Periodization: you can’t train the same way all of the time.

Periodization” is the name used by coaches to describe a system of training – actually, the planning of training – that encompasses weeks, months, or even years. Owen Anderson, Ph.D., author and founder of the Educated Runner, said, “If you want to improve your performances, you can’t train the same way all of the time.”

Earlier this year I ran intervals, did speed-work and ran a 10k, then I spent 10-weeks of base building to establish a good foundation before the marathon training program began. This is the last week of the training phase designed to build endurance before the taper…. then it’s time to race. After the race, I will spend up to six weeks of active rest before another training cycle begins.


Sports Periodization can be viewed as a systematic approach to planning a comprehensive training program for a specific goal, establishing a base, training to improve performance, tapering properly before the event and a period of rest before starting the process over again.

Maybe this is your first marathon and your goal is to survive to the finish line. Once you’ve crossed the finish line and realize you can run the marathon distance, you may immediately decide to run another one… finish with a better time.

Now you have a goal and you need a plan.

When it came time to choose a program for this year’s marathon, I wanted a plan that would improve endurance in the late stages of the race. I wanted to train my body to perform better, to be stronger in the last 10k of the marathon. I believe that if I am capable of running the last six miles stronger than in previous races, I will also improve my finish time. This became my goal.

If you don’t have a view of the big picture, it’s easy to haphazardly go from race to race. The problem is, nothing ever stays the same. If you aren’t moving forward, changing your training, you are loosing ground whether you realize it or not. Runners who resist change stagnate and fail to improve.

Hal Higdon suggests there are 7 stages in any given marathon cycle:

  1. Rest: an extended period of active rest after a marathon, 3-6 weeks, before training hard again.
  2. Endurance I: miles, and lots of them.
  3. Strength: to run fast, you need strong muscles. Run hills, interval training on the track but with reduced overall mileage.
  4. Speed: test yourself with shorter races during a time when you are not increasing mileage. Strength and Speed may overlap.
  5. Endurance II: the final mileage buildup – we know this as the 18-week marathon training program.
  6. Taper: you can’t achieve peak performance unless you are well rested.
  7. The marathon: run your fastest; then Periodize your training again.

This emphasizes the fact that a personal best marathon time is not accomplished with just 18 weeks of training. Also obvious is how detrimental an injury is to the plan.

For the third and last time this season, my week will include two 5-mile runs, two 10-mile runs (one at race pace) and a slow 20-mile run on Sunday.

Going into the last week of a five-week peak and the last of three 20-mile runs, I feel strong. I am not over-tired, not over-trained. Running the 20-mile distance multiple times has made my body more comfortable covering the distance. It is no longer a monumental task. Feeling strong through 20-miles should help me feel stronger through all 26.2 miles on race day.

By Sunday afternoon, I will have almost completed the periodized training I started at the beginning of the year with the early speedwork, the 10 weeks of slow base building, 18 weeks of endurance training and the gradual taper that follows – hopefully culminating in a successful race.

There is no coach in the world who can say exactly what athletes should do as far as the number of repetitions, distances and intervals are concerned. Not even physiologists can tell an athlete that. The important point is that the athlete knows what he is trying to achieve and goes out and works at it until he does. (Lydiard and Gilmour 1978)

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