Training Theory and Considerations


Principles of Periodization

“How can a specific training exercise contribute to increasing an individual’s level of performance?”— Bosch & Klomp

The basis for track and field training theory and organization is the principle of periodization.  In conjunction with athletics as a whole, track and field operates on a structured system revolving around competition and optimal performance.  Within this system, it is paramount a coach identifies training themes and principles of segmentation to ensure an athletes achieves peak performance.  Although a coach must often take two full competitive seasons and an off-season into consideration, periodization themes primarily break a full calendar year up into individual and specific segments of training.  For the purpose of this principle, an individual year of training is called a macrocycle.  Although a macrocycle will often include off-season training, a typical macrocycle period will last eight months to a full year depending on the competitive level and training age of the athlete.  As a macrocycle will often encompass two competitive seasons—indoors and outdoors—two competitive training peaks must be considered.  Within a full macrocycle, each smaller season is subdivided into shorter mesocycles.  Further, although a macrocycle will typically encompass an entire year, training is often broken into two separate macrocycles or seasons of competition with specific mesocycles being covered within each macrocycle (Kirksey & Stone, 1998).

To further organize and plan a training year, three key components or mesocycles must be considered.  These three components are the preparatory phase, the competitive phase, and the transition phase.  The preparatory phase can be further subdivided into the general preparatory phase and the specific preparatory phase.  As is eluded through its name, the general preparatory phase is characterized by general training, often during the summer or beginning months of an academic year.  During this phase, training is organized and promoted with overall metabolic and muscular fitness and strength being the fundamental goal.  Often considered to be off-season training, this phase is highly important because of its significance and influence on later training phases.  Following the general preparatory phase, the specific preparatory phase encompasses similar athletic goals, but with a larger focus on specific competitive goals.  During this phase, aspects of athlete strength, speed, and power are increasingly focused on. 

Schexnayder, 2015

Schexnayder, 2015

Following the preparatory phase, the competitive phase of training ought to begin.  The competitive phase of training includes the pre-competition phase and the main competition phase.  The pre-competition and competition phases of training focus on a continuance of specific training components of speed, power, and strength, but with a new focus on competitive and performance results.  The pre-competitive phase of training will cover early season competitions with the overall goal of testing athlete fitness and competitive readiness.  The main competition phase however, is designed to produce maximal and peak performances.  The overall macrocycle and periodized training season is focused on specific competitive dates such as conference, state, or national meets, with training structured accordingly. 

Following the completion of a season, a transition phase is included with the stated goals of rest and recovery.  Lasting around a month in duration, the transition phase is necessary to ensure an athlete can recover from a previous training segment and will be healthy and ready for the next season of competition and the start of a new periodized training cycle. 

These three mesocycles are specifically organized and dictated by inter-season competitions ranked through order of importance.  According to research conducted by Tony Wells, Caryl Smith, and Curtis Taylor, a successfully planed, organized, and implemented macrocycle should elucidate specific performance benchmarks.  If an athletes training is periodized and structured to peak twice in a season, the specific athlete ought to see a 1.55% increase in their best athletic performance.  Further, if an athletes training is periodized and structured to peak only once in a season, the specific athlete ought to see a .96% increase in their best athletic performance.  With these stated training goals, an athlete should be expected to see a tested performance benchmark of 2.5% of best individual performance three weeks into the competitive phase.  Following this benchmark, the specific athlete should be attaining a competitive best performance around six weeks into the competitive phase of training.  These benchmarks, although precise, should be used as predictive margins in order to ascertain the success or failure of a specific training cycle (Wells, Smith, & Taylor, USATF Development Project 1, 2001).

Within an individual mesocycle or season of competition, training is further broken down into a microcycle.  A microcycle refers to a specific week of training within the mesocycle as a whole.  Each microcycle is tailored around the stated goals of the current mesocycle.  Each microcycle accounts for the full seven days of the week.  Although an athlete is not active or training during every day, off and rest days are keenly accounted for.  A microcycle is highly dependent on the overall fitness, ability, and training age of the specific athlete.  Depending on these factors, the number of workouts per week may greatly vary.  In addition, the intensity and volume of each workout and overall microcycle is dependent on the specific athlete.  Overall however, a microcycle, like the mesocycle and macrocycle, will adhere to biological and training principles of supercompensation and related components.

Schexnayder, 2015

Schexnayder, 2015


Supercompensation can be observed on a large scale—in a macrocycle or on a smaller scale—in a microcycle. For the purpose of creating individual training plans, supercompensation should be most acutely noted during a microcycle and an individual training day. Principally, supercompensation is a four-step process.

  1. The first component of supercompensation is the individual training or practice session. Given the assumption of pre-practice or non-activity representing an athlete homeostasis level or fitness baseline, training acts to load the athletes’ body. The specific practice loading is characterized by a resulting level of increased fatigue and decreased performance ability.
  2. Following a training load and subsequent fatigue, step two of supercompensation relates to a period of recovery. This recovery phase is paramount due to the allowance of cardiovascular, metabolic, and other biological systems to return the athlete to homeostasis.  
  3. Following this recovery phase, step three of supercompensation is the resulting supercompensation itself. Following a training load or intense practice and adequate practice, the natural biological processes of an athlete will necessitate an adaption to previous training stimuli. This is caused by the human body’s ability to account for increases in stimuli and training fatigue. As training intensity is increased and appropriate recovery is allowed, an athlete ought to be able perform at increasingly higher levels
  4. The final step of supercompensation occurs following the supercompensation effect. As the athlete begins to adapt to training stimuli and various loads, the compensation effect will begin to diminish. If an athlete is not introduced to different training factors or increased loads, this compensation effect will regress. This effect, known as reversibility, will occur in all athletes unless proper practice and training plans are used. (Gambetta, 2007).
(House & Johnston, 2014)

(House & Johnston, 2014)

Training Overload

As a key point of consideration, understanding of the principle of overload is important to a full understanding of training periodization and performance supercompensation. Overload is the process of pushing the human body past the point of homeostasis or base physical capacity. Overload allows for the body to aptly utilize biological processes to recover and adapt to an increased base of physical capacity. To ensure a proper practice and athlete overload, an increase in training intensity or volume must be undertaken. Without an increase in intensity or volume, an appropriate overload cannot be obtained and thus, a resulting level of supercompensation cannot be obtained (Bosch & Klomp, 2005).

It is important to note however, that principles of overload need to directly correlate with an athletes individual physical and mental capacity. If training intensity or volume is increased too quickly or past the point of an athlete ability, overtraining and injuries can occur. The key to overload is finding the critical point between undertraining and overtraining where an athlete is most likely to succeed. 


In conjunction with principles of supercompensation, reversibility is an essential training principle which must be taken in consideration.  Reversibility describes the biological trend in which an athlete will return to previous levels of homeostasis or fitness in the absence of appropriate or increased stimuli.  In a model of supercompensation, an athlete who has supercompensated will return to previous physical and biological states without an increase in either training intensity or volume.  Although at the state level, all athletes will see trends of reversibility with decreases or absences in training, other factors such as athlete age, athlete training age, injury, and specific trained qualities may cause greater losses.  It is necessary to take principles of reversibility into account when planning macrocycles with components of rest, recovery, and transition accounted for (Bosch & Klomp, 2005).

Law of Diminishing Returns

In relation to principles of reversibility, the law of diminishing returns states an athlete will elicit decreased results and smaller increases in performance from a recurrent stimuli.  If an athlete performs the same task or activity each day in practice, the first session will produce the highest level of adaptation and performance increases, while all subsequent identical sessions will produce progressively reduced levels of adaptation and performance increases.  To counteract this constant principle, training loads must be gradually augmented through either volume or intensity increases.  Due to the direct relationship between individual physiological states and levels of practice and load stimuli, attention must be placed on the intensity and volume of a training session and all expected results.  As an athlete grows in physiological ability and performance outcomes, training demand must also correspondingly grow.  It also must be noted that as training load increases in conjunction with athletic physiology and performance increases, there is a lesser degree of physiological and performance growth per the correlated amount of energy expended (Bosch & Klomp, 2005).

Law of Specificity

When formulating season training schedules and daily training sessions, it is critical to note the law of specificity.  In unambiguous terms, the law of specificity states, “adaptation occurs only in muscles that have been stressed” (Bosch & Klomp, 2005).  In relation to track and field—specifically sprint training—specificity refers to an athlete training only aspects of the human body and biological systems which will be directly used during a competitive performance.  For a sprinter during the preparatory and competition phases of training, aspects of strength, speed, power, acceleration, and technique are the most crucial. 

Professor of biomechanics, Frans Bosch determined that there are five key components of specificity which each coach should aptly understand. 

  1. First, “types of muscle action must be similar to those used in competition.” This means an athlete ought to train how they expect to perform.  For an athlete competing in a short sprint, components of speed, acceleration, and power are more important and critical training aspects than endurance or aerobic strength. 
  2. Secondly, “structure of the movement must resemble that used in competition.” Relating to a technical standpoint, each practice and training session should keenly take all expected competitive muscle movements into consideration.  Again, the athlete ought to move in practice how they expect to move in a competition performance. Simply—train how you compete.
  3. Third, “sensory information must resemble that present in competition.” Recreating a competition environment during practice is crucial for both mental and physical stability and assurance.  If an athlete has a specific pre-block ritual during a competition, they ought to perform the same ritual each time in practice. Consistency is key here.
  4. Fourth, "dominant energy systems used in competition must be called on.” In relation to the former points, training and practice sessions ought to strongly utilize similar or exact energy systems which will be used during a competition performance.  In the case of a sprinter, this refers dominantly to the anaerobic respiration system and its corresponding components. 
  5. Finally, “[the] result of the movement must be the same as competition.” Connecting the former points together, a coach ought to ensure a practice and training session is organized and completed in a manner which is similar to a competition or specific performance environment (Nainby, 2013)

As a whole, the law of specificity asks the question, “how can a specific training exercise contribute to increasing an individual’s level of performance” (Bosch & Klomp, 2005)?

Athlete Individuality

Principles of training diversity and individuality attempt to encompass the ideas of the previously stated principles and laws.  Each track and field team is composed of highly different individuals.  These differences can range from simple gender differences to age differences and differences in training to basic athletic ability.  Although athletes may often share similar traits and qualities, no two athletes are identical in terms of physiological, biological, or psychological qualities.  As such, each individual ought to be treated as an individual within a common system of training philosophy. Although it is often impossible to personally tailor each training session to a particular athlete, especially in youth settings, each session should seek to identify dissimilarities amongst athletes and attempt to account for those differences in training and practice sessions.  Attempting to train athletes and individuals with a purely group mindset may lead to diminished mental states and physical injuries.  Consideration should appropriately be placed on individual ability, levels of recovery and adaptation, specific training loads, nutrition, and environment or social aspects (Pyke & Rushall, 1990).

Athletes block starts and demonstration of athlete individuality

—Each Athlete is Different—

Sprinter vs. Hurdler

Freshman vs. Senior

Experienced vs. First Time Athlete

Natural Talent vs. Trained Ability

—Train the Individual—

Fundamentals of Sprint Training

When training and coaching a track and field sprinter, it is important to focus on specific “bio-motor” components of coordination, endurance, flexibility, speed, and strength.  Coordination training seeks to increase an individual’s sense of overall balance, mechanical rhythm, and general orientation.  Endurance—as applied to sprinting—seeks to promote speed maintenance “in the presence of fatigue.” During a sprint performance, endurance aids in lessening the degree of deceleration during the later parts of a race.  Flexibility, in the form of pre-performance dynamic stretching or post-performance and rehabilitative static stretching, aids in the prevention of injury and the promotion of muscular balance and preparation.  Speed is often considered the cornerstone of sprinting.  Speed training aids in the overall increase of an individual’s velocity potential during a performance.  Strength applies to the ability to adequately produce increased levels of power during a sprint performance and also directly aids in the overall increase of an individual’s velocity potential (Young & Schexnayder).

Training considerations—

  1. Coordination
  2. Endurance
  3. Speed
  4. Flexibility
  5. Strength

Although these five factors can be represented individually, factors of speed, strength, and endurance blend to form different but equally important training considerations.  Acceleration utilizes factors of speed and strength to achieve an increased rate of speed from non-movement.  Acceleration training relates to workloads, often shorter than 30 meters, which end before or at the moment when maximal velocity or top speed is achieved (Young & Schexnayder)

Aspects of speed and endurance can be broken into categories of speed endurance, power speed, and speed development.  Speed endurance represents the ability to maintain a high degree of velocity for the longest possible duration.  Speed endurance work relates to individual practice performances longer than 30 meters in length while concentrating on maintenance of maximal velocity.  Dependent on the specific energy system being focused upon, speed endurance can range from 30 meters to 400 meters (Dare & Kearney, 1988).

Power speed represents movements consisting of less than six repetitions at a distance of less than 20 meters. Further, power speed can be coupled with technical aspects to utilize power tech. development. Power tech. work utilizes the same limiting factors of power speed, but has a greater focus on stride length, stride frequency, and mechanical aspects (Wells , Smith, & Taylor, USATF Development Project 3, 2001). 

Speed Development differentiates between speed training based on the duration of the specific activity.  Speed development specifically focuses on sprinting with a duration of no more than six seconds.  Typically speed development works on the maximum velocity phase of sprinting, following acceleration, between 30 meters and 60 meters (Wells , Smith, & Taylor, USATF Development Project 3, 2001).

In addition to these training factors, principles of specificity should always be considered.  Regardless of training period, phase, or goal, it is important to always stress that each workout is tailored towards the ultimate goal of increased performance and athletic ability.