With all the workouts you try to fit in—long runs, tempo miles, track intervals, hill repeats, strength training—sometimes it seems that in order to run well, you'd have to quit your day job to train 20 hours a week. Fortunately, you don't have to give up your paycheck or your running. You just need to "periodize" your training.
Periodization divides a training cycle of, say, 16 to 20 weeks into phases, each with a specific goal, so you don't have to do every type of workout all the time. In fact, you shouldn't. The phases allow you to combine the benefits of different workouts that collectively add up to peak conditioning. And they build variety into your training, which limits your chances of hitting a plateau or suffering from fatigue or injury.
"Periodization helps you reach a higher level of performance," says George Dallam, a professor of exercise science at Colorado State University-Pueblo and an elite triathlon coach. "It encourages you to plan your running. You're always more successful when you plan."
Nearly every elite runner uses periodization. The number, type, and length of phases can vary, but programs typically include a base, a preparation, and a peak period that lasts four to eight weeks, with each phase building on the previous one.
The base phase develops endurance, the foundation of any distance-running plan. Phase two, preparation, adds a layer of speed by introducing tempo runs and long repeats. "These workouts strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues, which prepares the body for the demands of fast running," says running coach Greg McMillan of Flagstaff, Arizona. The peak phase is characterized by short, fast workouts that simulate racing. These workouts fine-tune the speed you began in phase two by further recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers, improving running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen), and strengthening muscles and connective tissue.
To peak for key races, mark your event (or events) on a calendar and use the guide below, along with your favorite training programs, to map out your base, preparation, and peak phases. Each should be four to eight weeks long (you can extend the base or preparation phase beyond eight, but not the peak, to avoid burnout). Every fourth week, recover by reducing your miles by 10 to 50 percent and easing up on strength training. And after your peak, you can start again with base training—whenever you're ready—and work your way through the phases over and over again.
Phase 1: BASE10 percent Speedwork
15 percent Strength
This phase emphasizes easy miles, but don't confuse base training with fitness running. You are building a base by increasing miles and adding some speed and strength work.
Endurance: The long run. "Long runs teach your body to run more efficiently," says McMillan. Build to five to 10 miles, depending on your goals.
Pace: Easy enough that you can talk comfortably.
Speedwork: Strides, mini-tempo. Do eight to 10 x 20- to 30-second bursts of speed at the end of one or two of your easy runs. In the last few weeks of the phase, add 10 to 15 minutes of faster running (no faster than half-marathon pace) into one of your runs. "The idea is to push yourself a little, so it's not a shock when you go faster in the next phase," says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., a professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Strength: Running-specific exercises. Do a weight workout two or three times a week, emphasizing exercises that strengthen the key running muscles — hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and glutes.