Phase It In: How To Periodise Your Training


It's a technique that was developed by Russian scientists in the 1940s, but those straight-from-a-Bond-film origins are no reason to be afraid of periodisation. At its most basic, periodisation just means organising your training so you peak in time for a race.

What, when and why?

Until the Soviet sports scientists got on board, athletes trained at the same intensity all year round. As well as being deeply boring, the constant pressure and physiological demand on the body tired athletes out.

Dividing the training year into periods and switching between high and low intensity training means the body has a better chance to recover between target races. So, just like the rest days in your weekly routine, this vital recovery time means you'll get stronger and faster, and be raring to go when race day comes around again.

Christine Ohuruogu, Beijing Olympics 400m winner and current World Champion over the distance, is famous for her perfectly timed performances. Immediately after winning Olympic gold, she told the press, "I know I can perform when I need to. I may not have a good season, but events like this and the World Championships are what I train all year for."

Although elite runners soon cottoned on to the benefits of periodisation, it can seem tough between 'peaks'. Runner Lasse Viren, dubbed The 'Flying Finn', won very little other than his four Olympic gold medals, from double victory in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 1972 and 1976 Games. He mastered the art of peaking precisely once every four years - when it mattered. As Viren himself said, "Some do well in other races, some run fast times, but they cannot do well in the ultimate, the Olympics … The question is not why I run this way, but why so many cannot."

Dr Marco Cardinale is Head of Sports Science and Research at the British Olympic Medical Institute. He says, "Everyone can use periodisation – it doesn't matter if you train three times a day or twice a week. Across all physical activity, the evidence shows that if you alternate heavy and low loads of exercise, your performance will benefit more than if you just do unplanned sessions."

Calendar at the ready

Grab a calendar and get ready to plan your periodised year. Dr Cardinale says, "If you want to do well over the marathon distance, for example, choose a specific race and then periodise your training to make sure you peak for that event."

Periodisation involves dividing up your time into three sizes of cycle – macrocycle, mesocycle and microcycle.

The entire period of preparation is called the macrocycle, and can span a few months to a couple of years. Olympic hopefuls plan in four-year bursts, and professional athletes may even map out their whole careers.

So, before you start planning your year, you'll need to decide how many times you want to reach your peak. If you're training for one big event – like an Ironman triathlon – the whole year could be one macrocycle. But if you're a 10K devotee, you might want to prepare to peak a couple of times throughout the year.

Your macrocycle should then be divided into smaller chunks of time, periods that will allow you to focus on different aspects of your training (mesocycles). Most schedules incorporate a build-up phase, where you'll develop endurance, followed by time devoted to sharpening your legs with some speedwork, and finally as the race draws close, a perfectly timed taper to ensure you're full of energy and raring to go.

Each mesocycle should be between four and eight weeks long. If you need to build up your fitness at the beginning of your training, you can extend your preparation phase (base phase) beyond this time – but be careful not to stretch out the harder phases or you could risk injury and fatigue.

Make sure you allow your body to recover by reducing your mileage by at least 10 per cent every fourth week too. Dr Cardinale says: "Undulate the level of work when you're planning your programme. If you build volume and intensity progressively, but scale it back every now and then, you'll still increase your performance overall."

Within each mesocyle, a microcycle can be as short as a week. It's simply a collective term used to refer to the different units that make up a structured short-term routine (one speed session, one tempo run, a long run and two recovery runs for example).

Get Going

This is how periodised training (mesocycles) looks in progress:

Phase 1: Stay slow

Your base phase develops endurance, the foundation of any distance-running plan. Building a decent aerobic base means you'll be ready for tougher training. Get your muscles in gear by clocking up long, slow miles but take care not to do too much to soon - aim to beef up your usual mileage by about 10 per cent per week to avoid injury.

Phase 2: Strength training

Maintain your aerobic training load, but introduce a session or two of faster tempo runs, hill work and longer intervals. Keep your overall weekly mileage about the same – just bump up the intensity. These faster sessions will strengthen your muscles and ligaments, preparing your body to go at race pace without risking injury.

Phase 3: Anaerobic action

Race day's getting closer, so put fire in your belly and speed in your legs with short, sharp sprints that simulate racing. Carry on with the tempo runs, but as you take the intensity up another notch, you'll need to lower your weekly mileage to avoid injuries and burnout.

Here, you'll fine-tune the speed you acquired in phase two, by building fast-twitch muscle fibres, improving your running economy and further strengthening connective tissue. Dr Cardinale advises, "At this stage, you need to look at performance indicators – such as a build-up 5K or 10K – see what happens in those races, and judge how well your schedule is working based on those."

Phase 4: Race time

If you've got one big race, such as a marathon, then you need to ease back gently with a taper that'll see you raring to go on race day. If you're racing over a longer season – for example, if you're signed up to a summer-long 5K series – you'll need to maintain racing sharpness without wearing yourself out. Drop most of your mileage - just focus on your races with some full-throttle speedwork in between – with plenty of recovery time before your next race, of course.

Lessons learnt

It's a fine art, so use your first go at periodising your training as practice – keep a training log and make a note of how things go, and look back on your experiences when you're ready to plan your next race.

One of the big benefits of periodisation is its capacity for totally personal training regimes. Dr Cardinale says, "There's no pre-set menu with periodisation, everyone's very individual and you need to find out what kind of training plan works for you. Be aware of how your plan compares with what's actually happening."