Periodisation: Learning from the Flying Finn

This post has been co-written with United Learning’s Head of Sport Shaun Dowling (@ShaunD10)

“Some do well in other races, some run fast times, but they cannot do well in the ultimate, the Olympics … The question is not why I run this way, but why so many cannot.”

These are the words of Lasse Viren, also known as the ‘Flying Finn’ as he tried to explain his knack of peaking at the right time – a knack that landed him four gold medals in long distance events at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.


Like our pupils, athletes have a long build-up to the events that matter, and like our teachers, it’s the job of coaches to break this build-up into smaller units to ensure that their athletes peak at the right time. It’s a process athletes call ‘periodisation’.

Amidst growing concern about the impact of high stakes tests on pupils’ mental health, perhaps we can learn from periodisation to support our pupils in playing the long game and peaking just in time for their public exams.

A definition of stress which will be familiar to many PE and psychology students and teachers is ‘the difference between the demands placed upon us and our perceived ability to cope with them’.  Public exams will certainly be demanding, but if the specification has been covered and the content learned thoroughly, then students can be in a position to approach the exams with confidence and optimism.

Attribution Theory describes the Locus of Causality: an individual’s perception of whether their success is within or outside of their control.  The timing, importance and difficulty of the public exam season clearly falls into the latter category. However, many of the stresses being placed upon KS4 students are ones which schools do control: extra lessons; compulsory revision sessions; regular high-stakes assessments; all in the pursuit of target grades which might be based on flimsy evidence … all, of course, with the very best intentions in mind.

However, an unintended consequence of all of this (as well as the additional workload for teachers) is what appears to the students to be a constant and unrelenting pressure.

Is there a solution?

“The starting place for your planning is adopting the belief that training must be a steady and gradual building process.” (Joe Friel, 2016. The Triathlete’s Training Bible. 4th edition. Velo Press)

Periodisation in sport involves athletes identifying the races/tournaments which they want to be at their best for.  If they trained and raced with the same intensity all year round they would risk:

  • fatigue
  • injury/illness and
  • stagnation/boredom.

Sound familiar?

So what would the 5 years of secondary education look like if we approached them as an athlete/coach would?

The literature on periodisation varies in the number and names of the periods which they break down the training plan into. In a linear periodization model they can be grouped into three broad headings:

  1. Base
  2. Build
  3. Pre-competition (leading in to the A race itself)

To support this, an athlete’s season is likely to be broken down into macro, meso and micro periods: four-week meso periods within the yearly macro period, with four one-week micro periods within each meso one.  A twelve week build phase, for example, may have three meso periods of four weeks, the fourth micro period of each being a recovery week.

Applying this principle of periodization to secondary education could look something like the simplified model below, with the exam period of Year 11 classified as the students’ ‘A Race’, their mocks exams as their ‘B Races’ and end of term tests as the ‘C Races’.

Within this model, the micro period idea of a weekly plan of what and when takes place is particularly helpful for revision timetables and avoiding clashes with scheduled revision sessions and other ‘life’ priorities.

Base period

KS3 = mastering the basics, focusing on core skills and preparing for the harder work to come. It should be a relatively stress-free and enjoyable period of time with opportunities to learn new things and explore wider opportunities, but it is also an opportunity to baseline and set goals. Target-setting using both quantitative data and qualitative information can be adjusted throughout the period, but there are no high-stakes assessments. This phase is designed to provide both a strong base for the build period to follow and to enhance enjoyment of the subject.

Build period

  • Build 1 – Autumn term Year 10: increasing demands from KS3 but managed in a way to protect health and avoid burn-out
  • C Test – low stakes indicator of progress towards goals
  • Build 2 – Spring term Year 10: potential for re-setting based on previous test (i.e. adjust training zones). Gradually increasing demands.
  • C Test – low stakes indicator of progress towards goals, including aspects of Build 1
  • Build 3 – Summer term Year 10: potential for re-setting based on previous test (i.e. adjust training zones). Gradually increasing demands.
  • C Test– low stakes indicator of progress towards goals, including aspects of Build 1 and 2
  • August = recovery period (re-charge in order to come back stronger)
  • Build 4 – Autumn term Year 11: final build stage leading into opportunities to practice preparations such as exam technique, revision techniques and nutrition prior to the ‘B’ exams
  • ‘B’ exams (mocks) – all work covered thus far and, on occasion, in conditions similar to the ‘A race’ exam season. This includes timings, density, environment, rules/expectations etc.


Spring Year 11: Increase in specificity and intensity as every effort is made to ensure that all knowledge has been learned thoroughly. Final preparations and a tighter focus on the micro periods to space out revision effectively and manage the other pressures on 16 year olds’ lives. As the exams draw nearer, prioritise time and manage ‘essential’ sessions so that students are fresh for them.

‘A’ race – exams!

May/June Year 11: Tapering for exams – shorter periods of high intensity revision sessions, the exams themselves, brief recovery, preparation for the next one. Make every effort to psychologically prepare too, getting the exams into perspective, teaching processes of positive self-talk, how to manage the “Chimp” and how to arrive in the exam hall full of confidence and looking forward to the challenge.

 This periodisation approach relies on honest and clear communication with pupils, with frequent reminders of which point they are at in the 5-year journey. We can’t expect pupils to step up in Key Stage 4 if we’ve pretended to them for three years that their KS3 exams are cliff-edge assessments. By sharing the 5-year journey with our pupils we are trusting them to respond appropriately to the demands of each phase. In doing so, we provide a sense of ownership and control, perhaps reducing the pressure on staff and leaders to throw everything at Y11 in the hope that some of it might stick.

Concerns that playing this long game would lead to a lack of urgency at KS3 should consider the current situation we see in many schools where there is a stark difference in the intensity of Y7 compared with Y11. Periodisation seeks to harness the urgency of Y11 and use this to provide purpose and focus throughout the secondary years, rather than unleash it in a sudden wave when students return from their summer break at the end of Y10.

There is an argument, of course, that just by adopting this periodization model nothing will change in terms of outcomes. There are so many variables that influence exam performance that this is just one more idea that the impact of which would be impossible to measure.

However, if schools adopting the periodisation mindset means that the pressure felt by students is indeed “steady and gradual”, then isn’t that worth a try? Is it not worth trying to alleviate the increasing mental health concerns by re-thinking how we approach the secondary phase of education, KS4 and the lead-in to the public exams? Not all athletes who periodise their training go on to become Olympic champions. But athletes who do tend to become better athletes than they would have been had they not adopted this approach to their training. And along the way they pick up fewer injuries, less fatigue and a reduced risk of burnout.

That has to be worth considering.

For articles on periodization see numerous online posts by Joe Friel and others or here:

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