Annual training programmes and the sport specific levels of world class athletes

By Felix Suslov

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    Felix P. Suslov is Professor at the Russia State Academy for Physical Culture in Moscow. He is the author and co-author of ten manuals on the theory of coaching, running, youth athletics and a dictionary of sports. As a middle distance runner he competed for the national team of the former USSR. From 1955-1969 he worked as senior coach of Kazakhstan and from 1969-1982 as a senior coach of the USSR national team.



    The author states that the use of competitions organised as a series of events over 3-6 months as a competition preparation method and as a means to improve the financial prosperity of elite athletes has brought about a questioning of the traditional training processes, to the extent of whether they contradict modern sports practice. In the paragraphs that follow he analyses the structure of the planning units of various world class athletes. He concludes that the level of preparation of the best athletes in the world shows that even with the relatively new factors of professionalisation and commercialisation, the classic annual structure of one or two training cycles worked out a long time ago, and used by many generations, should still be maintained.

    In recent years, international sport has witnessed a process of constantly growing commercialisation, which is reflected in the enlargement of the international calendar of competitions (World Cups, Grand Prix, commercial competitions). The main feature of these competitions is that they are organised as a series of events over 3-6 months.

The use of these competitions as a competition preparation method and a means to improve the financial prosperity of elite athletes, has given rise to the feeling that traditional training processes are now out of date and in contradiction of modern sports practice.

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    A number of experts have started to reject preparation periods, and invented an individual planning phase for each major competition, using different terms to define the structural components of the annual cycle.

    Different theories have been put forward suggesting that the structure of an annual cycle may include up to 6-7 macrocycles. The authors of these theories base them on the experiences of some outstanding individual athletes, and so are worthy of consideration.

    The fundamental basis of training theory confirms that the duration of the macrocycle is related to the individual phases in sport specific fitness development, and its culmination marks the optimal development of all the key aspects of the athlete's programme.

    The research done into the conditioning phase by theoretical and practical experts, indicates that the shortest individual period of its maintenance should be 2 months, and the longest period is 8 months. To preserve fitness levels and to maintain stability will take from 1 to 5 months and depends on the duration of the maintenance phase. In addition to this period, one must also consider the temporary loss of the "fitness" phase (the transitional period of preparation). The consequence of this is that the annual cycle cannot practically include more than three macrocycles, because the athlete will not be able to lose and regain the fitness levels required more than three times in twelve months.

    The relationship between the structure of the annual cycle and the dynamics of sport specific fitness has been examined, using data for some world class athletes. The annual cycles of 10 Olympic Champions, 5 World Champions and 3 winners of the IAAF Golden League Grand Prix competitions were analysed. It should be mentioned that our data bank possesses information for more than 100 winners and medallists from both the Olympic Games and World Championships.

    The international calendar from 1992-1999 was quite stable with Olympic Games, World Championships and Grand Prix competitions staged on approximately the same dates each year, with the season ending in the middle of September. Information was readily available on the number of competitions, their concentration, the intervals between them, performance levels, etc., allowing for a description of the structure of the annual cycle, which started in the middle of October.

    Track and field is a multi-event sport, where the achievement of high performance results is connected to the development of speed/strength, co-ordination abilities and special endurance. That is why athletics can be considered as a model for other sports, which require the same complex of physical (locomotive) abilities for achieving success.

Analysis of the 19 annual cycles in question found that in 12 cases the athletes arranged their preparation as two half year cycles. and in 7 cases it was one macrocycle (See table 1 and 2).

    The duration of the first macrocycle was 13 - 23 weeks (X=20, 8±1,6), followed by a second macrocycle of 21 - 31 weeks (X=27,2±2,7). The duration of the training periods was as follows:
The first training period = 12 - 20 weeks (X=16,7±2,5).

The second training period = 5 - 15 weeks (X=9,4±3,3).
    We found that the duration of competition periods was from 2 - 8 weeks (X=4±2) and from 8 - 23 weeks (X=17,6+-4,7) respectively.
For the seven athletes who used the single cycle training period, the preparation phase lasted from 24 - 34 weeks (X=29, 1±3,4) and the competition period was from 13 - 23 weeks (X= 1 8,4±4).
    The winter competition period of the first macrocycle is very compact and represents mainly one series of competitions (from 3 - 10). The level of results in the majority of cases was within a range of deviation for runners of 2%, whereas for jumpers and throwers it was 3% below the best current macrocycle levels.
    The summer competition period consisted of 1 - 3 series, which included 4 - 19 competitions in each one and lasted from 2 - 9 weeks with the top performances achieved in 3 - 4 weeks.
    The period of fitness maintenance as per the indexes of 2% and 3% varied from 3 - 22 weeks, and 35-100% of all results achieved were within those ranges.
    The analysis proved that despite the considerable financial attraction of the commercial circuit, the best athletes concentrated their attentions mostly on the summer competition period, in preparing for the major events of the season.
    The first macrocycle and its winter competition period are of a subjective character.


>>> TAW AUGUST 29, 2006

    The analysis of the 6 summer and winter World Championships, staged in the same years, showed that only 15 - 25% of the winter champions and runner-ups managed to compete at the same level in the summer World Championships. Overall, approximately 50 - 60% of the summer champions did not take part in the winter World Championships of the same year (Table 3).

    When it comes to an analysis of the sport specific fitness dynamics in the preparation macrocycle , it has to be stated that the problem of sport specific fitness, its maintenance and duration has not been adequately evaluated in the theory of training. Most of the specialists only state its achievement when excellent results are produced, and bad luck is explained as the loss of sport specific fitness and they do not try to understand the mechanism of these dynamics. The only exceptions to this are the manuals written by LP. Matveev (Russia), Z Zheliazkov (Bulgaria), and AP. Bondarchuk (Ukraine).
    Using the competition data of world class athletes, we tried to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of sport specific fitness, which is maintained (in accordance with the data presented by some experts) by achieving performance results within the indexes of no lower than 2% in running and 3% in jumping and throwing from the seasonal best performances of the season.
    Figure 1 shows the 1998 competition period of the top sprinter in the world, Marion Jones, winner of the IAAF Golden League Grand Prix, World Cup and Goodwill Games.
Marion Jones competed regularly in three events: 100 and 200m running and long jump, and occasionally in 60 and 400m events. In 1998 she competed 42 times: 33 times on the track and 9 times on the long jump runway. Having started her individual competition programme on the 25th of February, she completed it on the 13th of September. The duration of her competition season was 200 days (28,5 weeks). The cumulative number of days in that period without a track competition totalled just 43 days (6 weeks) and she competed in two long jump events within that time span.

    This cycle may be considered as a second additional preparation period, because the long jump results were poor in the context of the capabilities of Marion Jones. This in itself gives clear reason to believe that she was not prepared properly, simply because she was training for the next competition period, which started on the 19th of April.
In this long competition period of 200 or 157 days (21 weeks), Marion Jones was able to compete successfully with a good fitness base, because between her last event in 1997 and the first one in 1998 there had been a gap of 164 days (23,5 weeks), with the time devoted first to active rehabilitation, and then to intensive training.
    Only 4 track competitions out of 33 did not fall within 2% of her peak of fitness level as represented by her fastest times and none of those 4 performances occurred consecutively. One can confidently state therefore that Marion Jones achieved an appropriate level of sport specific fitness and it lasted for quite a long time 197 or 157 days. This supports the data of a few investigations which confirm that sport specific fitness can last for a long time on the basis of a continuous preparation period.
    Over the competition period in question, Marion Jones had 6 competitive peaks on the track and 2 peaks in the long jump event. A total of 5 events out of 9 in the long jump fell below the 3% level but 2 of them were only training competitions. This proves the point that sport specific fitness is closely related to the technical and physical training levels of the athlete.
    What explanations lie behind peaking in sport specific fitness? To my mind it is connected with psychological and tactical training aspects and it also depends a lot on the internal and external environment. Thus, occasional defeats, when the athlete has achieved a peak in sport specific fitness, are mostly explained by the influence of negative environmental factors or a psychological underestimation of the social significance of competitions and not by any loss in sport specific fitness.
    A temporary loss of sport specific fitness, especially at the end of the macrocycle, can lead to a steady decrease of performance levels over a period of weeks.
    This was experienced at first hand by Sergei Bubka in 1991 (Figure 2) who, having won two World Championships, numerous Grand Prix events and broken 8 world records, was not able to maintain his results at the end of the season at anything like the same level.

    With a small number of competitions (in the context of that particular event within the track and field programme) sport specific fitness seems to be easier to maintain than with a very large number of events.
    This is highlighted by the results of Olympic Champions Stefka Kostadinova, Gabriella Szabo. Marie Jose Perec (Figures 3,4,5).

    Therefore, the task of the coach is to create a special basis of physical and technical preparedness for the individual event within a training period, and then to manage the abilities of the athlete (psychological, tactical etc.). At the same time the coach must not allow any negative changes to happen to the athlete's organism (fatigue, overtraining, illness, acclimatisation), and also maximise such environmental factors as moral and material remuneration, competition, crowd support, high quality equipment, weather conditions, track etc.
    To manage the athlete's form in this way requires integrated planning within the micro and mesocycles of training that incorporate the intervals between the competition series, with certain loads rehabilitating, supporting or developing the special high performance ability level of the athlete and the individual psychological approach required.
    We can see such examples in Figures 1-5 (M. Jones, S. Bubka, S. Kostadinova and others).
    The duration of a competition series gains a significance of it's own. An example of the irrational use of a long series of events is shown in the competition programme for Sergei Makarov, one the strongest javelin throwers in the world in 1999 (Figure 6).

    In 1999 he had 22 competitions (3 in winter and 19 in summer). He produced his best results in the middle of a long series of 10 summer events, which had 3 peaks: The 4th competition in this series was a Russian record 89m 93cm (one of the world's best results for the season). The intervals between the events were mainly 3 - 4 days, to allow for travel to competitions in various European locations. After the 8th competition in this series, Makarov's results started to decrease sharply. This clearly shows an overstressing through the Grand Prix competitions, leading to a loss of form from then until the end of the season, despite 3 training mesocycles of 14 - 16 days each prior to the World Championships in Seville, where he was only 9th. Had Makarov achieved the same result in Seville as at the beginning of the summer series of competitions, he could have become the World Champion.
    The opposite situation occurred in 1998, when he was 4th at the World Championships, having achieved at that stage his best result of the season (Figure 6). In 1998 he had only 15 competitions (14 in summer). After a short series at the beginning of the summer of 4 competitions, he was then able to combine the necessary training in the intervals between the competitions prior to the European Championships, and he went on to compete in both the European Championships and the World Cup, achieving two competitive peaks.
    Thus, sport specific fitness has a complicated hierarchical structure, where achieving high performance and especially peaks of form (psychological and tactical preparedness) is based on already having achieved specific levels of physical and technical training. All the components of form, such as physical, technical, tactical and psychological must be in optimal proportion for the event in order to provide a maximum realisation of the athlete's abilities.
    The analysis proves that peaks of form can be planned and directly connected to forthcoming competitions, or be spontaneous, with a lucky combination of the major favourable factors from the internal and external environment impacting on the athlete who has achieved form.
    Consequently, form differs in being relatively stable in time and depends on a number of factors, such as the event, the morpho-functional condition of the athlete and their qualification status and training levels at that particular point.

    The creation of an individual competition calendar, which must be specific for the athlete concerned, is one of the main preconditions for achieving and maintaining sport specific fitness for a particular period of time.
    In conclusion, it has to be noted that analysis of the level of preparation of world class athletes evaluated shows that even in the "new world" of professionalisation and commercialisation, the tried and tested annual training programmes of one or two cycles, worked out many years ago and used by several generations, should still be maintained.
    The best athletes from all over the world continue to gain success in global championships by following this approach. This is related to the management of form and achievement of the performance peak prior to or at the main competitions of the year. The three cycles structure is used only by marathoners and 50 km walkers, which is connected with the preparation for three competitions per year in these distances.
    At the same time it must be stated that there have been significant changes in training systems in recent years because of factors such as:

♦     the enlargement of the international competition calendar; 

♦     improvements in performance levels; 

♦     the replacement of multi-round championship competitions by one off events linked in a series;

♦     the fact that top athletes do not compete domestically as much, but take part in major competitions abroad such as Grand Prix events, World and European Cups     and other commercial competitions, giving them the opportunity to earn a good living from the sport.

♦     the elaboration of modern training methods for the various aspects of physical training (including ergogenic) and management of the training effects.

    In summary to close, the maintenance or adoption of a one or two cycle structure to the annual training programme enables the world class athlete and coach to effectively manage sport specific fitness levels for an optimal number of events which can lead to the achievement of two major tasks, namely success in the Olympic Games/World Championships and the opportunity to earn considerable sums of money on the commercial circuit within the sport.


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