Ever reached that point in training when your legs become heavy and lethargic, you lose the spring in your step, your performances stop improving or even start to deteriorate, injuries start to creep in, and you feel fatigued mentally and physically even on your rest days? A major problem experienced by many runners, elite and amateur alike, is thinking that training and racing as hard as possible all the time will bring about results.
In fact, the way to maximise performance potential while minimising injury or mental and physical burnout is by implementing a system of periodisation. This means breaking your training and racing season up into distinct periods of varied levels of training, racing and resting volume and intensity. This is so you peak at the desired time, while allowing sufficient recovery during and after the season.
Your season could look like this…
This 4-8 week period should consist of unstructured training and complete rest. This is designed to give mind and body a much-needed break. Carefully identify your highest priority race(s) in the season to come, and work backwards to allow sufficient time for each training period. Since you cannot peak for every race, carefully choose the ones you really want to do well in, and use others as training or progress measurement.
Here you ease back into training over 4-12 weeks after the break. This may comprise of easy aerobic conditioning, cross-training, flexibility, core and weights programmes, practicing technique through neuromuscular and strength drills and psychological preparation.
Base training period
For the next 8-12 weeks you should focus on improving aerobic endurance capacity, with increasing durations of lower intensity sessions (60-75% effort), and technique in order to reduce injury risk and improve efficiency. Personally, I like to incorporate some lower intensity hill work into this period as a form of functional strength training.
This is when you need to build on your base fitness for 4-8 weeks by increasing training intensity with race-specific preparation. Include tempo and steady-state runs, longer intervals or fartleks, training sessions on gradients and terrain to be expected in the goal race(s), simulated or under-distance races and over-distance training. This enables you to remain sharp without the risks of constant racing at your highest levels.
In order to reach this you need to increase both oxygen carrying and working muscle efficiency at your lactate threshold (80-90% of maximum speed). This period involves 2-4 weeks of your most intense training (mostly short intervals) and most valuable recovery periods. But if you peak for too long, you risk losing some base fitness. Shorter distance runners may remain in peak training throughout their racing season, but aim to peak for one specific race or competition.
The aim of this 1-2 week period is to maintain existing fitness while simultaneously allowing for sufficient psychological and physical recovery and rest. This is crucial to be in optimal condition at the start line of the goal race. Peaking and tapering must be balanced to avoid either racing tired (too little taper) or losing some of the fitness gained during the preparation, base, build and peak periods (too much taper). For most elite athletes, the taper is the toughest part of the training programme as it requires the discipline to rest in spite of feeling very strong. At the other end of the spectrum, many back-of-the-pack athletes happily start their taper very soon after beginning preparation or base training! In this regard, planning and confidence in your own ability are key aspects.
Finally, once you’ve achieved the desired result in your high priority race, you need to recover (even if you didn’t, you still trained and raced hard and your body needs a break). Duration of recovery depends on length of race, if you are carrying injuries and if you are in-season and have another important race looming. Rush this important period at your own risk!
Then, once the season is over and goals are achieved, the cycle begins again – Transition (off-season), Preparation, Base training, Building, Peak training, Taper, RACE and Recover. Each period should be adapted to your individual needs, including level of ability, race distance, goals and past experience.
If you follow a periodised training plan with discipline and patience, you should be able to look forward to a long career of injury-free (or at least injury-managed) running and the best performances you can produce.
by Candyce Hall
A registered biokineticist in private practice in Hout Bay, Candyce has finished 10 Comrades and eight Two Oceans (by age 29). Her marathon PB is 2:55 and she’s blitzed a 38:23 for the 10km. She coaches and advises runners, from novices to professional athletes.
Originally published in November/December 2013 issue 62.