If you have ever followed a training plan to prepare for a race, you have probably noticed that training looks different over the weeks of the plan. You may start at lower mileage and increase mileage throughout. Workouts are likely easier at the start and harder before the taper. Many training plans follow the concept of periodization training – the division of training into different phases to provide a progression.
Periodization can benefit runners preparing for a goal race. It can also be beneficial for runners simply looking for structure and variety in their training. This article explores the different types of periodization training, the different phases of periodization for runners, and how to build periodization into your annual training.
Understanding Periodization Training
Periodization is a term used in exercise science and disciplines such as strength and conditioning – and it applies to running as well. Periodization provides structure to run training by breaking the year into different phases (“periods”) with intentional programming. If you have ever followed a training plan leading up to a race, you have done a form of periodized training.
Think about a training plan. You often begin building up your mileage first (base building). Then, you focus on workouts and long runs specific to your race (specific training). A couple of weeks before the race, you start to decrease training (taper). Then you race and recover (peak performance and recovery).
Periodization is based on some prominent theories in exercise science: supercompensation theory, general adaption theory, and fitness-fatigue paradigm. All these theories hinge on the concept that the body adapts to stimuli and requires new stimuli to further build fitness. Periodization provides structure to introduce a stimulus, adapt to it, and then progress or introduce a new stimulus before a plateau occurs.
Periodization divides an annual training plan into subcycles: macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. A macrocycle lasts several months – such as a marathon training plan lasting 16-20 weeks. A mesocycle typically lasts two to six weeks; an example of this is specific blocks within race training. Microcycle is a training week.
The Different Types Of Periodization Models Commonly Used For Running
Many types of periodization were originally developed in the strength and conditioning world. Over the years, training theory for running has adopted various periodization models. Some periodization types work well for middle distances and are used in collegiate systems. Other models are more popular in long-distance running.
Linear periodization is traditionally used in track and cross-country settings. Training volume is highest further out from the race, in the preparatory and pre-competitive phases. In the competitive phase (lasting 3-4 months), the volume goes down – and intensity increases.
In linear periodization, your workouts are different in each phase. Lydiard training is a classic example of linear periodization. Lydriard’s training methodology progressed through four periods: base, strength, anaerobic, and coordination (peaking). The base phase focused on easy runs, the strength phase on hill work, and the anaerobic phase on short, fast intervals.
A linear periodization approach works well for runners preparing for track races and middle distances. This approach is used less in volume-dependent training for road races.
Reverse periodization takes the opposite approach as linear periodization. In reverse periodization, volume builds over the macrocycle and peaks in the mesocycle before the taper. Likewise, intensity decreases from high intensity to moderate-intensity throughout the build.
Reverse periodization is most commonly used in marathon preparations. Unlike middle distances or shorter long distances such as 5K and 10K, the marathon uses virtually just aerobic energy pathways. So, instead of doing short, anaerobic intervals closest to the race (which prepares for an anaerobic-focused performance), a focus on aerobic volume leads to the best performance in the marathon.
We see this reflected in the research around training theory in long-distance running. The researchers of a seminal 2022 review in Sports Medicine observed that marathoners ran their highest training volume weeks immediately preceding the taper phase. Reverse periodization can be used in half marathon and ultra distances, as well.
Unlike linear periodization, non-linear periodization does not have a singular focus in each phase. Non-linear periodization blends workout focus throughout. You do different workouts regularly, rather than splitting them into different phases. For example, hill workouts, interval workouts, tempo runs, and long runs are all done within the same mesocycle (or even microcycles).
Non-linear periodization can be used at many distances, from the mile to ultra distances. It can lack specificity, though, so it may not always be the best choice for every runner right before a race. However, if a runner is racing multiple distances in a season, non-linear periodization may benefit them.
Since non-linear periodization includes a variety of workouts throughout the whole season, the training intensity distribution usually progresses as your race approaches. You may do shorter tempo runs and fewer intervals further away from your race. During the peak weeks of race training, workouts will feature more intervals or more tempo miles.
Undulating periodization changes the training stimulus frequently. For example, one week may be higher intensity, lower volume. Then, the next week is lower intensity, higher volume. This approach does not always work for run training, since intensity and volume tend to be based on race distance. However, this approach could work for runners who train without a race.
Block periodization focuses on a specific stimulus or skill for a shorter duration (1-4 weeks). These blocks can either build off previous blocks or they can focus on varying stimuli throughout the mesocycle or macrocycle. A 2019 review in Journal of Sports Medicine indicates that block training can have favorable effects for endurance athletes. The researchers found that block periodization improved VO2max more than traditional periodization.
In my coaching, I like block periodization for novice runners. It can be applied in other settings, but it is really beneficial when a training stimulus is new. A block of 3-4 weeks of similar workouts (say, interval runs) provides time for the athlete to become more comfortable with the intensity and their pacing skills.
For example, an athlete may spend a block of two to four weeks focused on threshold/tempo runs, before shifting into a block focused on interval training. Ultra-running athletes may complete a block focused on large amounts of vertical ascent in the weeks before their taper.
Setting Goals and Planning
Implementing periodization in your training involves some planning. If you work with a running coach, they will guide you through this process. If you plan your own training, you can follow these steps to plan out the phases of your training.
- Start with your goal race. Choose one to three races per year to be your goal race. These are events where you want your peak performance for the year. For example, if you want to run your first marathon or want to PR in the 10K, you would choose that race as your goal race.
- The 12-20 weeks before your goal race will be macrocycle. (Read here for guidance on how many weeks to train for a race.)
- Throughout the macrocycle, progress your workouts from least specific to most specific to your race. If you are doing non-linear, progress the total time at intensity throughout the macrocycle. If 10% of your training is workouts early on, you might progress to 15-20% closer to the race.
- Before the race-specific macrocycle, build in a base-building macrocycle. This may last 4-8 weeks, depending on your fitness, goals, and other races.
- Allow 2-4 weeks after each goal race for a recovery mesocycle.
Phases of Periodization Training for Runners
No matter what periodization type you choose for your training, you will plan your training around different phases throughout the year. If the goal of periodization is to progress your training towards a race, then you will have different phases of training depending on how far out you are from your race.
You can use multiple types of periodization across a training block. For example, you may begin a build with non-linear training, then shift to block training for 4-8 weeks before the race. The block periodization would focus on specific stimuli related to the race, such as marathon goal pace.
Base training (sometimes called foundational training) is a training phase devoted to developing aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness is the foundation of all running events over the 800 meters. The more developed your aerobic base, the more you can accomplish in specific race training.
The primary focus of a base training period is easy running – and sometimes lots of it. Base training will include small doses of neuromuscular training (strides). Some runners benefit from incorporating more strength training during this time – especially if they struggle to consistently lift weights when training intensity is higher.
Base training may look different based on your periodization type of choice. Linear periodization will focus on strictly easy running during the base phase. Non-linear models may include some workouts (just with less total time at intensity than race-specific training.)
Related: How to Build a Better Training Base
The build phase is a transition from base training to specific training. Typically, this is the first 6-8 weeks of a training program. In this phase, long run distance and workout volume both increase.
The workouts you include during this phase may vary based on your periodization approach. In general, workouts will be more intense during this phase than in base building – but not as intense as in peak training. Workouts will still work on broader aspects of fitness, rather than narrowing in on specific race pace.
In the peak phase, you are typically at your highest mileage for the training plan. (This assumes a reverse linear periodization throughout the entire macrocycle, as is common for long-distance racing.) The workouts are typically higher volume at this time; up to 20% of total training may be at a high to moderate intensity.
Workouts focus on goal pace during this phase. For example, a marathon runner will do regular workouts at marathon pace throughout the specific phase. The focus of the specific phase is both on developing fitness and on refining pacing skills before the race.
In the final 2-3 weeks before a race, the focus shifts to tapering. The taper is a deliberate reduction in training volume, in order to elicit a supercompensation effect. Freshness is another goal of the taper; the athlete should be mentally and physically ready to race by the end.
For more on how to taper for various race distances:
Periodization Training for Strength Training for Runners
All the above types of periodization apply to strength training. However, if your goal is to lift weights to improve running performance, it is logical to periodize your strength training around your running goals.
A periodized approach to strength training for runners can look like:
- Base phase: two to three total body lifts per week, focused on building strength
- Build phase: two total body lifts per week, focused on maintaining
- Peak phase: one total body lift per week, if energy permits
- Taper phase: reducing or removing lifting
Periodization training can lend structure to your running, especially if you want to aim for peak performance at a race. If you have never tried a periodized approach, it is worth adapting before your next race – it may be the thing you need for that next PR!
Read more: The best types of cross-training for runners