Periodization in Marathon Training: Dividing Training into Phases

Periodization in Marathon Training: How to Divide Your Training into Phases

Yesterday I began training for the California International Marathon. Technically, I began the introductory phase/speed segment of marathon training.

A good training plan progresses through phases in order to optimally prepare you for your specific goal race. You can’t maintain peak marathon or half marathon shape year round and you have to put in weeks of hard work that plays to your strengths, works on your weaknesses, and improves your specific endurance.

Phases also divide a long training cycle into more manageable sections. 16-20 weeks of marathon training can be intimidating, but 3 phases of base/speed, fundamental, and sharpening each lasting 4-6 weeks is more mentally manageable.

 Periodization in Marathon Training: How to Divide Your Training into Phases


Periodization in Marathon Training

While these principles apply to all training from the short track races to ultra marathons, I will use the marathon as an example since marathon training cycles are often the longest training cycles for a recreational to moderately competitive runner. 

Linear vs. Non-linear Periodization

In general, there are two approaches you can take to structuring the phases of your marathon training plan: linear periodization and non-linear periodization

Linear periodization occurs when you devote each phase of training to a specific goal (aerobic, strength, anaerobic, racing was the model used by the long distance running pioneer Arthur Lydiard). For example, during the aerobic phase, you do only long, slow distance running – no speed workouts, no tempo runs, no hill training.

Linear periodization can be visualized as an isosceles triangle. At the bottom you have a large base, representing the aerobic period of training. From then on up, each period gets smaller, until you reach the top peak of the triangle – your peak race fitness.

Periodization in Marathon Training: Linear Periodization

Non-linear periodization sort of flips the triangle on its side, if you will, so that the triangle forms an arrow. Training works both systems (aerobic & aerobic, or more specifically, endurance and muscular) while narrowing down towards one specific point. Instead of training only one physiological system at a time, you do all types of workouts at each phase of training. The differences between each phase are less distinct, although the rule of specificity should still lend some distinction to the phases as they approach race week.

Based on the distance for which you are training, the emphasis of the workouts does change as well. Even if you are doing speed, tempo, and long runs all within any given phase, you need to tailor those workouts specifically to the physiological demands of the race and where you are in training.

Periodization in Marathon Training: Non-Linear Periodization

For example, the speed workouts of a marathoner will be different than those of a 5K/10K runner. A marathoner may do mile repeats on the road, long tempo runs, and long runs exceeding 2 hours, while a 5K runner will do a higher volume of short intervals on the track, shorter tempo runs, and shorter but slightly faster long runs.

Which model you choose depends on your injury profile, your previous training/aerobic base, and how your body responds to increases in mileage and speed work.

(For a detailed explanation of various models of linear and non-linear periodization, read this post from Running Times.)

[Tweet “Linear vs nonlinear periodization – which structure of #marathon #training is right for you? via @thisrunrecipes #fitfluential #running”]

Personally, I have had past success with Brad Hudson’s combination of non-linear periodization and increasing specificity. I’m adapting the plan (as the whole point of his training plans, which as a coach I love) to fit my current fitness, weekly mileage, and goals. 

I also included some workouts from other coaches as well, particularly Runner’s Connect hill-repeats-to-marathon-paced-tempo runs. It looks uncomfortable and challenging on paper, but since CIM features several rolling hills over the first 16 miles, it fits the specific demands of my goal race. And isn’t the goal of marathon training to make race day just a little bit more comfortable?

My plan is divided into three phases: base + speed aerobic fitness and neuromuscular fitness), fundamental (still aerobic fitness and neuromuscular fitness while also beginning to train specific endurance), and sharpening (specific endurance). 

The following phases are examples from my own training. Please always consider your own fitness, goals, and injury risk when adopting a new training plan, and always do what works for you. 

Phase 1: Base + Speed

18 weeks is a long time to train for a marathon – in fact, it’s too long to specifically train for a marathon. By specifically, I mean doing marathon-specific workouts: 16+ mile long runs, long tempo runs, and a high volume of training at marathon pace. That should be saved for the 12 weeks before a race.

Instead, you should devote the 4-8 weeks before specific marathon training to either developing your aerobic base or, if you have a good base and have completed a marathon before, your speed.

Right now, I’m working on preparing my body for the marathon specific phase by incorporating a speed segment – or more technically so, a hill segment, since I’ll be doing fast hill repeats instead of short speed intervals . Over the first 4 or 6 weeks, I’ll also introduce hill sprints and continue to do more hill workouts, strides, and drills to continue to improve my neuromuscular fitness. The hard workouts here are run significantly faster than marathon pace, although a few progression runs introduce small doses of marathon effort training. 

Sample Workouts:

  • 8 x 1 minute hard uphill (7 miles total)
  • 15 x 1 minute at 5K pace, 1 minute easy (8-9 miles total)
  • 1 hour easy run + 6 x 8 second hill sprints

Phase 2: Fundamental

The fundamental phase is where I will transition from a broader non-linear periodization to a more race specific phase. I’ll still incorporate speed workouts at 5K-10K pace and tempo runs and I will introduce marathon pace runs and increase the duration of my long run. 

The variety of workouts during the fundamental phase not only helps with developing specific endurance but also prevents that marathon training burnout. 

Sample Workouts:

  • 16 miles with 12 miles at slightly slower than marathon pace
  • 2 miles at marathon pace, 2 miles at half marathon pace, 2 miles at 10K pace (10 miles total)
  • 8 x 3 minutes at 10K pace (10 miles total)

Phase 3: Sharpening

Tapering is only half of the equation during the last few weeks before the race – you also want to sharpen up. A mistake which many runners and cookie cutter training plans make is to eliminate intensity during the taper. Not only will you feel sluggish and restless from the decrease in your running, but you will also not be training yourself for peak performance at your goal race.

Sample Workouts:

  • 3 x 2 miles at half marathon pace + 8 x 30 seconds hard (11 miles total)
  • 2 x 4 miles at marathon pace (11 miles total)
  • 22 miles long run

So what does this phase look like for my marathon training? Very long runs long runs with long segments at or near goal marathon pace, tempo runs at marathon goal pace, and a few small speed semi-workouts tacked on to the end of runs. The add-on intervals are to keep speed in my legs (key for the marathon because once your slow-twitch muscles begin to fatigue, you rely more on your fast-twitch muscles) while still allowing me to focus on tempo and marathon pace workouts.

Of course, as it should be for any training plan, this is all written in pencil. A lot can change over the course of 18 weeks, and what matters is being able to adapt training to fit life while still working towards goals.

[Tweet “What should marathon training look like? @thisrunrecipes explains the phases of #marathon #training #runchat”]

Do you break your training into phases/mesocycles?
Do you practice linear or non-linear periodization?
Longest long run you’ve ever done?

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16 Responses

  1. When I am making training plans I like to break them up into phases. I also tend to use the phases as natural breaks for cut-back weeks. The longest training run I ever did was 22 miles. Not sure if I will feel the need to do that again, but its was definitely a confidence booster going into the race.

  2. the longest I have run is 16 miles. I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true. I have only run 16 miles a couple of times! Maybe one day I will go further. by two hours though, I am done and ready to go home. Not so much tired and unable to continue, just done for the day with little desire to go further. this may change if I ever train for a marathon.

  3. Another kick ass expose! You nailed it! I think that the kind of training that you do also depends on the amount of time that you are working with. If you already have a good base, in my mind, you have a bit more play time, as it were. If you are prone to injury, as you said, you might need to be more conservative.

  4. I did something similar for my marathon training although my phases weren’t as well-defined. I did an initial fitness building phase where I included a wider variety of workouts and cross training to help me get in shape, then after 5 weeks I transitioned into more marathon specific work while increasing my mileage, then in the last 5 weeks I packed on all the miles, did lots of goal MP work and the occasional tempo run and did hill repeats instead of speed. I was really concerned with peaking too early so I used that system to make sure I didn’t try to take on everything all at once. It also helped break up the training cycle – as you said, 18 weeks is a long time to work toward one goal!

    1. I remember how well structured your marathon plan for PGH was – and it clearly paid off! Peaking too early is always a concern, especially with how exciting a new training cycle is and we just want to dive straight into the goal pace workouts right away – but it’s better to wait on those.

  5. All these charts are so satisfying!!! I could stare at them all day. I’ve never really used a plan until I did Hanson’s. The longest long run I’ve ever done was 30 miles (and then 20 miles the next day) to prepare for my 50 mile ultra!

    1. Charts make me so happy also, I’m glad you like them! I just discovered Canva and all the chart options are so fun. 30 miles + 20 miles back to back sounds challenging – but just what you need for a ultra!

  6. Thank you for sharing this. This is useful knowledge for any people who pursue training. I can not agree more about the linear periodization. The bottom part (base) is absolute the most important thing. It must be stable if we would like to achieve the target of speed or strength.

  7. Just what I have been looking for – a clear, unabbiguous explanation of the different approaches to creating a specific training plan. Thanks!

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