[Updated] How to reach a higher and more consistent level of running performance
Periodization training is the process of dividing a training plan into specific time segments or phases leading up to and including a goal performance or race. This article will show you how can train the body in different ways during successive phases, gradually increasing the stress on the body, so you can ultimately combine the benefits of these workouts. The collective result is that with periodization training you can achieve peak conditioning for a desired race or races throughout the year.
UPDATE: Since Publishing this article, I have added a section below discussing Periodized Strength Training as it relates to running & a periodized program. Please scroll through 2/3+ of this post to learn about you can benefit from completing specific strength training exercises into a periodized running program.
Nearly every elite runner uses periodization. I use this system that includes various meso & micro cycles, each with a specific purpose and different physiological goals and psychological benefits. Using periodization allows you to couple hard training periods with easier periods of recovery to avoid over-training and improve components of muscular fitness such as strength, speed, and endurance to ultimately reach your goals. With the information that I share, you can divide your training plan into three parts to run strong and race well, all year.
Most studies of periodization have proved the superiority of this type of system over non-periodized programs in terms of greater changes in strength, body composition and motor performance (Fleck 1999).
Periodization programs involve a progression from high volume and low-intensity effort towards decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the different cycles. Periodization is not randomly changing volume and/or intensity with no consideration other than to introduce variation into the program. In a University of New Mexico paper, the author discusses how with a periodized program, the manipulation of volume and intensity, over a program that just increases total training volume alone, is an important factor in optimizing training effects.
When I set up a periodization program, I have the athlete, whom I’m coaching, gradually increase the stresses or efforts on their body during a variety of training sessions (distance, intensity, duration and type of recovery vary). Although a large percentage of training is completed at easy or conversation pace, in these programs we stress the body and then allow proper recovery, we achieve cardio gain and muscle growth. Basically, the work or a specific workout stresses your system. The planned recovery is what allows your body to adapt.
The overall training period, so it’s the longest of the three cycles and includes all of the elements of training in the entire training period leading up to and including your race. Typically it’s a year in length. Macrocycles are comprised of four stages or Mesocycles.
The mesocycle is a specific (2 – 8 week) block of training that is designed to accomplish a particular goal. The mesocycle is usually classified into 4 stages: recovery + endurance, endurance + strength/lactate threshold, intensity (interval) training and finally competition or peak performance (which includes some kind of taper). Finally, a set of microcycles, which are generally up to 7 days, make up the mesocycles.
I like the 4 week mesocycle because over the course of 3 weeks of similar workouts, we teach the body to adapt to specific stress, until it becomes not stressful. Then after a recovery week, I like to move on to the next stress.
Basic Periodization Program
First, if you can imagine a triangle, the bottom or base includes the longest phases of your training which are comprised of recovery/rest from your race (typically 3 weeks), followed by base or foundation training. Depending on the length of time between races, the base training can be up to 500 miles at relatively easy/conversation pace. During base training, the athlete will focus on the development of aerobic and muscular endurance which is the foundation of any running plan.
Not every runner I coach starts in the same phase or level of the triangle. Some runners only have 10 weeks until their race, they are more experienced and have a substantial base. They may require some strength runs like tempo or hills, followed by shorter intervals to prepare them for a race. Other runners hire me to help them over the course of 6 – 12 months. I can take them through an entire macrocycle where we develop an entire periodized plan to gradually get them in shape for a few races and eventually a longer race like a half or full marathon.
One of the keys to a successful program is the pacing. Throughout the course of a macrocycle, there’s generally six paces that an athlete will train.
- Easy/Conversation Pace
- Goal Race Pace (goal the athlete wants to race based on dreams, plan)
- Date Race Pace (current race pace, based on a recent performance. Should be reviewed with a qualified coach because variables like temperature, course, competition can affect times)
- Lactate Threshold Pace (typically 10k pace for most runners. Moderate heart rate, can be sustained for 30 – 45 minutes).
- Interval Pace (faster than date race pace, demanding, can only be sustained for shorter time periods (no longer than 10 minutes)
- Rest Pace (slow pace in between intervals or as cool down after hard running).
If you need a proven periodized marathon training plan or affordable coaching where I use these principles of periodization training to prepare you for your next race? Train with me where I provide a CUSTOM EXPERIENCE based on your specific situation.
TYPES OF RUNNING
There are numerous types of running depending on the phase of the periodization program. Some runs like the conversation pace (short, medium or long) runs are completed throughout the program. Other types are tempo, fartlek, hills, long & short intervals and race pace. I posted an article of the essential training runs for middle age marathoners.
As with any personalized plan, mileage and specific workouts during this mesocycle vary. If you’re an experienced runner who can handle 55 – 70 miles/week, your training during this phase includes:
5 mile recovery runs at an easy pace.
Gradually build from 6 mile to 11 – 14 mile midweek runs at conversation pace.
8 – 10 mile aerobic or lactate threshold runs at ½ or marathon pace
15 – 18 mile long runs at easy to medium pace (a few runs can include 8 – 10 miles in the middle of these longer runs at marathon pace). These long runs teach your body to run more efficiently.
Training for runners (beginners, less serious or older athletes) who can’t handle consistent higher mileage (including myself) would follow a slightly different program.
4-5 mile recovery runs at an easy/conversation pace.
8 – 10 mile midweek runs at conversation pace
Gradually increasing from 10 – 16 mile long runs (runs near the end of the phase that include 6-8 miles at marathon pace)
6-10 mile aerobic or lactate threshold runs at ½ or marathon pace
Rest or cross-training twice per week
Speedwork is limited in this phase to strides & “mini-tempos.” Weekly you can either do 6 – 8 100M on a track or 6 – 8 to 20 to 30-second bursts of speed at the end of one or two of your easy runs. Don’t go any faster than ½ marathon pace in your aerobic or lactate threshold runs.
LACTATE THRESHOLD + ENDURANCE (STRENGTH) MESOCYCLE
In the second phase or mesocycle we will still work on endurance, but we’ll step up the lactate threshold training. We introduce strength workouts which consist of tempo, hill & fartlek workouts. We want to push yourself a little, so it’s not a shock when you go faster in the next phase. If the overall training plan is 18+ weeks, this mesocycle can last for 9 weeks. According to coach Greg McMillian, “these workouts strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues, which will prepare the body for the demands of fast running.”
Key Workouts for Lactate Threshold + Endurance Mesocycle:
6 mile recovery runs at conversation pace
8 – 10 mile lactate threshold at 15k to ½ marathon pace. See this detailed article about Tempo running.
Strength Training with hills and fartlek. Hills are a great strength training workout. Run them at a hard, but not all-out effort. Fartlek is an easy way to introduce longer (1 – 2 minutes) of fast running.
16 – 20 mile long runs. Start to introduce finish fast runs (last 4 – 8 miles at marathon pace) in your long runs.
This 2nd phase is essential to strengthening the body for the fast running that comes in the third phase. You continue to build endurance through long runs, but a few of your workouts become tempo miles or hill repeats prepare you for the intensity/race preparation phase where you will complete more & longer intervals (800m to 2miles).
INTENSITY / RACE PREPARATION MESOCYCLE
During the intensity or 3rd phase, the focus switches to additional lactate threshold and then interval pace (VO2 max). The goal is to ready your body to enter the competition phase, so you need a greater emphasis to be placed on boosting anaerobic capacity and neuromuscular power.
During the beginning of this Mesocycle, we will run longer intervals (the exact length depends on the race) at 5k race pace. Typical workouts may include 5 x 1000m or 5 x 1600. Long runs are typically 17 -20 miles with last 8 – 10 miles at Marathon Pace. There should still be plenty of 5 – 7 mile recovery runs included.
Later speed sessions include run tune-up events like 8k to 15k races to help you prepare for your main event and then shorter intervals (such as 600m – 800m) at 5-K pace. The distance of your intervals depends on the length of your race & your athletic ability. Besides 100m strides, there’s no need to complete 200m– 400m repeats if you’re training for a marathon. If you’re a novice or training for a 5k, these shorter intervals are perfect.
TAPER / PEAK PERFORMANCE MESOCYCLE
This last, peak phase includes short, fast workouts that simulate racing. These workouts fine-tune the speed you began in phase two by recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers. During this phase, one of the goals is to improve running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen) and strengthen muscles. You accomplish this by gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts and then in last few weeks before your race, decrease the overall volume while maintaining intensity. Coach Greg McMillan calls it “keep the engine revved.”
One of my favorite runs 2-3 weeks prior to the marathon is a 12 – 13 miler at race pace. This gives you a great indication of your fitness and how close to your goal time you can expect to finish. During the last week prior to the race, I also like to complete a 6 mile run with 4 miles at marathon pace.
In order to peak for key races, I recommend you mark your event on a calendar and either work with a coach or develop a plan that maps out your base, endurance, preparation, and peak phases. Each should be four to eight weeks long (you can extend the base or preparation phase beyond eight, but not the peak, to avoid burnout). I recommend that every fourth week, recover by reducing your miles by 10 to 20 percent. Also ease up on strength training. Once you peak, start again with recovery and base training and work your way through the phases over and over again.
PERIODIZED STRENGTH TRAINING
Just as completing a periodized running program with a progression of planned workouts will optimize your performance, it’s important to ensure you have the same kind of progression and variance in your strength workouts. Runners need to build strength during their training so they they can be more efficient, be more resistant to injury and build power.
If you’re new to strength training, it’s not a good idea to start with heavy lifts. Instead, start more basic with body weight exercises that can be performed at home, such as:
- Bodyweight Squats
- Clam Shells
- Bridges with basketball
- Jump rope
- Dips & Pull-Ups
Other basic exercises can be added gradually, but after 4-5 weeks you can transition to using kettle bells, dumbbells & medicine balls. The key is you want to strengthen your core, hips, glutes, quads and lower legs & ankles.
Light Weights to Heavier Weights
Eventually you transition to heavier weights at the gym. I recommend starting with lighter/smaller barbells and completing exercises with 25 – 35lbs at first. You should concentrate on proper form before you increase the weight. Some of these exercises include:
- Bench Press – performed with a longer/heavier barbell
General rules for lifting are: complete 6-8 reps/set and lift so the final set is challenging (not so much weight that you can only do 2-3 reps). Try to complete 3 sets for each exercise and take about 2-3 minutes of recovery between sets.
As Coach Jay Johnson always preaches, keep easy days easy and hard days hard. This means, it’s best to complete lifting & body weight exercises after long runs and intervals. You should already be tired, but lifting in what’s considered a “pre-fatigued” state where the body already has low glycogen stores will teach your body to perform in this state. You’ll notice a difference in the late stages of a race.
There are countless stories of elite athletes getting better because they are stronger. Mo Farah, for instance, gives much credit to his strength which he says helped him to win numerous Olympic Gold Medals. Using a periodized strength program within your training cycle will allow you to maximize the benefits of all of your training.
In conclusion, you can get the most out of your training by having a good understanding of each of the three cycles of periodization and then using these cycles to create a plan that allows you to peak for your most important events throughout the year.
University of New Mexico https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/periodization.html
Training Peaks https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/macrocycles-mesocycles-and-microcycles-understanding-the-3-cycles-of-periodization/
Runner’s World – April 2016
Podium Runner – https://www.podiumrunner.com/use-progression-strength-workouts_123159
How Tempo Runs Will Help You Achieve Your Running Goals
Hill Training for Full and Half Marathons
Strength Training for Marathon Runners