Building Blocks: life lessons from periodised training

Different colour threads on a loom
Photo by Sergio Gonzalez on Unsplash

I’m more than half way into training for One Day Like This, a challenge that brings together six different disciplines, each of which requires its own training. While my progress feels mixed, what I hadn’t anticipated is the amount I have learned from the experience of training for something like this. Specifically, when organizing training across so many disciplines, it is simply not possible to train flat out for everything, all the time. Three to fours sessions a week of strength training, fitness training, endurance training, memory training, creativity training and speed training is only going to lead to one of two places — burnout or injury.

The system I have ended up using — a variation on the athletic principle of periodisation — has not only helped me stay injury free for over a year — the longest I have ever been. It has also given me an insight into more effective ways to arrange other parts of my life. And has changed the way I view and measure progress.

And it is the perfect way to pursue a life in which my goals are about the area under the curve.

Periodisation of training is practised in most sports, and it refers to the way that training is broken down into blocks, each of which has a different focus. That might be a focus on building base strength a long way out from competition, or a focus on specific technical disciplines, or a focus on building explosive power.

These periods of training often come in several sizes — periods of a few weeks of progressive training might take place within a period of a few months of focusing on strength work, for example.

I want to talk a little bit about the periodization I’ve used for my physical training, and then consider whether I could take lessons from that and transfer it not just into my mind sports training but the whole of my life.

The result has been to create a training system that always provides useful feedback, that prevents overtraining and maximises my area under the curve. Most of all, and this is always the one that gets missed by most people who talk about such things, this is a system I have been able to follow.

Let’s start with the physical.

For the past year, I’ve divided training first into the obvious blocks within a week. That means I don’t train the same body part twice a week. And I don’t give maximum intensity more than once a week. For strength training, by and large I use the pull-push-legs system. That is, I do pulling exercises (deadlift, back, biceps) once a week, pushing (chest, shoulders, triceps) once a week, and legs once a week.

I have only recently separated out fitness from endurance. There are two reasons for that. First, the pandemic has meant I’ve lacked access to indoor rowers, which is the fitness training I can do most with least injury. And second, given that I’ve been without low impact ways to train fitness, I wanted to get my weight down before running. I have always struggled with injury during training, and most of that has been down to carrying too much weight. Now I am down from 19 stone last Marchj to under 14 stone and close to “match weight” I’m ready to start running for fitness — it’s also closer to a time when I’ll be happy getting back in the inside gym.

Endurance training has taken the form of a long walk, a shorter jog, and a medium length power hike each week.

Organising this training into 12 week periods (and each of those into sets of 3 harder weeks followed by an easier week) has turned it into something like a wall of post-its, with all the attendant possibilities for switching things up, changing things around. The visual element has enabled me to introduce principles like foregrounding.

Foregrounding is a way of balancing different areas of training at the same time. It works like weaving on a jacquard loom — all the threads are there all the time, but you create patterns by bringing the colours to the fore one at a time.

During each training block, one area will be to the fore. I focus my main energies on that one area, giving it my most intense sessions. The aim is to improve performance significantly in that one area while doing enough in the others to maintain them. As with any periodised training, the idea is that each time you start a block within a cycle, you start it from a higher level than you did last cycle.

By improving one area at a time and just maintaining the others the idea is to allow yourself to rest in a targeted way, to avoid overtraining any one area, and to lift your whole performance over time. It’s part of a lifestyle of sustainable and continuous improvement, of increasing the area under the curve, of achieving goals as a way of being.

It can feel counterintuitive to the way we are encouraged to seek results quickly if not instantly to embark on a programme that will actually stop you making swift progress. And that’s why it’s so important to be clear about your goals at all times. And it’s one thing to know in principle that you are aiming for a long-term thoroughly rounded kind of “success” — but you haven’t fully internalised that, if you still look at your times on a week by week basis and think “I need to beat last time” or “why have I stalled?” without zooming out and looking at the trends, if you aren’t prioritizing consistency and health and staying injury free — then you will struggle.

But if you have committed to the area under the curve model of goal setting, this can work really well as a strategy for achieving it.

But what about other forms of training? Even other areas of life? Other parts of one’s overall goals? I want to guinea pig this over the coming year. I have struggled for many years to add any real structure to my mind sports training. It feels very strange to admit this given how I train my body. Yes, memory training might not be like strength training — but might there not be an optimum number of times a week to train? An optimum mix of training types (memory palaces, types of connection, images, actual practices)? And might not overall mental performance benefit from the kind of multidisciplinary periodisation with foregrounding that benefits the body?

I think one of the reasons I haven’t adopted this approach till now is the fundamental belief that everything mental is “interconnected”, which almost certainly comes from my creativity background. But there is a difference between letting different areas feed each other and build on each others’ strengths — and just being a bit random. Sometimes creating structure creates the best pathways for interrelation. I am really excited to see how this might play out in mind sports.

If you found this interesting, do consider reading my guide to living a more creative life, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes.