Periodization Training for Swimming

Olympic gold rewarded 800-meter freestyler Katie Ladecky for her rigorous training.
i Al Bello/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

A competitive swimmer daydreams about standing on the podium with a medal placed around her neck. To make those dreams come true, you need to peak on the day of the biggest competition of the year, whether it is the high school state finals, the Olympics, or the climactic Masters swimming meet of the season. The solution lies in the concept of periodization, developed by coaches in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. Periodization, which varies the amount of your training, is based on solid research findings. But adapting the research to an individual swimmer is a combination of art and science.

Science of Periodization

    The theory of periodization is based on the general adaptation syndrom, or GAS, which describes the three stages of adaptation your body experiences when it is stressed, such as during a training session. First, muscles momentarily get weaker. Then with repeated stress, such as swimming hundreds of laps or lifting weights, the body adapts and muscles get stronger. But if the stress becomes excessive, muscles become exhausted, and training benefits stagnate or decline. Periodization is the creation of a daily, weekly and seasonal training plan that incorporates these different stages of adaptation. For example, the periodization plan for 2012 Olympic star Missy Franklin, who swims far less in practice than most of her teammates, was fine-tuned to perfection by her coach.


    A macrocycle is a periodization-training plan for an entire year or season. If you are a high school swimmer, a season might only total 10 weeks. A swimmer on a national team will need a training plan that lasts a year or even four years if the next Olympics is the main goal. A mesocycle last about six weeks, the amount of time time it takes for training to translate into significant gains in strength and performance. Microcycles range from about four to 10 days. A sophisticated coach can build periodization into each one of these cycles to develop your strength, endurance and acceleration.

Linear vs. Undulating

    As if it wasn't complicated enough, there are two schools of periodization, linear and undulating. Linear periodization focuses on one or two distinct systems during each phase of the training plan. So you might spend several weeks of workouts focusing on endurance and then several weeks focusing on speed. The major benefit lies in stressing distinctive systems in the body for an adequate period for adaptation to occur. The downside is that you might lose some of the endurance gains when you switch to a focus on speed. An undulating system addresses everything at once. Your workouts mix speed work, endurance work and strength work. The potential drawback: Elite swimmers might not progress as fast or peak as optimally for one big event with an undulating workout plan.


    Coaches and swimmers continue to juggle art and science during the tapering period. The taper period usually lasts from one to three weeks. It allows you to cut down after the previous weeks or months of hard training, enabling your body to store energy you can unleash on race day. Generally, the tapering period consists of fewer and shorter workouts. The intensity of your training sessions should remain high. Otherwise, you might lose some of the gains you made during the heavy training phase of periodization. Some swimmers also say they lose their feel for the water if they taper too much.

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