periodization for aikido

This post originally appeared on my AikiWeb blog… I think I was drunk when I wrote it…

This is revised from a forum thread to which I responded

A reader in the forums complains that aikido lacks a theory or a teaching in supplementary training designed to improve performance and prevent injuries. My experience and knowledge are limited, but this seems to me to be true.

In the Mugenjuku dojo in Kyoto, there is the Kenshusei program and then there is the Part-Time Kenshusei program. This takes places only on weekends and includes many older students who have jobs and lack the time to devote to the 3+-times-per-day-5-days-per-week course.

One middle-aged part-time Kenshusei got injured about 6 weeks ago. Did aikido training from the dojo include injury management advice? By no means! He was immediately out on his own, searching for special diets and lifestyles to “re-set” and “heal”. I think this is par for the course in non-sport martial arts. Are there many sport judo or MMA vegetarians trying to fix damaged ligaments with healing touch and amulets? No. Why? It’s not because they aren’t fufu, it’s because their lives are really dedicated to training and they have coaches managing their choices while keeping on eye on mid- and long-term goals.

This is a major difference between historic-era training in actual olden times, modern koryu, gendai budo, and modern athletics. Respectively, master-student relationships central to livelihood and social standing, master-student relationships of an incidental nature, sensei, and coaches.

Coaches cooperate with athletes to achieve success in predetermined competitive scenarios. As a result, the cycle of training is very different from modern athletics. The goal of modern athletics is to maximize performance for a narrow demographic (young people) in a narrow time frame (end of season championships). Enter the concept of periodization.

For Michael Phelps, the four years between Olympics are not a weekly grind of swimming and weight lifting. The timeframe is broken up with periods of more or less dry land work, more or fewer meters swum in the pool, more or less intensity. It’s all a four-year-long plan designed to get his speed to peak in a narrow two-week window at the end of the four years.

Moreover, no one expects Michael Phelps to keep competing at the same level when he’s in his 40s. If he pushes himself to the point of developing some chronic joint damage that will bother him when he’s old, nobody is interested. The point of swimming is winning today, not training tomorrow.

Aikido is very different. There is no “peak performance window,” not even any timeframe goals excepting testing.

Gendai budo like judo that are practiced as a competitive sport are somewhere in between aikido and Olympic swimming. I think this is why judo has supplementary training. My guess is that people who and places where judo practice more as a sport have more supplementary training than places where judo is practiced as a “martial art.”

If the goal or concept of a supplementary training program in aikido is to improve performance, what we know from physiology, kinesiology, etc should lead us into some sort of periodization scheme (even without a competition looming), which would change dojo culture completely…

Imagine a dojo where the sensei said, “from September to December, I want everyone to cut back on their mat hours and spend more time with free weights.” Never!!!

Imagine a dojo that was so close-knit that students could coordinate their schedules to follow any periodized program at all. Never!!! (Except in the Yoshinkan course, where the kenshusei train together every day, over a one-year period, with a common set of monthly goals.)

On the other hand, if the goal or concept of supplementary training in aikido is injury prevention, then something completely different should be conceived with a systematic training program that includes things like beginners’ instruction in how not to injure people and a way of teaching techniques that relies on something other than trial and error for student progress. My guess is that because of the types of injuries common to aikido, performance-oriented training like weights is less useful than improving focus, resolve, and partner-awareness.

I first came across the idea of periodization in my former life, when I was studying shotokan karate. I thought that, despite titles such as The Textbook of Modern Karate, and The Karate Instructor’s Handbook, shotokan karate training was really not incorporating athletic training models to integrate the best of modern science with ancient martial forms. So I set off on my own to figure out how that might be done. Ultimately, I decided that modern athletic science was both too advanced and too inchoate for me to master as a hobbyist.

As for periodization, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that training prescriptions needed to be contextualized in lifestyles. A student and a housewife needed to be doing very different thingsoutside and inside the dojo in order to maximize their potential for both learning and performance.

In order to think about training 10, 20, or 30 years away, basics needed to be mastered while the body needed to be reshaped and adapted to shotokan’s demands. The model beginner-to-black-belt program shouldn’t be conceived in suburban context but in a controlled context, such as a university life, where exam schedules, summer breaks, etc could all be taken into account over a defined timeframe such as a 4-5 year university degree course. All other training should be seen as a departure from this standard model requiring revisions in planning.

The same thing is true in aikido. As you move from kyu grades up through 5th dan ranks, the variety of body types bottlenecks before aging causes it to diversify again in the upper ranks. This should tell us something about training. Even though there are no competitions in aikido, there are other objective measures that correlate with improvement and can define goals and training schedules.

In Yoshinkan aikido, Payet-sensei’s Kenshusei program is still designed around the model of group training that dominated the design of Hombu’s original Senshusei Course, which he also designed, while training as uchi-deshi under Shioda-sama. Senshusei was designed, literally, around the riot police course. As a result, the acquisition of spirit through shugyo and the development of group cohesion was central to student learning.

Whether this type of group training is better at producing solid black belts than the type of individualized programmatic training one would expect for a sport judo competitor remains, I think, to be seen. However, the issue is academic given the logistical constraints of the Kenshusei Course. Anyhow, I digress.

I guess the point is that supplementary training for aikido requires you to step back and define your goals and timelines over the long- medium- and short-terms, just like any endeavor. Trying to incorporate periodization into your training regimen when you can’t control the curriculum in your dojo is very difficult. The ideal would be for the instructors to do it for everyone. Short of that, you might have to make year-long plans where you don’t go to the dojo at all some weeks, while on others you go to every class offered. Look to competitive athletes for ideas. (One I hadn’t thought of til now is researching some triathlon training plans. Triathlons tend to attract amateur athletes who are very serious but have significant time and financial constraints.)