Periodization training provides athletes with a varied and progressive routine

Increasing the quantity and speed of your workouts and varying the frequency with which you train can lead to huge improvements to your performance

If you want to improve your performances, you can't train the same way all the time. If you did, your body would simply adapt to the training you were doing, your fitness would settle in at a fixed level, and you could train far into the next century without making any improvement. Hoping to perform better with an unchanging training programme is like expecting to become a maths wizard while working on only the simple equations encountered in first-year algebra.

Your body's tendency to merely maintain the status quo means that if you want to get better your workouts must progress to a higher level of difficulty. To progress, you could simply increase your intensity, volume, and/or frequency of training over time. As long as you weren't exceeding your body's ability to adapt, you would steadily get better. The trick would be to avoid exceeding your body's biomechanical and physiological limits; too much stress would actually begin to break your body down, rather than build it up.

This guileless pattern of gradually increasing the quantity of work you do, the speed of your workouts, and/or the frequency with which you train is the simplest way to alter your training over time in hopes of improving your performances. Such progression does produce performance gains, but by itself it can never help you reach your ultimate potential, because it ignores the fact that your training must also be goal-oriented. There are a number of specific things you need to accomplish in order to optimize performance, and these goals aren't always reached merely by fiddling with the 'work-load knob' on your training programme.

The seven commandments

If you're an endurance athlete, for example, there are seven key things you must do to perform at your very best. You must:

  1. Expand your VO2max (maximal aerobic capacity) to the greatest possible extent, so that your body becomes a huge energy-creating machine. As your capacity to process oxygen swells, your ability to exercise without fatigue increases dramatically, and the difficulty of various movement speeds decreases. To put it simply, you can cycle, swim, run, row, skate, or ski further and faster.
     
  2. Increase the strength of your muscles and connective tissues, because doing so fortifies your body against injuries and thus allows you to train and progress without unplanned interruption. Becoming stronger is also the first step on the path to improved economy (see goal no. 5).
     
  3. Lift your lactate threshold (LT) to the highest-possible level. LT lift-offs increase all of your race paces and make it possible to move at faster-than-ever speeds without fatigue.
     
  4. Maximally pad your power. Optimizing your power means not only developing greater force with your muscles - but also learning to exert that force more quickly than usual. Power means faster, more explosive movement - a quicker trip from start to finish of your races; it matters not at all whether your competitions last four minutes or three hours. Of course, one way to augment your average power output is to simply boost VO2max and lactate threshold, but developing maximal power also requires the utilization of special training techniques which increase your muscles' amount and rate of force production.
     
  5. Become as economical as possible. Being economical means having Honda efficiency, even though you have a huge, 'Rolls-Royce' exercise motor (VO2max). Remember that possessing a great VO2max is synonymous with having an expanded heart, as well as muscles which have the capability of processing incredible amounts of oxygen, while being economical means moving along at decent speeds while your heart is still puttering along moderately and your muscles aren't forced to gear up all their oxygen-processing capacity (eg, even though the movement speed is high-quality, you're 'operating' at only a modest fraction of your VO2max, giving you lots of 'room' to pick up your pace without exceeding your oxygen-handling potential). And of course being economical means beating the pants off your fellow competitor, even though that rascal has a similar VO2max, because you can cycle, swim, or run at the same race pace as him at a lower fraction of your capacity, making the speed feel easier to you.
     
  6. Restore yourself regularly and systematically, healing the muscular, connective-tissue, nervous-system, and endocrine traumas which are the natural result of hard training, and thus permitting further hard work and a relentless approach toward your ultimate goal. This restoration would include one prolonged period each year during which your body totally refurbishes itself, making far more than the minor repairs required between workouts.
     
  7. Develop specific endurance. It's not enough to be a physiological thoroughbred, with good VO2max, LT, economy, strength, and power in a rested body. You must also develop the ability to function smoothly and efficiently and with minimal fatigue at your goal speed - the one that will take you to a PB in your key competition of the season. Research has shown us, for example, that a runner who is economical at six-minute per mile pace MAY NOT be economical at seven-minute pace. If that individual wanted to run a marathon at seven-minute tempo, he would have to devote part of his training time to functioning at that specific intensity in order to become economical at that pace.

Train step-by-step

That's a lot to do! And of course, you can't accomplish all those goals at once - with the same kind of training. It would be ridiculous to expect to maximally increase your VO2max - a physiological change which depends on rather large amounts of intense training - at the same time as you were attempting to enhance your rest and recovery.

It would also be foolish to expect to optimize your lactate threshold at the same time as you were making large gains in power, since the former depends on continuous movement for 20 to 30 minutes at a time at moderately difficult paces and also the performance of long intervals (lasting for six to 12 minutes or so) at about 88 to 90 per cent of maximal, while the latter necessitates shorter blasts at considerably higher speeds and special power-building drills.

And it's silly to throw yourself into power training without first building a broad platform of strength; the upgraded strength will protect you from injury during the high-intensity power-promoting workouts, and maximal gains in power simply can't be achieved unless muscles first develop the ability to generate greater force. The lesson is that you must do things in step-by-step fashion when you train, rather than attempt to improve everything at once.

It's important to remember, too, that the gradual development of proficiency in a sport changes the way the body adapts to training and necessitates an actual change in the make-up of one's training programme - to ensure that further performance progress can be attained. For example, research has shown that beginning shot putters make major advances in performance primarily by improving the strength of their arm muscles, while experienced putters increase the length of their throws mainly by boosting the strength and power of their legs (Programming and Organization of Training, Y. V. Verkhoshansky, Fizkultura i Sport Publ., Moscow, 1985). Investigations also reveal that pole vaulters initially make large increases in performance by improving the strength of their abdominal muscles but can only continue to progress by achieving major upswings in shoulder and arm strength (Supertraining, 3rd ed., Mel Siff and Yuri V. Verkhoshansky, Vision Press, 1997). Similarly, beginning runners or runners coming back to the sport after a lay-off can make rather large gains in performance simply by boosting their mileage, while highly experienced runners must tweak their intensity of training and perform special strength- and power-building drills in order to continue to make progress.

The Greeks started it

For all of these reasons, the periodization of your training is critically important. Complicated definitions for periodization training exist, but the term simply means the division of your overall training programme into periods which accomplish different goals. Since you can't do everything at once, you must divide your training time up into discrete blocks and tackle one or two goals at a time.

Over 2000 years ago, the ancient Greeks were the first to use periodization training, although their periodization plans were very simple (they simply increased their total training load over time, using heavier and heavier weights and resistances, for example, to train strength athletes who were preparing for the Olympic Games). After the Greeks, periodization training theory entered a 1900-year lull, only to be revived earlier this century in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Since that time, the Russians have literally led the world in the development of periodization theory. The Russians have also enjoyed one key advantage over other countries; they have actually tested various periodization schemes with large numbers of their international athletes and have accumulated an extensive amount of practical information about periodizing training properly.

The earliest periodization training schemes utilized by the Russians in the 1920s and 1930s were logical but pretty basic; their exercise scientists theorized that training should be divided into what they called general, preparatory, and specific phases. The general stage of training, often lasting for about two months or so, was supposed to develop the heart and lungs, the preparatory training, also two months in duration, sought to boost muscle strength and endurance, and the specific period of about eight months prepared an athlete for an individual sporting event by emphasizing extensive practice of the precise movements involved in the sport.

A tough nut to crack

Finnish and English scientists soon entered the fray and begin publishing periodization papers and books, but - unfortunately - the majority of investigators have provided us with lots of periodization theories but few hard facts. Of course, one reason for that is that meaningful research into periodization needs to cover rather broad time periods.

When we examine the differences in training between athletes who are successful and those who are mediocre, we want to know not how they trained for the past week or even month but how they've organized their training over the previous year. Proper periodization means coordinating training correctly over extended periods of time - long enough to make large gains in fitness and prepare properly for major competitions.

That makes periodization a rather tough nut to crack for exercise scientists, who often feel that they need to limit an investigation to 12 weeks or so - as part of the 'publish-or-perish' lifestyle of academia. There are also major difficulties involved in getting a group of athletes to adhere to a specific training programme for a year or more at a time; many athletes will drop out, others will not follow the prescribed training very closely, and some will get hurt. For an exercise researcher, embarking on a long-term periodization project is a pretty risky thing to do, because the whole thing may blow up in his/her face after a year or more of hard work.

Words, words, words

So the periodization theorists - rather than experimentalists - have held sway, and they have achieved major success in one area: they have given us a large amount of jargon. For example, it's impossible for any periodization 'expert' worth his salt to write an article about periodizing training without mentioning the terms macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles.

Since you'll encounter these terms often if you read about periodization in the future, we might as well give you an account of what they mean.

According to convention, a 'microcycle' is simply a number of training sessions which form a recurrent unit. For example, if your training consists of a hard day, an easy day, and then a rest day, followed by the hard-easy-rest pattern again, these three days represent your basic training unit, or microcycle. Or, if you're a runner and your typical training week consists of a hill workout, an interval session on the track, a long run, three easy runs, and a rest day, that repetitive weekly pattern is your microcycle.

In contrast, a 'mesocycle' is a block of training, consisting of some number of microcycles, which emphasizes the attainment of a particular goal. A 'macrocycle' is a long stretch of training which is intended to accomplish an extremely important overall goal, such as the preparation for and completion of a very important marathon. A macrocycle is made up of a number of different microcycles and covers a period of many months.

Typically, a microcycle lasts for five to 10 days (for many athletes, a microcycle is simply one week of training in a predictable way), a mesocycle usually covers four to 12 weeks, and a macrocycle lasts for 10 to 12 months. Many athletes who periodize their training don't alter their macrocycles very much; one year is structured very much like the next, and thus the year is the largest unit of periodization. However, some athletes think longer term and may utilize what are called 'large macrocycles' which consist of two to four 'small macrocycles,' each of which lasts about a year. These small macrocycles may differ from each other considerably. For example, a high jumper preparing for the Olympics in the year 2000 might spend most of the year of 1998 (the first small macrocycle) working on agility, flexibility, strength, and power, devoting little time to actual jumping or competition, and then shift over in 1999 (the second small macrocycle) to a much greater emphasis on technique and an increase in the number of competitive efforts. In this case, the 32-month period from the beginning of 1998 to the summer Olympic Games in 2000 could be considered the large macrocycle.

Different athletes, different needs

Of course, these terms don't tell us much about HOW a periodization plan should be created, which is the really challenging part of periodization. The first step in proper periodization is to realize that there is not one best periodization plan; what works for one athlete may actually hurt the performances of another. A key reason for this, of course, is that different athletes can have dramatically different needs. For example, a runner with relatively poor muscular strength might need to spend several blocks of training (mesocycles) within a year focussing on developing general and running-specific strength by carrying out a variety of progressively more difficult resistance routines. Such a runner would also need to devote a large chunk of time to hill training, which increases the force-development capacities of the leg muscles. In contrast, a very strong runner could spend considerably less time on such activities and might more profitably mark off large periods of time to work on strengthening a particular weakness, such as a poor lactate threshold or a miserly VO2max.

So, it's clear that each individual athlete needs his/her own unique periodization plan. Periodizing an individual's programme requires skill in figuring out what the athlete really needs - and of course knowledge of the various periodization possibilities (the different programmes which might work effectively). The person doing the periodizing must be a 'training doctor' who can figure out what's wrong with the patient and also knows (and can evaluate) the various therapies which are available.

Catching the 'wave'

That's not always easy, because there are many therapy (periodization) models - and lots of hot debate about which is 'best'. The notion that there is a profusion of periodization possibilities may come as a bit of a surprise to you if you have read about periodization before. In fact, many athletes believe that there is just one way to periodize - the so-called basic wave-like periodization pattern. Using this scheme, athletes first build up their volume (total quantity of training) to a rather lofty level (creating a big 'wave' of miles), while intensity (speed) of training remains fairly modest. This initial period of training is supposed to establish basic strength and endurance. The mileage wave then gradually weakens, replaced by a steadily increasing wave of intensity (mileage is reduced, but average movement speed rises as the quality of workouts increases). According to convention and tradition, the athlete is ready for major competitions once the intensity wave has peaked. After the competitive season is over, the individual rests for awhile before catching another mileage wave and beginning a new season of training.

This basic wavelike pattern of periodization is utilized, year after year, by millions of athletes all over the world. It has a certain logic to it (it seems good to gradually build muscular and connective-tissue strength before subjecting the body to the harsh rigours of high-intensity training). That's not to say that it's the ideal way to prevent injuries, however! Among runners, for example, most injuries are over-use maladies which are more likely to occur during high-mileage weeks, rather than lower-mileage periods, even though the latter may contain a bounty of quality workouts.

The basic wavelike pattern also parallels the classic 'dyad' of 'aerobic' and 'anaerobic' training which countless numbers of coaches still use to plan the training programmes of their charges. The idea is to gradually build up 'aerobic endurance' by covering lots of moderately paced miles (the mileage wave) and then to 'sharpen' athletes with intense 'anaerobic conditioning', which is supposed to improve speed and heighten surging and kicking ability in races. Viewed from a muscle-fibre rather than aerobic-anaerobic paradigm, the notion is to first work on the slow-twitch muscle fibres and then to shift attention to the fast twitchers in time for competition.

Of course, this view of training is ridiculously simple. Some accomplished athletes have been found to have almost no fast-twitch muscle fibres, for example, so how can they work on something they don't have? In addition, it's very misleading to categorize an endurance athlete's training as 'anaerobic', since even the high-speed movements carried out by very skilled endurance athletes actually involve a mix of aerobic and anaerobic energy creation, with the former usually predominating. When Haile Gebrselassie burns his 55- to 60-second 400s during workouts as he prepares to break his own 5K world record, for example, most of the energy created during those fast 400s is produced aerobically, not anaerobically. The truth is that the two systems of energy creation work together, even during the most intense, so-called 'anaerobic' mesocycle of your training (unless your workouts consist solely of 10-second sprints, separated by long recoveries).

So, instead of worrying about developing raw anaerobic capability, you need to think about gradually increasing your power (your ability to cycle, swim, ski, skate, run, or row more quickly). A lot of that boosted power will come not from the development of 'anaerobic capacity' but simply from having a higher VO2max, because more oxygen processed per minute by muscle cells means more energy created per minute, more muscular force exerted per arm or leg movement, and higher movement velocities. Some will also come from improved economy, because better economy means being able to move up to higher speeds without incurring greater oxygen 'cost'. Some will come from lifting lactate threshold, because higher thresholds allow quality speeds to be sustained for longer periods of time. And some will come from better neuromuscular co-ordination - improved reactivity of the nervous system and a heightened ability to utilize available muscular force to drive the body forward, rather than stabilize uncoordinated body parts or waste energy on non-propulsive movements. And of course, some will come from pure strength - the ability to stabilize the body and generate large amounts of force. It's stupid to think that speed arises merely from 'anaerobic conditioning'.

Contrasting periodization training plans

Another problem is that the basic wave-like periodization plan and its corollaries, the aerobic-anaerobic and slow-twitch, fast-twitch schemes, oversimplify training because they treat the overall training process as merely a matter of intensity and volume, saying nothing about how to construct and coordinate periods for optimizing LT, VO2max, economy, strength, power, and so on. Fortunately, there are other periodization plans; the key ones are summarized below:

1. Step periodization: As an alternative to the wave-like periodization pattern, noted Russian exercise scientist A. Vorobyev proposed what is now known as step periodization, in which training loads and intensities are changed abruptly rather than smoothly and progressively from workout to workout - and also in weekly and monthly cycles. In this 'bumpy' periodization plan, series of light to moderate workouts are alternated with collections of very intense efforts - with very little break between the difficult sessions. Different investigations have shown this scheme to be a fairly effective way to develop muscular strength, and it is described in more detail in Vorobyev's classic book, 'Textbook on Weightlifting'.

2. Skill-Strength Periodisation: this scheme for divvying up training time has been utilized by the former U.S.S.R.'s track and field teams prior to the Olympic Games. In this very interesting plan, athletes spend an extensive amount of time perfecting their technical skills during the preparatory phase of training, prior to embarking on the development of strength and/or endurance. The idea is that once athletes are skilled (for example, once they are technically proficient jumpers or economical runners), they can then optimally use their increasing strength to boost performance, because the increased strength is not 'wasted' on inefficient movements but is channelled correctly into proper patterns of motion. It's the opposite of many traditional schemes, which build strength first and worry about technique later, and in one sense is the reverse of the classic wave-like periodization pattern, which emphasizes an initial, huge wave of strength-building moderate running, followed by the gaining of technical proficiency (economy and co-ordination) while running fast. No carefully controlled research has ever contrasted skill-strength periodization with the basic 'waving' paradigm, but the Russians have reported excellent results with the former (and of course their teams have done quite well in Olympic competitions). An additional advantage of skill-strength periodization over traditional waves is that skill-strength deals with more than just the volume and intensity of training, adding in an emphasis on the development of technique and efficiency.

3. Emphasis Periodisation, also called the Concentration of Loading, in which training is divided into four to 10-week time 'blocks' or mesocycles, with each block having a special emphasis (concentration). Each emphasis is supposed to act as a foundation for the following period of concentration (for runners, this might mean the development of running-specific strength before power, or the attainment of economy prior to VO2max for example), and the athlete is not considered to be fully prepared for competition until all of the emphasis periods have been duly completed. This kind of periodization goes far beyond mere fiddling with the volume and intensity of training and actually addresses an athlete's specific goals - the targets which must be reached before maximal fitness can be attained. Developed and popularized by noted Russian scientist Yuri V. Verkhoshansky, emphasis periodization is actually not inimical to the classic wave-like pattern of training or any other manner of adjusting training loads, since alterations in volume and intensity can occur in the background as an athlete concentrates on specific objectives.

Additional theories about periodization can be found in Tudor Bompa's well-known book, 'Theory and Methodology of Training', from Kendall-Hunt publishing.

The first phase of periodization: rest

So which periodization plan should you use? Well, any periodization scheme must begin with one basic element - rest. This is intuitively and logically obvious: the human body simply needs 'down' (restoration) periods to recover from extended periods of stress; you must convalesce from the training you carried out in your just-completed mesocycle or macrocycle. That's the easy part; the difficult part involves answering two key questions: how often should a full recovery take place, and how long should the recovery period last?

We have anecdotal answers to the first question and scientific answers to the second. Of course, we do know that athletes need to recover well between individual workouts, and especially between high-quality sessions, and research which has investigated the phenomenon of 'tapering' has shown that athletes can profit from fairly regular back-downs in training lasting for a week or two, but we simply don't know how often endurance athletes need to reduce their training for more extended periods of time. Indeed, that need probably varies among athletes. Anecdotally, top athletes seem to profit from one month away from training each year. For example, many world-class Kenyan distance runners take the month of September or October off before starting their cross country seasons.

Of course, the word 'off' can mean different things. Moses Kiptanui doesn't run at all during his four-week break, but many other runners prefer to run at a moderate pace at least a couple of times a week. Again, there's probably no right way to do it: the key is to make sure the body's muscular, nervous, connective-tissue, endocrine, and nervous systems are fully restored before vigorous training is resumed.

We do know a bit more about the appropriate length of the recovery period, thanks to research carried out with marathon runners. A study carried out by Michael Warhol and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University uncovered extensive damage in marathoners' leg muscles immediately after the 26.2-mile race (broken cell fibres, swollen cells, mangled membranes, degenerated mitochondria, and damaged blood vessels were present). Repair of this sorry state of affairs took about four weeks, and in some runners it took even longer ('Skeletal Muscle Injury and Repair in Marathon Runners after Competition,' American Journal of Pathology, vol. 118, pp. 331-339, 1985).

True, not all endurance athletes are marathon runners, but subsequent research showed that moderate endurance training (about 31 miles of running per week - with no marathon running) can produce similar damage in 33 per cent of runners and slightly heavier training (48 miles per week with no marathoning) can induce comparable damage in the majority of runners ('Structural and Ultrastructural Changes in Skeletal Muscle Associated with Long-Distance Training and Running,' International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 10, pp. S156-159, 1989). Thus, we can conclude that almost all serious runners need a recovery period, and that the minimal length of this recovery period should be four weeks.

Swimmers may need a comparable amount of time to restore their shoulder areas; it's less clear what cyclists need, but certainly a four-week rest can do no harm. Overall, it's very reasonable to contend that the subsequent training year will be much more profitable if it is preceded by a thorough rest.

During the recovery period, training should be held to a minimum. In runners, research suggests that - to minimize muscular stress - mileage should not exceed 20 miles per week, with no single run longer than eight miles. To burn calories and calm their appetites for exercise without stressing their muscle cells, runners can also bike or swim moderately during their recovery mesocycle, but the total quantity of exercise should be greatly reduced. At least one week of total inactivity, followed by three or more weeks with just one to three workouts per week, should optimize recovery in most endurance athletes (remember that total mileage for runners shouldn't exceed 20 weekly miles and single runs shouldn't last more than eight miles).

The next phase: strength-building

After recovery, what's next? For runners, the answer is very clear. 65 per cent of all runners are injured during an average year, which tells us that runners' basic strength is poor. The muscles and connective tissues of the average runner are simply not ready to stand up to the stresses of regular training. So, once recovery has been completed, it's definitely time to begin strengthening the whole body - in preparation for the tough training to come. Endurance athletes in other sports should also benefit from the strengthening process.

This notion of placing strengthening routines ahead of the highly technical training which follows seems to defy the highly touted skill-strength periodization scheme often used by the Russian Olympic teams. However, remember that running and cycling are not the quintessential skill sports, at least not in the same sense as pole vaulting, high jumping, or throwing a discus, and remember also that having good overall body strength allows the body to move in a coordinated, 'skilled' way - without unnecessary, energy-wasting movements. Research has documented that strength training can lower injury risk in runners and other endurance athletes, too, so it makes sense to put strength first ('Value of Resistance Training for the Reduction of Sports Injuries,' Sports Medicine, vol. 3, pp. 61-68, 1986).

It's also clear that the exercises used in this strengthening phase of training should involve all of the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body, including the critically important trunk muscles in the abdomen and low back. Such exercises literally make athletes stronger from their toes to their heads, an overall strengthening process which improves biomechanical stability, heightens economy, and promotes fatigue-resistance.

The key workouts to utilize during this strengthening period of training are extremely interesting, consisting of a demanding circuit of exercises carried out in series, with very brief rest breaks between activities. To build the capacity to move more quickly, as well as whole-body strength and stamina, the exercises are performed in conjunction with intervals which are completed at brisk speeds.

Follow these routines

Here's how to do the strengthening workouts (please follow along in Table 1; the routines are set up for runners, but they can be easily adapted for cyclists, swimmers, and other endurance athletes). After 10 to 15 minutes of light jogging, run for 400 to 800 metres at about your 5K race pace from the previous season (if you didn't run a 5K, you can simply use a pace which is four seconds per 400 faster than your typical 10K velocity). Then complete five whole-body exercises, followed by a second running interval, five more exercises, and then another interval to finish the circuit. As your strength and muscular endurance improve from week to week, the number of exercise reps and the length of the running intervals tend to increase, and an increased number of circuits can be completed per workout. That's how you challenge your body to attain even greater strength and endurance.

Running at 5K velocity (or cycling or swimming quickly) during the intervals forces you to practice running at race pace when you are very fatigued, which initiates the important process of building speed stamina at an early point in the training year and also kick-starts the process of expanding VO2max, which will be a key goal of the forthcoming macrocycle (5K pace is one of the very best training speeds for VO2max advancement). The circuit, which lasts from 20 to 60 minutes from start to finish, should be carried out two to three times a week on non-consecutive days (Tuesday and Friday, for example, or Monday, Thursday, and Saturday). You should maintain good form during the exercises, never working so fast that technique suffers. 10 to 15 minutes of cool-down jogging always conclude the session. A five-week basic-strength programme is outlined below:
Just to make sure you understand the workouts, please follow along in column one, under the 'week no. 1' heading. During the week-one workouts, you would warm up, run 400 metres at 5K pace, do six squat thrusts with jumps, four pull-ups or chin-ups, 12 ab crunches, 10 push-ups, and 20 body-weight squats before embarking on a second 400-metre interval. You would then perform the rest of the exercises in column 1 in sequence (numbers 8 through 12), before running a third 400-metre interval. Since this is the first week of the strengthening period, you wouldn't do any more circuits, letting just one trip through the exercises be the 'meat' of your workout. However, as you can see from the table, the number of circuits gradually increases until you are whipping through the overall series three times during week five - with a considerably increased total number of reps.

Don't be fooled by the above workouts! Although the circuits look deceptively simple, they are actually extremely challenging. They are great for building strength (after a couple of weeks, you will feel the difference in your body and the way you run), and they are also terrific for raising your running capacity. Not surprisingly, they represent a terrific test of your overall fitness - and thus can help you chart your training for subsequent months. If you are strong in running or cycling but rather poor in overall strength, the circuits will nearly crush you at first. On the other hand, if your running fitness is poor but your overall strength is good, the circuits will still be a very strong test of your fortitude (running 800 metres at 5K pace immediately after completing 30 fast body-weight squats is challenging, even for the gifted athlete). After five weeks, you will notice remarkable improvements in both your strength and your running. Many of the runners I've coached have been able to race very well after completing the five-week programme, even before progressing to the other periods of training which follow.

After this strengthening phase, proper periodization depends on the needs of the individual athlete; there is no one right way to do it. A situation I encountered recently will demonstrate a logical and effective way to divide the training year into useful periods.

Putting it all together

At the end of May this year, a veteran runner came to me asking for help.

His 'big goal' of the year was to break three hours at the Cal International Marathon in Sacramento on December 7. Along the way, he also wanted to compete in some USATF races and improve on his 8K, 10K, and 1/2-marathon times. This 55-year-old chap had run the Big Sur Marathon (a very challenging course) on April 27 in a very creditable time of 3:22 and had recovered nicely during the four weeks before he talked with me. His usual routine before he met me was to run 35 to 45 miles per week with five to six weekly workouts - and five to six quality sessions every two weeks. His previous training had included an array of tempo runs, interval workouts, hill reps, races, and long runs. He also went to the gym for a couple of weight-training sessions each week.

Since he had recovered well from Big Sur, it was time to think about beginning a block of post-recovery training. But what should we start with? His description of two strength workouts per week might have indicated good muscular strength, but I strongly suspected that he was in possession of good 'gym strength' but only average running-specific strength, and that we therefore needed to begin serious work on his strength. That suspicion was confirmed by the fact that he found the strength circuits described above, as well as the classic special-strength routines for runners (one-leg squats, high-bench step-ups, one-leg hops in place, balance and eccentric reach with toes, and the 'core exercises' prescribed in the April 1995 issue of Peak Performance) to be quite challenging.

When he first contacted me at the end of May, we had 27 weeks to prepare for the Cal International Marathon, his 'big-goal' race. He needed to upgrade his strength, but the 'hooker' was that he also needed to get ready for some races on the near horizon - a 5K on July 4 and an 8K on July 12. Therefore, in addition to putting him on a rigorous strength programme, I decided to spend our first five weeks together emphasizing VO2max (a great way to prepare for racing, since the training intensities match up well with 5K speed) and the next five weeks working on lactate threshold (another critical goal of training, and one which would be paramount for the half-marathon and marathon).

Putting together the other periods was simple. I knew that the 10 weeks of strength (plus LT and VO2max) work would leave him strong enough and fit enough to handle a full seven-week period devoted to economy and power development. This period needed to be longer than the others because I wanted to accomplish two key things - to dramatically boost his specific strength for running with three to four weeks of hill repetitions (this would enhance his economy) and to transform all of his newfound strength into more powerful, explosive running with three to four weeks of fast reps on the track and speed-bounding drills. After that, we would return to VO2max for three more weeks to push his aerobic capacity to even greater heights, hit lactate threshold for three weeks again to extend his ability to run at quality speeds for long periods of time, and then spend the final four weeks tapering, sharpening, and completing specific preparations for the marathon. The 'background themes' for these final 17 weeks would always be continued strength development, an increase in specific endurance for the marathon (making larger and larger portions of the regularly scheduled long run parallel goal race pace of about 6:45 to 6:48 per mile), and a gradual expansion of weekly mileage. However, mileage would not steadily increase from week to week; within the first 23 weeks of the programme, there would be recovery mesocycles containing lower-than-usual mileage every fourth or fifth week or so. In addition, total mileage during the final four weeks before race day would continuously decrease.

Overall, the plan was as follows:

  1. Five weeks of strength and VO2max training,
  2. Five weeks of strength and lactate-threshold work,
  3. Seven weeks of economy and power training,
  4. Three weeks of VO2max effort,
  5. Three weeks with our old friend LT, and
  6. Four weeks for tapering, sharpening, and final preparations.

The actual training schedule

Why were the periods designed to last three to seven weeks - not shorter or longer? Research has shown that when you emphasize something in your training - whether it's the inflation of VO2max, the lifting of LT, or some other goal - there are few measurable improvements obtained in the first week or two of training. However, during the third and fourth weeks, the improvements can be quite dramatic. Unfortunately, those gains often begin to diminish during the fifth or sixth week - and peter out to nearly nothing as time goes by (as your body adjusts and adapts to the training). Therefore, it's reasonable to utilize three- to seven-week periods, moving on to a different emphasis and thereby continuing to push your athletic capacity higher after that amount of time has elapsed.

What did this runner's training schedule actually look like? Well, the start of his first five-week mesocycle was as follows (remember that we were stressing VO2max and strength, with marathon-specific endurance along for the ride).

Monday - Easy 5-miler

Tuesday - VO2max session: 2-mile warm-up, 5 x 800 in 3:05 each (about his estimated current 5K pace) with 3-minute jog recoveries, and a 2-mile cool-down.

Wednesday - Core exercises (special strength routines to enhance strength in the muscles attached to his pelvic girdle and lower spine)

Thursday - Easy 6-miler

Friday - Marathon-specific session: 2-mile warm-up, 4 miles in 27:12 (6:48 per mile pace), and 2-mile cool-down (over the weeks, the number of marathon-specific miles and total length of the workout would gradually increase).

Saturday - Rest day: No training

Sunday - Speed-strength circuit

Total miles for week: 32 (modest, because he was just emerging from recovery). Quality Miles: 7.25 (23 per cent)

The schedule continued in this manner, with VO2max sessions taking place at 5K pace once a week. The intervals utilized in the VO2max workouts ranged in length from 400 to 1600 metres, and recovery time between work intervals became relatively shorter over time.

One of the VO2max exertions involved doing some fartlek running on trails, rather than performing intervals on the track. For the fartlek session, the runner warmed up with two easy miles and then completed seven 'bursts' at what felt like 5K pace, with each surge lasting about three minutes or so. These accelerations were interspersed with bouts of recovery running lasting around two minutes each.

The strength circuits and core exercises also continued to take place once a week (in a 'normal' strength period, the circuits would occur twice or even thrice weekly; they didn't in this case because of the runner's need to use VO2max sessions to ready himself for racing), and the marathon-specific efforts began to expand in duration. During the five weeks of the VO2max mesocycle, the runner carried out three quality workouts during three different weeks, two quality workouts during another week, and two quality sessions and a race during the fifth week. Thus, there were 14 high-quality efforts in a 35-day time span (five pure-VO2max workouts, one race, five strength-circuit sessions, and three marathon-specific long runs). Mileage was pretty modest (remember that he was coming out of a recovery period) and increased only moderately, totalling 32, 38, 36, 40, and then just 27 miles in weeks one through five, respectively (the fifth week was a recovery-taper week to consolidate the gains made during the first four weeks and to rest a bit before the 5-K race).

The fruits of his labour?

A couple of very nice things happened to this runner at the end of the first five-week (VO2max) mesocycle. First, he achieved a performance breakthrough, running his 5K in a PB time of 18:43 - just a tick over six-minute per mile pace. It was clear that the VO2max intervals, carried out at a pace of 6:00 to 6:10 per mile, had significantly boosted his aerobic capacity and improved his economy and perception of effort at six-minute tempo (he had run a total of about 20 miles at approximately six-minute pace during the month of June leading up to his 5K; some of that distance was completed during track and fartlek sessions, some during the strength circuits). He also reported a feeling of greater muscular strength and stability as he ran, which we attributed to both the strength circuits and core exercises.

The second event was a little more surprising: at the age of 56 (he celebrated his 56th birthday the day before the 5K PB), he also achieved a new, higher-than-ever maximal heart rate during his 5K. A new, higher maximal heart rate at the age of 56? In an experienced, award-winning runner who had been training for years? While that may seem strange, you should bear in mind that this man had pretty much been a 'heart-rate trainer' who used a heart monitor to plan and gauge the intensity of workouts - before he began working with me. He had always believed his max heart rate to be 176, because that's as high as it ever got during his most strenuous workouts or races, yet at the end of the 5K his ticker was pumping away at a rather lofty 181! How come?

Well, bear in mind that the 5K is a great race to detect max heart rate, since it is completed at a very high intensity and is often capped with a dramatic rush to the finishing line. However, to truly get your heart rate into the highest part of its 'red zone', you have to improve the fatigue-resistance of your leg muscles, so that they can sustain a dramatic pace through the final stages of the race to almost the finishing line, and so that they can then pour even more coals on the fire when the line is in sight!

Remember that your heart is pretty much along for the ride as you race; it will do what your leg muscles 'tell' it to do. If your leg muscles cannot sustain a lofty intensity for a long period of time, they will never drive your heart to its upper limit, and you'll never reach true heart-rate max. On the other hand, if you can improve the fatigue-resistance of your leg muscles at high running speeds (by practising those speeds relentlessly and strengthening your legs and core muscles to promote stamina), then your ability to sustain quality efforts for longer and longer periods of time will force your heart to work harder than it ever has in the past, trying to keep up with your muscles. In the case of this particular runner, he had never previously been able to run at six-minute pace for long enough to push his heart rate above 176, so he thought that 176 was his true max.

Put aside the monitor

If I had used a heart-rate monitor to train this athlete, he never would have run his PB - or attained a new max HR. For one thing, if we had set up all his VO2max intervals to be completed at 90 to 95 per cent of max heart rate (as many coaches and runners do), rather than the specific pace we utilized, then his heart would have been ready to work at 90 to 95 percent of his old HR max - not 103 percent of his old max, as was the actual case in the race - and his legs would have been set to work at an intensity that produced 90 to 95 per cent max heart rate, instead of motoring him to the finish line in record time! Also, during the race, a heart-rate-trained runner who believed his max to be 176 would have become alarmed as heart rate soared into the 170s (and probably would have slowed his pace as a result), instead of focussing on keeping his legs relaxed and working at the well-rehearsed, six-minute pace.

We had made good improvements in strength and VO2max (otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to set a 5K PB), and as the sixth week began it was time to turn to an emphasis on lactate-threshold development. It was also time to turn up the strength-building fires a little, since the runner had gained a great deal of basic strength and was ready for more challenging and specific work. So, in addition to his regular running sessions, he began to carry out a new strength workout two to three times per week; this new regime included one-leg squats, high-bench step-ups, one-leg hops in place, toe-walking and heel-walking drills, core exercises, eccentric knee squats, eccentric reaches with toes, eccentric reaches with knees, and dynamic Achilles exercises. He had a fair amount of difficulty with several of these exercises, which was actually a good sign, since it meant that he would be getting specifically stronger - and that the improved strength would carry him to even faster race times.

This runner is now in the hill-rep phase of his economy-power mesocycle, and he is reporting that the strength he gained during his first 10 weeks of training is allowing him to run his hill workouts faster than he ever did in the past - yet with a feeling of relative ease. I fully expect him to achieve some performance breakthroughs in his remaining 10Ks - and to run a great marathon in December. His rapid progress tells us that proper periodization of training is not such a difficult thing to do. You need to study yourself to determine what you really need, remember the key physiological goals you want to accomplish, establish reasonable time goals for your important races, and give yourself enough time to reach those goals.

If you do, you'll find that your detailed periodization programme will add some nice details to your performance scorecard - in the form of some solid new PBs.

Owen Anderson

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