Developing a Training Program Using Periodization

by Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby, an article which first appeared as a feature article in Peak Performance Magazine

In our first article we discussed the beginning steps in creating a training program: realistically evaluating present fitness, identifying lifestyle constraints on training, developing long term goals, and finding short term goals that support the training effort. Once those constraints and goals have been discussed the next step, using short and long term goals as a guide, is the development of a general plan that utilizes periodized training.

One of the most significant training techniques of the modern era is the recognition that a training schedule should be well thought out over at least a six month to one year period of time. Within that established period of time, certain developmental stages or periods optimize the fluid progression of an athlete from basic strength and endurance to the peak of performance. The periodization of a time framework is essentially the same whether the athlete is a miler or a marathoner. A metaphoric visualization is helpful in understanding how to think of the process as a whole. Each training schedule is a cycle which when completed returns to the beginning. However, the anticipated result is that the periodized schedule returns one not just to the beginning but to a higher plateau so that the visualization is of an ascending spiral with each cycle building upon the previous but with increased developmental performance. Certainly, there may be set backs that returns one to a lower rung; however, from that setback, the athlete gauges his position on the spiral and begins again. Within any age level or ability this is a useful way to think about goal performance as resting on developmental organization of time. Implicit within this visualization is a real and metaphoric understanding that our performance is regulated by the seasons. To each season there is appropriate training which is in itself regulated by cycles of development.

A long term goal may require more than one complete training cycle. An effort to reach the Olympic standard at a track event may require 4 years or more of work and planning. Consequently, one training cycle might represent one six month period which would seek to advance the athlete to a goal within 10 seconds of the ultimate standard. Each new cycle elevates the athlete's ability to consolidate the strength and conditioning necessary to move to the next level. Realistic planning would identify goals for each training cycle that would advance the athlete to a position closer to the ultimate goal. Before beginning each cycle the athlete and coach must be prepared to identify goals that control the direction and specifics of the athlete's training. In providing the following examples we recognize certain limitations. Any attempt in this article to give specific content to a training week leaves out the most important element: the athlete. Each individual requires a unique approach that generalizations cannot do adequate justice. A training program for an athlete is dynamic. Specific examples can only be a snapshot and not the entire movie.

Aerobic Base Training - (Eight Weeks) This is the foundation of any training program whether it is the beginning of or a new cycle of an ongoing program. The eight weeks consists solely of building mileage. The gradually increasing mileage should begin by running at an easy, slow (aerobic) pace on courses that are relatively undemanding. Additionally, at least one long run should be accomplished each week. A progressive increase of about 10% in mileage is a good but not an absolute rule of thumb. The long run should be increased each week by about the same amount. If keeping track of mileage by time, a 60 minute run progresses to 66min, 72min, 79min, 88min, 97min and so on. For the beginning runner this might consist of a modest increase of 20min, 22min, 25min, 28min, and so on. A beginning runner may start with 3-4 days a week of running and try to achieve a consistent program of at least 5 days by the end of the Base Building period. A typical week might look like:

  • Monday--OFF
  • Tuesday--longer run (ex-40 min run)
  • Wednesday--shorter, recovery (ex-30 min run)
  • Thursday--longer run (ex-40 min run)
  • Friday--Shorter, recovery (ex-30 min run)
  • Saturday--Active Rest (some other activity such as swimming or biking)
  • Sunday--The Long Run (ex-50 min run)

An advanced or elite runner might run every day with a schedule that called for 2 easy runs on MWF, 1 moderately long run on Tuesday and Thursday, an easy run on Saturday and a long run on Sunday. Such a schedule might look like this:

  • Monday--am-40 min/pm 40 min
  • Tuesday--70 min
  • Wednesday--am-40 min/pm 40 min
  • Thursday--70 min run
  • Friday--am-40 min/pm 40 min
  • Saturday--45 min
  • Sunday--90 min

The goal of this period, increasing mileage, results in a stronger aerobic system and the foundation fitness to move on to the next step.

Resistance or Strength Phase - (4-6 weeks) During this phase, the runner makes the significant addition of running hills. The transition to hill work need not come abruptly. The athlete may already have been running some moderate hills during weekly runs. However, now is the time to pay special attention to hill training by gradually introducing increasingly demanding resistance work. In addition to adding hills to the week's longer runs, Tuesday's run may become a longer run over a demanding hilly course. The length of the run and the demands of the course should fit the level of the runner. Thus a beginning runner might change Tuesday's 40 minute run into a 35 minute run over an moderately hilly course. The advanced runner might do an hour over a demandingly hilly course. If a such a hill course is hard to find, then repetitions of one specific hill would be a good substitute or an addition for the advanced runner.

If you have a coach, the proper use of bounding (a ballistic driving off of the forefoot in a vertical explosive motion utilizing the arms for drive) would be useful in developing lower leg strength. Various drills, which isolate specific parts of the mechanics of running, can help to build strength and develop proper running form. However, proper technique really requires a coach. Incorrectly done, such drills (especially among older athletes) can cause more problems to muscles and tendons than the good they can do for form and mechanics. This period continues base building, but adds the important conditioning of lower leg muscles and tendons which play a motor role in later speed development.

Tempo Runs - (4 weeks) During this phase of training, the athlete should add a tempo run which increases with distance over time. For example, the beginning runner should start with 8-12 minutes and increase the time run slowly until the tempo run reaches 30 minutes or more. The elite runner, especially the marathoner should be able to approach an hour or more at a tempo pace. This run is described as comfortably hard and run at what could be described as "high aerobic" to anaerobic threshold. The goal is to develop the capacity to sustain a quicker pace at the same effort over increasing distances. The long run should be continued but the hill repeats and/or bounding can be reduced to accommodate the increasing intensity. Using the above schedule, the tempo run could replace the hill runs on Tuesday or be inserted on Thursday.

Bulk Intervals - (4 weeks)-Tempo runs should be continued during this phase; however, the emphasis should shift to large volumes of "intervals" with relatively short rest. To accommodate the increased intensity, hill training should be discontinued and the week's focus should shift to "bulk intervals." These are run at a pace generally faster than tempo runs or at a speed between 5K and 10K race pace depending on the length and number. Examples would include: 20 times one minute on, one minute off (one minute run strongly, returning to an easy pace for a minute and so on); or 20x400m on the track with a 1 minute rest on a 200m quick jog; or 6-8x 3 minute sessions, run in a park over a rolling terrain that includes uphill, downhill and flat portions. Half of the number of intervals might be appropriate for the beginning to intermediate runner. The object is to build strength and mechanics at a faster pace. Ideally, bulk intervals should come sometime during mid week, after a recovery day and followed by enough rest to maintain the training effort.

Quality Intervals - (3 weeks)- At this point the runner is reaching the culminating point of the larger training cycle. The number of intervals is reduced; however, the rest remains short and the pace is markedly quicker. Efforts should be more sustained and "race-like", becoming simulations of race stress. An example might be 8x400m run with a minute rest but run at one mile race pace. Another example would be 300/100s. This workout calls for running 300m at one mile to 5K race pace with a quick 100m jog recovery. A workout of 12 to 15 300 meter repetitions would simulate a 5K effort. One quality interval workout per week, combined with a shortened long run on Sunday and a light "speed" workout, all separated by easy recovery runs, will make up a training week. Monday--recovery run or off Tuesday--quality interval workout Wednesday--recovery run Thursday--speed workout (full recovery intervals usually shorter than 800 meters, run at close to full effort, with few repetitions). Friday--recovery run Saturday--short run Sunday--practice race, time trial, or moderately long run.

Racing - (4 weeks)- During this period the mileage and the long run are reduced substantially. The long run may be cut in half and the total mileage of the final week should be cut substantially. All the work has been done and it is time to rest and sharpen for racing. Rest is extremely important during this phase. Too often the athlete will not trust his conditioning and think that keeping up the mileage will put him/her at the desired level. Absolutely the opposite is the case. Rest itself will bring about peak performance by giving the body a chance to consolidate all this training and put it to the test on fresh legs. This period, however, should include some time trial efforts over short distances with all out performance. Examples include 3x1000 meters, 3x600 meters or 4x400 meters, etc. The pace is much faster than 5K pace. The object is to sharpen the final aspects of speed. These principles work well for sub-marathon distances. Whether one is a beginner or an elite runner the principles are the same. What differs is due to strength and experience of the athlete. Preparation for a marathon is significantly different and substantial modifications need to be made to these periods in order to accommodate some of the special aspects of successfully running a marathon.

The concept of the ascending spiral of training works for athletes of all abilities. Periodizing training allows the athlete to focus on workouts which are developmentally necessary for progressing to the next step. In turn, each cycle serves as a foundation in itself necessary for moving higher in the ascending spiral of performance. Planning a logical progression of training based on this concept is the key to long term success.

Athlete Profile - Breeda Dennehy:

We started working with Breeda Dennehy in the fall of 1997. She was an Irish runner in her mid 20's living in Florida. She had graduated from a U.S. University a few years before and was trying to compete on the road racing circuit with her eye on international competition. Her personal bests were 15:45 ('96) at 5000 meters and 33:50 ('95) at 10000 meters. She had obvious talent and had competent coaching in the past but wanted a fresh approach that would help her achieve her goals. It was clear that she had the talent to be an international caliber athlete and needed structure and long term guidance. Our first step was to develop a loose 4 year plan that would encompass the Olympic cycle which had just started following the Barcelona Olympics. Her major long term goal was a place on the Irish Olympic team.

After getting to know each other and sorting through some initial injury problems, we helped Breeda produce a plan which covered the 3+ years prior to the Sydney Olympic Games. Initially, we knew that the long term plan must remain flexible but needed to reflect the major training cycles and how they related to escalating levels of competition. The final 12 months featured a buildup to the Olympic Games. A quick look at the previous Olympics showed us that her personal best would have to improve by 20 seconds or more in the 5000 and by almost 2 minutes in the 10000 for her to have a chance. As the three years passed there were setbacks with injuries and health problems but progress was made in advancing her racing ability and in her experience as a competitor. With each major training cycle her strength improved and we saw great improvement in her longer races on the roads. She had international success in cross country giving her more confidence at the elite international level. We continued to modify the plan and established escalating goals with the beginning of each major cycle. The goals reflected her need for income and satisfied the Irish Federation but always with an eye on producing performances that moved her into the international arena.

In the final 12 months before Sydney she ran 15:12 and 32:11. Those times placed her in the top 20 athletes in the world at both events. She represented Ireland in both the 5000 and 10000 meters in Sydney fulfilling a life long dream and a payoff for over 20 years of racing and training. The plan we established over 3 years before had changed in a lot of respects. It had been twisted into shape where it didn't fit the circumstances but the initial plan had laid the foundation for the basic direction of each training cycle. Within each major cycle we were able to identify goals that moved us in the direction of the Sydney Olympics. The goals within each cycle then helped us identify progressive training that would yield the outcomes we wanted within each major cycle. The ultimate outcome was the result of applying a cyclical plan that allowed the athlete to progress from the local stage of competition to the international arena of the best in the world.