Periodization in Training

Cat Fitzgerald PT, DPT, CSCS

As each spring and fall approach, runners plan for what big races they want to do. This can be a fun and exciting part of running! Are you going to travel for a race? Try a new distance? Finally get into one that you’ve been in the lottery for forever? If you’re local to NYC, are you going to try for the 9+1 program to get a spot in the NYC marathon? There are so many options!

As we plan out our race and running calendars, it’s important to build in cycles of training, or periodization.

Periodization is the progressive cycling of training and can be considered on the macro, meso and micro levels. It seems to be more commonly understood for strength training.  When we talk about running, “Micro” is one week-10 day period that you cycle through, “meso” is one training cycle (i.e. 16 weeks prior to a marathon) and “macro” is the full calendar year. 

The concept of periodization is to build on what the runner is already doing and include appropriate recovery and deloading. This is easy to conceptualize on the meso level: many traditional training plans have cut back weeks every 4 weeks where the long run is shorter and maybe the workouts are a little shorter and/or easier. In that 16 week example, there are four four-week cycles, and each of those cycles should progress before reaching that cutback week or taper period to race day.

This meso periodization is commonly understood. What’s often lost in the mix is the macro periodization.

Runners often get so swept up in their mileage and race calendar (after all, who doesn’t know a runner that pushes it a little if they’re feeling good?) that there is never an appropriate break between cycles. You can get away with this for only so long before it wears on you in some way, affecting your performance or leading to injury or burnout.

As good as it can feel to be handling peak mileage and smashing workouts, you can’t stay at that level for a long period of time. There needs to be time spent resting and recovering… time spent not running. This is an incredibly healthy practice, both mentally and physically, after a race. Then, when you return to running, you’re ideally starting with some base mileage–all easy running. The next race is appropriately scheduled to allow for the recovery and then base mileage period. What’s even better is that when training has been properly periodized and progressed over time, that base mileage starts at a higher level than you did before. 

The biggest takeaways when talking about periodization are: 1) think beyond the training cycle for a single race and 2) be patient. Long term progress and tolerance for mileage and workouts takes time! More than half of my coaching work is holding runners back from overdoing it while really putting in the quality miles when it counts. Let the fitness come to you – don’t force it!

By Cat Fitzgerald PT, DPT, CSCS

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