Professional and collegiate coaches have long used cycle training with their elite athletes. Marathoners like Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi use longer training cycles to hit different energy systems multiple times, says Andrew Kastor, head coach of the High Sierra Striders. But the approach benefits anyone who can use extra recovery time so they're fresh for hard efforts, including beginners, the injury-prone, and masters runners. Plus, an expansive cycle allows for more wiggle room—if you have to reschedule a key workout, it won't throw off your whole routine the way it might in a weekly plan.
That said, most of us live by the seven-day-a-week calendar, so it does take some planning to train in cycles. Whether you've got a race goal or are just looking for a fresh training strategy, here's how to make it work for you.
Choose the Length
Runners aiming for 5Ks and 10Ks can use a 10-, 14-, or 21-day cycle, says McMillan. If you're planning to do a half or full marathon, a 21- or 28-day cycle works best as it allows more time for recovery. In general, if you like a lot of structure, stick to shorter cycles of 10 to 14 days. If you prefer more flexibility, opt for the longer ones.
Targeting a goal race? Determine how many cycles you'll need by counting back from race day. You'll need at least eight weeks to train for a 5K or a 10K, which works out to about six 10-day cycles or three 21-day cycles. Half-marathoners need 10 weeks to build up, or three to four 21-day cycles; full marathoners need 16 weeks, or four 28-day cycles.
Pick a Number
How many quality workouts you do during your cycle depends on your experience level and injury history, says Kastor. More seasoned runners can usually handle more frequent tough sessions. "After training for several years, our body recovers more efficiently, and we can run hard more often," he says. Kastor recommends that beginners who run fewer than 15 miles per week do three or four hard workouts during a 10-day cycle, five or six over a 14-day cycle, and eight or nine over a 21-day cycle. Intermediate to advanced runners running 30 to 40 miles or more per week can schedule four during a 10-day cycle, six over a 14- day cycle, nine over a 21-day cycle, and 12 over a 28-day cycle, says Kastor.
Mix Them Up
Key workouts should include long runs, race-simulation or tempo runs, and speedwork that includes long and short intervals, says McMillan.
Plot Them Out
Schedule your quality sessions in any order across your cycle. But start your cycle with your long run to make sure your most time-consuming workouts don't land inconveniently midweek—on, say, a Wednesday when you have to go to work early and drive your kids to after-school soccer practice. And never run two hard days in a row.
Run easy or cross-train before and after tough workouts, giving yourself extra easy days before and after your most tiring sessions. Mixing in cross-training will build overall fitness and make you that much more rested and prepared for your hard efforts. Every six days or so, take a well-earned day of total rest.