directs cells to break down your structural proteins that are then converted into sugar by the liver, keeping more sugar in the blood stream for the brain.
    • Cortisol can cause glycerol, the back bone of fatty acids to be converted into sugar for brain fuel.
    • Cortisol protects the fatty acids of your brain by making other fats available for brain fuel.
  • Cortisol regulates inflammation; when your body is low on cortisol, the inflammatory process can run unchecked, causing excessive tissue destruction!
  • Acute cortisol elevation stimulates the immune system and inhibits the amount of injury that might occur; acute immune stimulation is important to kill bacteria that may inoculate the body via such invasions as puncture by a sharp object, such as an attacking animal's teeth or puncture by an object when falling.

As many of my patients in this situation have told me, "I get eight hours of sleep, but I always seem to wake up tired. I don't feel rested." The point being is that if you are not sleeping in synergy with your hormonal/repair cycles, you are getting a lower quality of sleep. This is a formula for chronic fatigue! In people who are getting to bed on time, yet not getting a restful sleep, there are a number of other factors that may come into play. While many of them are outlined in Sleep, Biological Rhythms and Electromagnetic Fields, one to look for is the place of birth. I have consulted a number of athletes and clients who have found they couldn't get a good, restful sleep anywhere outside the time zone they were born or in where they spent the majority of their childhood. This is logical since your circadian rhythm and hormonal tides are locked into the light/dark cycles of your place of origin; some people have a greater capacity to adapt to such changes than others and the greater the stress they are under, the less capacity they have to adapt in general. Regardless if the stressor is exercise, relationship, drugs or drinking caffeinated beverages, if the stressor causes a fight/flight response, the SNS triggers elevated cortisol levels, delaying the onset of melatonin and its growth and repair counterparts. Eventually, the adrenal glands become fatigued and can't produce adequate cortisol to meet the demands of repeated stressors, regardless if they are so-called "good stressors" like exercise or if they are "bad stressors". This situation produces the "tired-all-the time" syndrome.

Those with low levels of adrenal fatigue will find that they can train in the afternoon or even in the evening hours, yet fall asleep with no problem. This may be an indicator that they are cortisol deficient and the exercise is actually bringing them back up to baseline, much like coffee or tea does to many who chronically wake up tired, yet feel normal after consuming caffeine. While this scenario can go on for many years without problems if optimal diet and sleep cycles are not adhered to, there is usually a progressive period of decreasing performance. The scenario usually goes like this: "I was doing great for a couple years, hitting the gym at night after work, maintaining strength and mass. Then I started to suffer from repeated nagging injuries that interrupted my training. Now, I can't seem to train hard enough or regularly enough to maintain my strength/performance levels. What should I do?"


Resetting the Clock
I'm quite sure many of you reading this know someone who fits the above scenario very well. This can be a very frustrating situation to be in, and can also be frustrating for coaches and therapists trying to use patch technologies, such as pick-me-up drinks, quick energy foods, or even steroids to fix the problem. While there are a myriad of interwoven factors that should be assessed by a skilled Naturopathic physician or a CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coach, many of these people can recover by applying the essence of periodization! It is often as simple as:
1)       Shifting your sleep/wake cycles to allow you get to sleep by 10 p.m. and wake up with the sun at 6:00 AM.
2)       Workouts and training must become therapeutic in intent; schedule workouts in the morning, before work so you can use them to elevate cortisol levels naturally; adjust your training variables to encourage cortisol production (see above). If you find that you have a significant afternoon energy lull, you may be better off scheduling your workouts at that time because the exercise will elevate cortisol levels naturally and energize you, reducing the need for stimulants; if it does not your variables or exercise methods are suspect;
3)       Assure adequate wind-down time at night and stay away from computer screens and televisions for as long as possible before bed. Use candle light and take a hot bath to relax you. Many people find that by performing Tai-Chi, Qi-gong or lighter forms of Yoga before bed dissipates stressful energies and help them to sleep better, helping to reset the body clock;
4)       Make absolutely sure you stay away from processed foods, simple carbohydrates, or alcoholic beverages after about 3:00 PM (forever is best!) because they disrupt blood sugar levels and can be neurotoxic, both of which cause cortisol levels to be elevated and disrupt your HPA axis and sleep/wake cycles!
5)       If you've tried all of this and can't get the results you feel you should have for the effort applied, you would be wise to schedule a vacation in the time zone you were born in and see how much better you sleep and feel there.
I know of cases where the client literally had to move back home so they could regain their health! If you are using stimulants of any type, you MUST get guidance from a CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coach or Naturopathic Physician on how to reduce their use and rehabilitate your adrenal glands. Those who have completed Level 2 of the C.H.E.K Institute's Holistic Lifestyle Coaching  Program and physicians trained by Dr. Bill Timmins (BioHealth Diagnostics — www.biodia.com) have very good protocols to assist you. You should also assure that you are eating correctly for your metabolic type. If you have been tested at the intermediate level and have tried most or all of the suggestions in this article, yet still experience difficulty, you may need to be tested at the advanced level to more accurately determine your optimal food proportions. You can find an Advanced Metabolic Typing Advisor at www.healthexcel.com.
The Rest of the Story
The topic of periodization, even within the confines of the circadian cycle is so vast, I could easily write a book on it. What must be realized by anyone administering exercise, is that exercise (with few exceptions such as Tai-Chi, Qi-Gong) is stressful to the body! Periodization, as I stated in the beginning of the article, is generally built upon microcycles of 3-7 days and mesocycles of 4-6 weeks. Even the conventional microcycle is torturously long to any body out of balance structurally, nutritionally/hormonally or energetically. True periodization must take into consideration all aspects of the human being, which are at minimum, physical-emotional-mental-spiritual. The physical body is a very reliable mechanism by which to read the emotional, mental and spiritual bodies as you become more skilled. The body never lies! For those of you sincerely interested in mastering periodization, I suggest the following:
v      Program Design correspondence course
v      Advanced Program Design correspondence course
v      CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coaching Program
v      100 or more willing clients to practice with!
    Many of you have heard me say, "Work Hard and Rest Hard." In this brief article, I've put the emphasis on the "rest hard" because it is only during rest that you grow stronger, not while training as so many falsely believe! Only when you have balance in the hormonal system and quality sleep cycles can you achieve any body transformation, sports or physical goals for the long run because the entire periodization system is literally build from the ground (bed) up!
Internationally acclaimed, Paul Chek developed his unique, holistic approach during twenty-two years of clinical practice in the fields of corrective exercise, high performance conditioning and integrative lifestyle counseling. Author of numerous books and professional development courses, he is the founder of the C.H.E.K Institute (www.chekinstitute.com) and the P~P~S Success Mastery Program (www.ppssucess.com).


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