Training periodization for long-distance runners: a guide to your new Personal Best.

Training periodization for long-distance runners: a guide to your new Personal Best.

All runners, regardless of their fitness level or running background, who want to dive into both crazy and rewarding universe of long distance running should consider adopting a structured training program known as periodization.

Training periodization is about organizing your training plan in blocks that have different purposes during a certain period of time. The main goal is to build fitness by increasing training load progressively followed by recovery periods. You allow your body to adapt to training stress by manipulating variables such as volume and intensity. Adaptation is the most important factor to improve fitness. Many studies have demonstrated the superiority of periodized over non-periodized training.

Periodization is typically divided into 3 cycles:

  • Macrocycle - a large segment of training that incorporates all mesocycles. That is your entire training plan;

  • Mesocycle - a segment of macrocycle consisting of a number of training blocks, focusing on different physical skills;

  • Microcycle - a short segment of the mesocycle, typically consisting of 7 days training block.

Periodization types

  • Linear or traditional periodization: usually 6 months before the race you do a lot of volume training, building up mileage and workout duration. At some point of your training plan, you start to include high intensity workouts and in the last weeks before the race, you train at race-like intensities. Linear periodization is a great alternative for beginners as it allows to progressively build strong fitness foundation, nevertheless, it is commonly used by more experienced athletes as well.

  • Reverse linear periodization: That is the opposite of linear periodization as you do high intensity workouts in the first weeks of your training plan without building up mileage and duration. As you get closer to the race, your workouts become longer, increasing mileage and duration. This type of periodization training plan could be an interesting strategy for ultrarunners who have already built an optimum fitness level in the past. Ultramarathons do not require intensity and are performed in aerobic zone. The workouts you will be doing in the few weeks before the event are going to be similar to the race.

  • Nonlinear block periodization: it focuses on one specific physical ability at a time instead of doing all at the same time. For example, it means that you work on muscular endurance and aerobic endurance in different blocks of training instead of doing both throughout the same block as you do in linear periodization.

  • Nonlinear undulating periodization: it relies on the concept of constantly changing the workouts throughout the training blocks, manipulating variables like volume and intensity more frequently. It is often used for advanced athletes who have a long training background.

Periodization phases

Periodization emphasizes different aspects of training in successive phases within the macrocycle known as:

  1. Base phase - you will focus on developing aerobic conditioning and improving cardio and muscular endurance. It includes strength training and easy runs that are gradually extended in duration, allowing your body to adapt to training stress and reduce the risk of injury. Training paces should be easy and aerobic, essentially at your 70-75% of your maximum heart rate. Volume should be increased in mileage by no more than 10% per week. Adding strength exercises to your weekly routine during this phase will give you stronger lower body and core to support the following training stress, the reason why you must not neglect those important elements of your running program. Building endurance is the foundation of long-distance running which makes this phase an essential component to make you a successful runner.

  1. Build phase - during this phase you will start to build strength and speed through more specific workouts, still maintaining mileage and weight training. The idea is to get your body used to run more comfortably and efficiently at a faster pace, improving muscular endurance and connective tissue strength. The workouts may include tempo runs, intervals and hill repeats.

  1. Peak or speed phase - that is the phase when you will be doing workouts at your race pace to be sure that you are comfortable doing so. You should gradually increase intensity and reduce the overall volume by around 10%. Make the long runs slightly shorter to maintain endurance as you decrease volume to add extra speed. Speed sessions are recommended, focusing on tempo runs, long repeats and hill repeats. Those workouts allow your cardiovascular system to work at a higher level, delivering oxygen to your blood more efficiently and improving strength and power you started to build during phase 2.

  1. Tapering phase - you will take a week or few weeks before the race to reduce training load in order to minimize the physiological and psychological stress of daily training, optimizing performance. In the pre-race period, you manipulate intensity and volume to do the right amount of hard workouts combined with enough rest to improve your fitness. Athletes often make the mistake of reducing both volume and intensity. It is better to reduce the duration of each interval session rather than intensity as well as reduce the overall training volume. You can also maintain focus on the specific elements you will find on the race such as specific terrain and elevation gain. This particular period is a great opportunity to review logistics, packing list and race routes. Take time to work on the right mindset you will need during the race, developing positive mantras that will help you to stay focused and mentally strong.

  1. Transition or recovery phase - as the name suggests, that is time for recovery. There will be not much structured training during this phase as your body needs to rest from all the hard training and racing. It means low volume, low intensity and non-specific workouts. You can work on your running form and technique, as well as planning the next race. Having a break from a demanding training schedule also allows you to maintain the motivation for the next season and be mentally refreshed.

An example of a marathon training plan would be something like this:

  • Base Phase = 8-12 weeks;

  • Build phase = 4-8 weeks;

  • Peak phase = 1-2 weeks;

  • Tapering phase = 1-2 weeks.

Rest days and active recovery sessions are crucial during periodization. Those are the days when you give your muscles adequate time to heal after hard workouts so they can tolerate and sustain similar stress in the next hard session. It is the rest after training that makes your body stronger. Use your rest days to spend more time with your partner, family and friends or to work on other activities you may like to do.

Following a structured training plan not only minimize the risk of injuries, but also helps you to improve your running fitness level, achieving peak performance and guides you towards your goal.

Now that you know how to use periodization in your training, why not set a goal and sign up for an exciting and challenging event?