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Periodization for Distance Runners:
How to Structure
Your Training Schedules
For Optimal Performance
By Roy Stevenson

Most recreational and semi-competitive runners meander their way through training without any planning. They just "go out and run" a few times each week. This hit-or-miss approach eventually results in a frustrating plateau in their performance, often grinding the runner to a halt through overuse injury.

Some of you may have heard the truism "If we fail to plan, we plan to fail". This certainly applies to distance running. Without a planned and systematic approach runners stop improving. When we stop improving we tend to try harder, running farther and faster to try to bludgeon our body into improving. The result: a frustrating spiral of plateau, illness, and injury.

You can improve your performance, and avoid injury using a training technique called periodization. Most, if not all, elite runners use periodization in some form, but few recreational runners do.

Periodization systematically manipulates the training variables to optimize an athlete's training potential. Coaches "in the know" bandy about the term "periodization", and its "secrets" are held close to the chest, lest one's competitors find them out. This need not be, and the intention for this article is to demystify it for the rank and file runner.

A military maxim I have heard states that "It is better to execute a bad plan well, than to execute a good plan poorly". So consider trying some of the elements of periodization in your running program.

First, I'll give a brief history of the use of periodization in distance running to show how it evolved then I'll provide a rationale for using it. We'll look at some terminology, how periodization works and finally I'll give some ideas for introducing elements of periodization into your training program.

A Brief History of Periodization in Distance Running

The reknown running coach from New Zealand, Arthur Lydiard, first started experimenting with periodization in 1947. (Of course back then they did not have a fancy name for it). Lydiard adapted several training phases into a logical sequence to gain his runners their best performances. His trial and error experiments took nine years of training.

In his book "Run To The Top", published in 1962, he describes his experiences. "When I settled down to analyse my defeats, I realised I was hitting my peaks of performance at all the wrong times. I had to find a method not only of building stamina to stand a lot of racing but also of timing my preparation so that I could be reasonably certain of being in top form on the day I most wanted to run best".

After experimenting with alternating (long, then short) distances in training he quickly found out that even if he flogged himself one day to the point of exhaustion he would recover sufficiently to continue easier work in following days. Then a week to ten days after the exhaustion run he would become markedly stronger.

Some of his descriptions of these training experiments make interesting reading and certainly show the courage of his convictions. He writes "I was so determined to find just what the human body would stand without actually cracking that I frequently exhausted myself completely and had to walk the last few miles painfully home. But I always made it one way or another".

He tried mixing speed and endurance training, but found he lacked the necessary conditioning to sustain speed over a race distance. He then built his system around marathon-type training, followed by finding a balance between sharp sprints, repetition training, interval training, medium-pace training, and longer distance running.

The rest, as they say, is history. His runners put New Zealand on the world map in distance running in Olympic medals, international competition, and world records. Names like Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Barry Magee, and others may jog (pardon the pun) the running historian's memory for their performances in that era, as his athletes experienced what seemed at the time, unbelievable performances.

Lydiard eventually arrived at a system that acquired his runners great stamina, then sharpened them up for competition using phases of marathon training, hill training, interval training and time trials, repetition training, finishing with the racing phase. He had, in essence, stumbled upon a periodized system.

Since then his system has spread around the world and there are probably very few elite or serious distance runners today who does not use the basic tenets of Lydiard's periodized training system in some form or permutation.

Why Use Periodization?

What then, is the rationale for using periodization? If an athlete is to continue to make gains, the training program must be varied. Our body responds physiologically by adapting to the demands we place on it in training. In exercise physiology terms we would call this the S.A.I.D principle: that is "Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands". If we continue to do the same training day after day, our body becomes very comfortable with this and stops adapting. If we stop adapting, we stop improving. Thus we need different training phases to continue to improve.

Likewise, if we do not program some form of rest or recovery phase into the training program the runner is likely to experience muscular soreness, boredom, injury, or sickness.

Periodization is the theory and practice of how to vary a training program over time to bring the runner to a physical peak for major competitions. It is considered simply as planned and organized variety. The periodization variables we can manipulate include frequency, intensity, recovery, variety, specificity, and duration of training.

This might be starting to sound complicated. And that's why many recreational runners and coaches steer clear of trying some aspects of periodization. Dr. Steve Fleck, co-author of "Periodization Breakthrough" sums it up nicely when he says, "We have, in the USA, overdone, overanalyzed and overplayed periodization. We have created too many rules, to the stage where it is too daunting to wade through the plethora of literature to gain or imply any practical use". As stated earlier, the main objective for this article is to demystify the basic principles of periodization.

Probably the best proof of the effectiveness of periodization simply lies in the fact that almost every serious endurance sports athlete uses periodization principles in some form.

So how does periodization work? First some terminology. We need to understand what macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles are to plan our periodized program. A macrocycle usually makes up a complete season, or quite often, a year, depending on the sport. For example, a distance runner who competes in both track and cross-country seasons will have two macrocycles to his/her year. Several mesocycles, which vary from a few weeks to a few months, make up one macrocycle. Microcycles are usually weekly training schedules.

What is the point of these cycles? They are used to plan structured training programs for any sport. Using periodization, training shifts from high volume and low intensity running off-season to racing-specific running activities of low volume and high intensity over a period of many weeks or months.

Periodization Step One - Create a Macrocycle

Start by planning your year's macrocycle, according to the seasons you will be competing in. This annual plan logically starts with the "off-season" mesocycle with long slow distance running. For example, a runner who competes only in the spring and summer should continue his/her training through the winter to hold onto the previous year's fitness and racing experience. This winter training season would be a mesocycle, and is obviously going to be primarily long slow distance running to enhance his/her aerobic conditioning base.

Periodization Step Two - Create the Mesocycles

For the recreational runner the other mesocycles integrated into the macrocycle would be the pre-season and competitive season mesocycles, followed by a post competitive season cycle called the restoration (recovery) cycle.

Specifically, the pre-season and competitive season mesocycles would include higher intensity, lower volume running activities such as hill running, interval training and time trials, repetition training, finishing with the racing phase.

Here is an example of a US runner's periodized program broken up into mesocycles:

October-January: Off-Season Conditioning Mesocycle. Long slow marathon distance running, with fartlek and occasional time trials.

February-March: Pre-Season Mesocycle. Hill running/springing/bounding,

April-May: High Intensity Mesocycle. Interval training, time trials.

July-September: Racing Season Mesocycle. Some repetition training, racing.

Periodization Step Three - Break the Mesocycles up into Microcycles

Ah, but the devil's in the details! This is where the fun starts. Here's some advice for creating microcycles for the various mesocycles.

Off-Season Conditioning Mesocycle:

It is quite safe to increase weekly mileage by 8-15% as long as it is done slowly, so the runner is not straining or pushing too much. This running should be done at an intensity of somewhere around 60%-70% of your maximal heart rate, or even lower if you are a beginner.

Increasing weekly mileage for 2-3 weeks is generally tolerated well by the healthy human body, then an easier week of reduced mileage and intensity should be programmed in every third or fourth week. This creates a "step type" approach.

This step type approach ensures that the muscle groups are overloaded to fatigue (overload is necessary for improvement), providing greater stimulus to the involved muscle groups.

The easier week long "regeneration" cycle allows restoration of energy fuels, enhanced muscle tissue recovery, (and probably a psychological break from the mental grind), thus a physiological "rebound" allowing the runner to proceed to a higher level the following week.

A sample weekly microcycle for this phase might be:

Monday: Short easy-paced run
Tuesday: Medium/Long run
Wednesday: Rest Day
Thursday: Medium/Long run
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: Medium distance run
Sunday: Long slow run

Pre-Season Mesocycle

Long slow distance running is continued through this cycle to maintain the aerobic base the runner has developed in the previous conditioning mesocycle. Hill running of some form should be done, up to two times per week. This can be the Lydiard type hill springing, or simply running at a steady pace uphill for distances of up to 150 yards. Start with 6-8 repeats then every couple of workouts add two repeats. Between repeats jog slowly (or walk) back down the hill.

A sample weekly microcycle for this phase might be:

Monday: Short easy-paced run
Tuesday: Hill running
Wednesday: Rest Day
Thursday: Medium/Long run
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: Hill running
Sunday: Long slow run

High Intensity Mesocycle:

This cycle includes one or two track interval workouts, with several days of recovery between them. This recovery running should be short slow, easy jogs, plus medium or longer runs at steady pace. The idea is to maintain the aerobic base, and allow the legs to recover from the high intensity interval workouts.

The time trials can be done once each week or ten days. Start with a shorter distance like 3K. After doing that distance two or three times, move up to 5K, then 8k. Do them on a reasonably flat, fast surface. Run the time trials at a fast pace just below race pace. In exercise science terms we call it "anaerobic threshold" training. The idea is to enhance your ability to disperse lactic acid and the other metabolic by-products that build up when you approach your maximum. Thus your cruising pace becomes faster.

A sample weekly microcycle for this phase might be:

Monday: Short easy-paced run
Tuesday: Interval training
Wednesday: Rest Day
Thursday: Time trial
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: Interval training or medium distance run
Sunday: Long slow run

Racing Season Peaking Mesocycle:

Your racing season can last anywhere from 8-16 weeks before performance drops off. This mesocycle is where all of your hard work is synthesized into giving you your best times over your racing distance. Most of your running is done at a slow pace to recover from your races, and maintain your aerobic base. About 50% of your total volume should still be low intensity aerobic running.

Weekly repetition sessions should be done, where you do a very short distance very fast-even faster than your race pace. The purpose of this is to adjust your nervous system to the fast rigors of racing pace to make your racing tempo smooth and more relaxed.

An example of a repetition workout might be doing 3 x 800-meter repetitions at a significantly faster pace than your average 8k race pace.

Regeneration/Restoration Mesocycle:

This is your post-season active recovery phase. It's designed to regenerate you physically and mentally and can last from 4-8 weeks.

Many recreational runners stop running altogether, resulting in a complete loss of all their hard-earned gains. This regeneration mesocycle should include a decrease in overall mileage, slower pace, less days running per week, and perhaps some cross-training activities such as swimming, cycling, hiking, aerobics classes, indoor workouts. These give you a different physical challenge and mental break from running.

This is also a great time to indulge yourself with frequent massages, try something new such as yoga, perhaps do more stretching than usual, and other activities like strength training.

Some Final Advice on Periodization

Here are a few guidelines to check when you are designing your macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles:

Do use the step type approach of increasing your weekly mileage for two or three weeks, then back off for a week. Runners just cannot continue to grind out the same old distance each day without adverse affects.

Vary your running distances daily, especially during your off-season conditioning mesocycle. Remember that if you increase the volume of your weekly running, you need to compromise your speed (intensity) temporarily to enable your cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal systems to adjust. We call this an inverse relationship.

Using periodization will help you enhance your training and racing. Try some of these ideas, even if you have to water down some of the schedules.

You can find more useful information at my running website: www.running-training-tips.com.



Good luck!

Periodization References:
Run To The Top, Arthur Lydiard and Garth Gilmour, 1962, A.H Reed, NZ, (Out of print)
Periodization Training for Sports, Tudor O. Bompa, 1999, Human Kinetics, Humankinetics.com
The Ultimate Training System: Periodization Breakthrough, Steven J. Fleck, Ph.D., and William Kraemer, Ph.D., 1996, Advanced Research Press

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