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Periodization for Distance Runners
By Rick Morris
There are a lot of specific ways you can train as a competitive distance runner, but every effective training program has one thing in common – they all follow some sort of periodized schedule. To reach your peak distance running potential you need to improve several important phases of your running, including your lactate turn point, VO2 max, vVO2 max, running economy, running strength, power and endurance, Of course, you also must stay injury free and healthy. It’s impossible to train all those areas with one type of workout. That’s where periodization comes in.
In its simplest terms, periodization is a one word description of the pattern or division of your training program into “periods” that emphasize different training goals. I don’t like to get caught up in the semantics involved in running. Coaches and runners, including myself, will always have their own pet terms for various types of workouts. I use the term lactate turn point to describe the somewhat vague point at which lactate is produced fast enough to cause a rise in hydrogen ions. Others may call that lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold. That being said, there are a number of common terms involved in periodization that you should probably be familiar with. Just keep in mind that you will see various names describe the same ideas.
A periodized running schedule is broken down into cycles that are a lot like setting short and long term goals. Just as with goal setting, each cycle is progressive in nature and is designed for a specific purpose. You can really use any number of cycles, but by far the most commonly used method is three cycle periodization. A three cycle schedule has a microcycle, mesocycle and macrocycle. The microcycle consists of your repeating pattern of workouts and may last from a few days to two weeks. The most common microcycle for today’s distance runners is a one week pattern composed of a sequence of workouts that are repeated from week to week. For example, your weekly workout pattern may be one long run, one lactate turn point run, one vVO2 max workout, one hill run, two easy runs and one rest day.
A mesocycle is the next longest period. Your mesocycle is a block of training made up of several microcycles with the overall emphasis placed on one or two types of training. Your emphasis may be on building endurance, strength, power, speed, VO2 max or a combination. A mesocycle can last anywhere between a few weeks to several months.
The longest training period in a three cycle periodized running schedule is your macrocycle. Your macrocycle is composed of several mesocycles and is intended to accomplish an important goal such as finishing a marathon, setting a new PR in a big race or placing well in a critical race. Mesocycles are associated with moderate to long term goals and typically last from several months to a full year.
A three cycle is periodization schedule is the most common, but some runners may also use a four cycle schedule. A four cycle schedule includes one more even longer cycle – a Super Macrocycle. A super macrocycle is associated with very long term goals. For example, a college runner may have a very long term goal of competing in the Olympic Games. This runner’s macrocycle goal would be to win an upcoming college level race, but may have a four year very long term goal of winning the Olympic Trials. This athlete would have a microcycle composed of a weekly training sequence, mesocycles that emphasize certain short term training goals, macrocycles of performing well in important college level races and a super macrocycle with the goal of winning the Olympic Trials.
Super macrocycles aren’t reserved for top level runners. A new runner may have a super macrocycle goal of finishing their first marathon. In that case the runner would have a microcycle of weekly training runs, mesocycles that emphasize different training goals such as building endurance or strength, macrocycles of perhaps finishing their first 5K and 10K races and a super macrocycle of finishing a marathon in 2 years. Their specific training and areas of emphasis would adjust and change as they progress through the various cycles and move closer to meeting their very long term goal of finishing a marathon.
Types of Periodization Models
There’s more than one periodization model. If you want to get into a lively debate with a group of runners, just bring up the subject of periodization plans. It seems like everyone has their favorite and believe that theirs is the only way to go. The truth is that each of the periodization plans has their advantages and disadvantages. The best one for you depends upon your goal, your fitness level and your experience level. Here are the basics of some common periodization models.
This is a running periodization model that has been used by millions of runners with great success. Many runners have the mistaken belief that this is the only way to train. Athletes that train using a classic periodization technique will first build up their training volume with a lot of long slow distance running. Then they will introduce some tempo running to increase their stamina and follow that up with fast paced interval training to sharpen. The idea behind this periodization technique is that an initial period of high mileage is needed to build a “base” of fitness that will support the higher intensity running that will follow. The second phase of stamina or strength building will expand your lactate turn point and further prepare you for the high intensity interval training that will sharpen and peak you for your goal event.
Using the classic technique the weekly workouts are the microcycles, the blocks of base building, stamina runs and interval training make up the mesocycles and the entire program terminating at the goal event is the macrocycle. At the end of the macrocycle, the runner would engage in a period of rest and recovery, which is another mesocycle, before beginning the routine again with a new goal event.
The classic periodization technique works well for some athletes, such as seasonal cross country runners, seasonal track athletes and runners that have only one very important goal race. For athletes that run on a year round basis and those with many goal races, other periodization techniques may be more appropriate.
Skill/Strength First Periodization
Classic periodization starts with long slow distance running and progresses through stamina and strength before ending up with sharpening and peaking. Skill first periodization uses the same type of “block” training but uses a reverse order. Instead of starting with base or endurance training, this scheme starts with working on running technique and running strength. After a period of skill/strength training the athlete would begin to work on improving stamina/lactate turn point before finally increasing their overall endurance. This type of periodization goes against the grain of popular opinion, but has some real advantages over classic periodization. The most valuable assets of skill/strength periodization are related to injury prevention and running economy.
The vast majority of running injuries are repetitive motion injuries caused by too much volume, not by high intensity running. The high volume causes so many injuries because some runner’s muscles are too weak to support the large number of impacts associated with high mileage. Strength first periodization will strengthen your running muscles and connective tissues so they will be able to support the high volume later in the program. The early high intensity running will also improve your neuromuscular conditioning which will improve your running economy and proprioception. That will also help you avoid injuries as well as increasing your running efficiency to support the upcoming stamina and endurance training.
This type of periodization is also effective for seasonal runners and one goal runners.
Multi Pace Goal Based Periodization
Both classic and skill/strength periodization use blocks of training that emphasize endurance, stamina, strength, or speed/sharpening. Those are simple techniques work well for some seasonal runners. But seasonal runners make up a relatively small percentage of all runners. How about the runners that complete on a year round basis or have many goal races. That type of runner needs a periodization plan that keeps all phases of their running operating at near peak efficiency all year long. If you’re that type of runner you need to keep your base endurance high, your lactate turn point elevated, your VO2 max at top levels and your running strength high, on a year round basis. That’s where multi pace goal based periodization comes in.
Multi pace goal based periodization does not exclude any phase of training for long periods of time. Rather, it includes every type of training you need within each microcycle. For most distance runners that means including a long endurance run, a lactate turn point run, vVO2 max training, strength/power workouts, running economy training and rest during each training week or microcycle.
During each mesocycle, a specific type of training will be emphasized but no phase of your running will be ignored. The specific makeup of each microcycle, mesocycle and macrocycle will depend upon your specific running goal and your current strengths or weaknesses. If you’re training for a marathon there will be greater emphasis on endurance, goal pace running and running economy. If setting a new 5K PR is your goal, more emphasis would be placed on vVO2 max, strength, power and economy. You would also adjust your cycles to meet your current needs. If you are weak in endurance you would place more focus on long distance training. If your endurance is high, but you are unable to maintain a quality pace you would emphasize lactate turn point training and running economy. That’s the greatest benefit to multi pace goal based periodization – you’re able to adjust it to adapt to your current needs.
Choosing the Best Running Periodization Model
For most of today’s runners, a multi pace goal based periodization scheme is the most efficient way to train. But it’s not for everyone. Use the chart below to help you pick the model that most closely matches your needs.
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