You’re a runner who races regularly, from 5Ks to half marathons, but you’re dissatisfied with your performances. You run almost every day, with an intense effort once or twice a week, and try to fit in a weekend long run. You’d like to be better, but you’re just not sure you can work harder. Your training log shows that a week in November looks much like a week in April, or August. It works; it is what you’ve done for years. That’s the problem.
As a researcher and director of clinical development at The Vitality Group in Chicago, US, where I translate the science of exercise to large populations to create wellness programmes, I find that training, to many, means just running each week. It’s not planned out in a way to maximise benefits.
Successful runners, however, structure their year into focused segments. They take breaks, address problems and hone new skills. For passionate runners who train for enjoyment as much as performance, taking this step can be a big ask. Trying something new broaches a barrier, beyond which lies the unknown. Doing the same or similar workouts provides a steady diet of confidence because we know how we respond. It can be a tough decision to stray from the path that has rewarded us. But don’t settle for the status quo this year. Plan a year that allows you to emerge faster, stronger and healthier.
The sum of myriad adaptations
Most runners have heard the term ‘periodisation’. Taking full advantage of it allows you to optimise your training time throughout the year and improve your performance by pushing yourself in areas you might have previously ignored.
To produce favourable adaptations in your fitness level, you need to exert sufficient stress to stimulate your systems to produce these adaptations. In other words, you have to get out of your comfort zone. Doing something you’ve done before, regardless of how hard it feels in the moment, is something your body already knows how to do, so that activity will not produce any meaningful adaptations.
Periodisation applies the concepts of stress, adaptation and specificity in a systematic way – using different time periods to work on unique aspects of your running – to produce the changes you’ll need for peak performance. Rather than seeing fitness as one whole, periodisation presents your performance as the sum of many different adaptations. It allows you, over time, to accumulate a larger sum of adaptations than you could by working all areas of running fitness simultaneously.
Map your year
Understanding how periodisation works is one thing; doing it is another. Important as running is, it is not the only priority in our lives. We have jobs, families, friends and other life commitments that require attention.
A periodised approach can help us schedule training segments of differing lengths and intensities that fit our available training time and accomplish specific, achievable and meaningful goals during those periods. And it can help us be better spouses, employees, parents and citizens by giving us time to put those commitments first, without sacrificing any running goals.
Looking at the full year, identify key time frames when you can devote more effort to training, and others when you will have fewer hours and less energy. Plan recovery periods for heavy work times, holidays or weeks with other pressing commitments.
Pick the races you hope to peak for, ones that fit into your schedule and training time. You can have more than one peak in a year, but trying to peak more than two or three times makes it hard to schedule adequate down cycles and building periods leading to the peaks. As you lay out your year, plan periods of intense, specific training when it will benefit your key events. Slot in other meaningful, but perhaps less specific, training during longer periods between goal races.
Periodised training programmes tend to divide segments into days, weeks or months using terms such as ‘macrocycle (which can last many months), ‘mesocycle’ (weeks) and ‘microcycle’ (days). These are useful from a conceptual standpoint and when designing detailed programmes, but an in-depth understanding of them is not vital. The important point is to realise that a training period can be of different lengths, even as short as a few days. When you consider that, it can help you slot in a series of workouts that focus on a specific adaptation for a short period. When balanced with the appropriate amount of rest and recovery, you can then move with relative ease between training and rest periods throughout the year.
As you look more closely at your calendar, identify focused training periods and how long each one will last. This helps you work out how much training you can do during these times. For example, if you have a solid 10-week period between peak races, you could plan two four-week training periods with one week of recovery after each one. Longer periods are necessary for goals such as building endurance. A shorter period can be used for a specific, short cycle, such as pure speed training to hone your kick.
Work on your weaknesses
As you outline a plan, identify your weaknesses and strengths as a runner. Recognising weaknesses is an important first step and will help you construct workouts that will address them. If you’re like most distance runners, you probably neglect your speed – don’t. Throughout the year, schedule some periods as short as one to two weeks to focus on workouts that address your power, such as 100-200m sprints or plyometrics. Just don’t do too much, too soon. If you have not tried plyometrics before, keep it simple and progress slowly.
If your general body strength needs some attention, schedule a period where you spend more time in the gym doing resistance training or body-weight exercises. And don’t shun upper body exercises, including arm and shoulder work, for fear that adding additional mass will only slow you down. Remember, your running performance is due not only to a strong heart or strong legs, but is also the consequence of your whole body being able to withstand the stress that running at pace exerts on you. Whatever your weakness, spend a period or two focused on it early in your training cycle. Later, as you get closer to your race, you can do workouts that reinforce and affirm your strengths.
If you’ve built a base of consistent mileage that you can sustain through the year, you don’t need to spend months continuing to increase or maintain high mileage and ignoring other elements of your running. Instead, you can complete a period of high-volume running in six to 10 weeks.
Over four weeks, cut all intense workouts – intervals, tempo runs, fartleks – and increase volume by 10-20 per cent each week. Back off in the fifth week, doing only a few easy miles to stay loose, before increasing again for four more weeks followed by another recovery week. Increase mileage by adding distance to each workout, as well as by adding running days each week. Keep doing a weekly long run and, if possible, add a midweek longer run to help get the required distance each week.
If you have a history of injury and are unsure about increasing your volume by this much over four weeks, complete two three-week mesocycles – stop after three weeks if you’re unsure whether you can complete the fourth week of increased volume. If you’re feeling fatigued, chances are you’ve stressed your system enough to get some adaptations.
Taking a systematic approach like this can mitigate the problems normally associated with big jumps in volume. You can exceed the ‘10 per cent rule’ because you’re increasing over a short period and keeping the intensity low. Balance these hard periods of training with recovery weeks of only a little easy running.
The value of rest
You can push yourself quite hard in any given training period as long as you also give yourself adequate time to recover from that training. This can mean total rest, but it can also take the form of easy running or cross-training for a week or two that permits recovery from the hard block you have just completed. Too many runners never schedule downtime in their monthly plan because they are too tied to weekly mileage totals.
The aim of each hard training period is to do training sessions that stress your physiology nearly to the point of failure, while being careful you don’t go beyond that point. This level of stress is called overreaching and it represents the optimal state of training stimulus. Failure can occur if you do even one more day of hard training. Instead, by retreating into a period of recovery, your tissues and systems are allowed to regenerate and form the adaptations you’re seeking.
Typically, a week provides enough rest, even after the hardest training periods. If the previous training period was not particularly taxing, you might be ready to start a new training period in four or five days. The real discipline is in backing off and having confidence that even if you err on the side of caution and reduce too much, you are not doing yourself a disservice. Better to be safe and cut back enough so you can start the next training period fresh and ready to push yourself again. Be confident that reducing volume or intensity for a few weeks at a time is not going to derail your fitness. The decision to sacrifice current race-readiness for a long-term goal is the biggest hurdle for many runners.
This year, look at your fitness as a combination of multiple factors, each of which can be improved. That way you’ll propel yourself to a higher peak than if you simply cling to what you can accomplish in the short term.
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