Most training plans suggest mixing runs of various lengths and speeds, with a shift in focus - from endurance to speed, typically - as you get closer to a goal race. This approach, “periodsation,” is the subject of an ongoing study by Stephen Seiler, a researcher at the University of Agder and the Norwegian Olympic Federation. Last fall, he presented initial results comparing three different styles of periodisation for endurance athletes.
Endurance to speed
The best results in Seiler’s study, albeit by a narrow margin, came from the traditional endurance-to-speed periodisation. The cyclists in the study started by mixing long workouts (4 x 16:00) into their training; then four weeks of medium workouts (4 x 8:00); then four weeks of shorter, faster workouts (4 x 4:00). They were told to hold the hardest pace they could for each, so as the repetitions got shorter, the pace picked up. These athletes showed the most improvement between the 40-minute time trial they performed at the start of the study and the one they performed at the end.
To apply these principles to a four-month 5K buildup, you might start with a month of high mileage and weekly tempo runs, with a few postrun strides to ease the transition to faster training. Then spend a month focusing on hills and long interval workouts with short rest (4 x 2,000 metres), then a month of medium-length workouts (6 x 800 metres), then a few weeks of speedwork (12 x 400 metres) and a final taper. The mileage decreases steadily after the first month.
Speed to endurance
What if the cyclists in Seiler’s study had done a three-hour time trial instead of 40 minutes? The goal of periodisation is to shift toward training that mimics the demands of your goal race, so progressing from speed to endurance - the next most effective method tested in the study - makes sense for longer events like the marathon.
In a four-month reverse buildup, you still focus on mileage and tempos the first month. But then you dive into shorter, faster workouts like 6 x 800 metres with 2:30 rest, lengthening the reps and shortening the rest over the next two months. Hit your highest mileage and longest marathon-pace workouts four to six weeks before the race, then sustain that until backing off by 20 to 40 percent for a two-week taper.
The hybrid approach
Combining speed and endurance in any given week fared worst in the study, but it may be the best choice for frequent racers. It worked for Australian 5,000-metre great Craig Mottram, who once said that he was never more than six weeks away from being in sub-13:00 shape.
To try a hybrid approach, mix in long and short repetitions with varying recoveries, hills, tempo efforts and long runs. When it’s time to compete, shift the focus to race-pace workouts for a few weeks and dial back the mileage by 10 to 15 percent before a one to two-week taper. Then get back to the routine - but plan a couple of weeks of downtime once a year to recharge.