In this article, coach Cathal Logue explains what periodization training is, why it’s so useful for runners training preparing for events, and how to apply it to your own training plan.
Paul is a first-time marathon participant. Over the past 6 months, he’s followed his marathon training plan to a tee, avoided too many injury setbacks, and rested his body well the week before the big event.
However, the day before the race, he’s worried about whether he can perform at the level expected on the big day. This is a common fear, but if the training plan that he followed was well-structured and organized, then he’ll have confidence that he will be at his best when it counts.
Have you ever wondered how the world’s top athletes appear to have an uncanny ability to be at their best every 4 years at the Olympics?
Lasse Viren was one of those type of athletes who had a remarkable ability to produce the goods when it mattered most – at the Olympic Games. He won both the 5000m and 10,000m events in consecutive Olympics, in 1972 and 1976.
The 10,000m race in Munich back in 1972 was when he announced himself to the world, beating the much-favoured British athlete, Dave Bedford. In the run up to the Games, he showed some good form, but unlike his rivals he chose to run lower key events and focused on timing his peak to perfection.
This ability to peak when it matters most is a by-product of a widely established coaching tool – periodization.
What Is Periodization?
Periodization is a way of designing your training schedule to be at peak performance on the day of your event, integrating the principles of overload and detraining.
Periodized training is structured in a way that it provides sufficient stimulus for developing key physiological aspects, but also includes adequate rest and recovery to ensure you give yourself the best chance of being consistent.
The term periodization was first coined by the Russian physiologist Leonid Matveyev in the 1960s. He developed his theory by analyzing the results of the Russian athletes at both the 1952 and 1956 summer Olympics and compared the training schedules of the successful and not so successful athletes.
The Main Principles of Periodization
A training period is considered a macrocycle and normally lasts for 1 year.
This is then subdivided into smaller periods or phases (mesocycles), which may last between 6-12 weeks.
Consequently, each mesocycle is then divided into weekly microcycles. (ref: McArdle, Katch, Katch, Exercise Physiology, 5th Edition).
The traditional approach to structuring your training involves a series of logical steps:
(1) Identify what races you plan to run and their associated level of priority or importance,
(2) Determine the duration of each training cycle,
(3) Divide the training year into distinct phases.
Let’s take each of these in turn and learn how you can better structure your training year to get the best out of yourself at the big races!
How To Apply Periodization To Your Race Calendar
The first step is to get your planner, diary, and race calendar out!
Make a list of all the races you intend on doing throughout the year and define their priority and consider their importance in helping you achieve your main goals for the year.
Then using the ABC goal method, select your A races as the main targets where you plan to peak for e.g., a marathon, regional championships, or your local club’s annual 10k race.
For instance, you may be building up to run a marathon in the spring, and running a personal best is your main target for the season. Working back from this A race will allow you to structure and periodize your training with the objective of arriving at race day, with all the training under your belt, feeling fresh and ready to perform.
Including B and C races throughout the build-up to the marathon will give you an idea of how your training is progressing and provide you some competitive opportunities over shorter distances.
Periodization Training Cycles – The 3 Ms (Macrocycle, Mesocycle, Microcycle)
The level of the macrocycle will depend on your individual circumstances and how long a period your goal horizons cover. For instance, an elite athlete looking to peak at the Olympics may define their macrocycle as 1-2 years as they build up for the Olympic year. However, most amateur athletes find it useful to consider a macrocycle with a 1-year timeframe.
This macrocycle can then be divided into smaller mesocycles.
Each mesocycle will have well-defined focus areas so that helps you build the blocks to optimal fitness over the year. The duration of each mesocycle normally lasts between 6-12 weeks.
Within each mesocycle, you then include weekly microcycles to keep focused and ensure that the training is specific.
Building Blocks To Peak Performance
For most of us a training period of 1 year would be considered an appropriate macrocycle and this period can be split into 4 different mesocycles, or phases: Base, Build, Pre-competition, Peak.
Each phase has distinct physical and physiological objectives with the overall purpose of delivering the best performance from athletes in competition. In theory, peak performance occurs as a result of an accumulation of all the training adaptations coming from each phase.
As the periodization training progresses throughout the macrocycle, there tends to be an inverse relationship between the volume of training and the intensity of training.
Variety is also key to ensure the athlete doesn’t suffer from staleness or overtraining.
- Base phase is where you build endurance, gradually increasing the volume of your training with a focus on developing your body’s aerobic system. During this phase, it’s useful to do aerobic fitness tests (such as a Cooper Test) to gauge aerobic fitness levels and help guide the training.
- Build phase should include some strength-building exercises such as hill running or weights to add to the aerobic base you have developed. Introducing some quality workouts in this phase such as tempo runs, or long intervals is also recommended.
- Pre-competition phase is when you are approaching the racing season. The volume of the training reduces here, but pace-specific sessions will take priority. The runs between these hard sessions will be merely to keep you active and be used as a way of recovery runs.
- Peak phase is where you´ll be full race mode! The intensity of the hard sessions will increase to close or on race pace, but you will be able to reduce the volume and intensity of the runs between these sessions to keep you fresh.
To prevent the onset of overtraining and to maintain consistency with the training, it’s worth including a recovery week every fourth week during each of these phases.
Example: Periodization Training for a 10k Race
Let’s consider and demonstrate how a typical year would look like for an athlete applying periodization training while preparing for their target event of 10km.
The A race is the national championships at the end of July and the following other races will be used as an indication of how training is going and to help the athlete tune up for the major target:
- 1 B race over the 10km distance – this is recommended 6 weeks before the A race.
- 2 B races over 5km – 1 of these could be used 2 weeks before the A race and the other could potentially be run early in the pre-competition phase.
- C races -1 or 2 under distance races over 3k or 1500m – these are great races for helping you sharpen up.
The training year runs from September until early August of the following year, with 2-3 weeks active recovery and rest factored in at the end of the season.
Here’s how the 4 phases would look for this runner:
The focus will be to increase aerobic capacity and endurance, increasing mileage by 10% every week to reach peak mileage at the end of this phase (read more: the 10% rule). This 12-week block could also include some cross-country racing and it is also a valuable phase for building strength (twice weekly circuits workouts or weights) and addressing weaknesses from the previous season.
Continue to focus on maintaining your aerobic base although you should start to introduce more tempo runs, where your paces should be quicker than they were in the base phase. Also, hill running will help you continue to consolidate the specific leg strength which you had developed in the base phase.
This phase of training becomes less orientated towards building certain physiological adaptations and more on preparing your mind and body for the specific demands on your event.
However, you will be working more at specific race paces here in preparation for racing. This will include sessions at 3k, 5k, and target 10k pace.
Racing mode will be in full flight here. Use the hard sessions as preparation for the races and the runs between races will help you recover and rest.
Periodization Training = A Structure for Success
It sounds like a fancy word, but periodization at the basic level means you try and better organize your training so you can peak at the right time for an important race.
The alternative is usually an unstructured, made up as you go approach that will likely result in sub-optimal performances and overtraining or undertraining.
Ultimately, you will fail to get the most out of yourself and not reach you potential.