Establish a seasonal race rhythm by maintaining a training cycle that will have you in peak condition for races -- and injury-free afterward.
Posted Monday, 8 April, 2002
For competitive runners who always have an eye on improving race times, the focus of training is to maximize strength and speed for the big race day. Turns out, of course, that it takes careful planning. Just as you have to sort out the details of every workout and distribute workouts appropriately through the week, you also have to keep in mind the big picture. For maximum performance on race day, you have to plan for and tend to your seasonal training cycle. For the noncompetitive runner, too, tending to the ups and downs of your running rhythms can keep you energized by preventing your routine from getting stale.
By carefully and prudently building up to your races through a few months of preparation, you can achieve prime performance fairly efficiently. The idea here is to divide your racing season (you may have several in any given year) into six phases. Each phase has it's own unique purpose and is placed so that mileage and speedwork converge at just the right time and in just the right amount. By picking your races well in advance and by training for them with careful planning, you can meet your full potential. A scattershot approach, by contrast, may leave you relatively flat.
With that said, keep in mind that the training cycle detailed here is for runners whose main goal is to improve performance. On the other hand, you may be a runner for whom performance is less important than the simple fact of running or of participating in races. If this is you, you should not let time-clock pressure interfere with the joy of the race. If you prefer to run a race every other weekend rather than building gradually for maximum effect, then by all means you should do so. There are no rules, and the most important thing is to enjoy your running. That's what it's about. (Do keep in mind, though, that if you want to be a year-round racer you should at the very least take a month off twice a year to let yourself recover)
If, however, you want to attain your top potential, you'll have to restrain your enthusiasm and run your races after carefully building through the various phases of the training cycle. The length of that training cycle depends on your goals. Beginning runners and those running shorter races (the mile, 5K and 10K distances) might consider training cycles of two to four months. For experienced runners who would like to be able to race longer at peak performance (up to four to eight weeks) or for those who want to peak for a single big 10K or marathon, longer training cycles of four to six months may be more appropriate.
However long your training cycle is, it should consist of the following six phases:
Endurance is the cornerstone of distance running success, and this phase is the longest and most important of the training cycle. During this time the heart, lungs and mind are conditioned to run for long periods of time. The goal in this phase of training is to keep the body moving longer, not faster. You are putting miles in the bank, safely building your foundation mileage up to your planned upper limit. Your starting fitness level should be at least 50 percent of the mileage you intend to build to during this phase. If you plan to build up to 50 miles per week during your training, for example, you should be able to run 25 miles per week comfortably at the outset.
This phase consists almost exclusively of easy aerobic training. Long slow distance. Run about 90 seconds per mile slower than your current 10K pace. Gradually increase the length of your long runs and avoid racing and tough speed work. The stronger your endurance foundation, the more resources you will have to draw on during racing season. If you are running a short training cycle, this phase should last three to six weeks. For the longer cycles, give yourself six to twelve weeks of endurance training.
Now that you've built up your miles, it's time to begin conditioning yourself to run them faster and stronger. The strength phase is when you begin to transition into speedwork. You do this by adding hills to your routine and maybe one or two fartlek and tempo runs (check out our tips for running hills and our tips for introducing speedwork into your routine). You might add a weight-training program now to build additional leg strength. And you should strongly consider running one or two races during this phase, but without running them flat out. In shorter training cycles, this phase lasts two to four weeks. In longer cycles, it's four to six.
This phase is unnecessary for newcomers to racing. If this is you, just skip ahead to the tapering stage. For others, this is where you peak. While your mileage will remain high, it will be slightly less than in the endurance and strength phases. Quality runs are more important than quantity now. The strength workouts are replaced by trackwork to complete the mix of endurance, stamina and speed. Experienced runners will do as many as three speed workouts per week during this phase. As in the strength phase you will run a few races, but this time you will run them faster as you build up to your race season. It's okay to push hard; you might even go after PRs in a couple of races that are a bit shorter than your target race (just be careful to space these efforts out to allow for recovery). This phase lasts one to three weeks in shorter training cycles, and up to three to four in longer cycles. For details on speedwork, check out our overview of speedwork principles as well as our speedwork training programs.
To give your races your best effort, you have to be rested and ready. That's what the tapering phase is all about. The amount of rest you need depends on the distance you plan to race and on your ability. The longer your race, or the less experience you have, the more rest you should take (keep in mind, though, that too much rest will cause you to lose some of your edge; you have to find the right balance). Typically, the taper phase lasts one or two weeks. You shouldn't stop running entirely, but do cut your mileage way back. Try to get in a short run the day before the race to stay loose.
Now you finally get the chance to see what your discipline and hard work have earned you. You are in peak condition and ready for racing. Cut back on your mileage and save your best for race day. Stay sharp by throwing some short, quick spurts into your training runs. You can maintain peak race condition for three to four weeks if you have followed the short training cycle, or four to eight weeks on the long cycle.
After a few hard weeks of racing comes a period of well-earned rest. The rigors of training and racing for months on end inevitably take their toll on both body and mind. Oddly, this can be the most difficult phase as dedicated runners often find it nearly impossible to lay off running for even a short time. Just remember that this is the time to allow your muscles and tendons to heal and to restore their strength. The benefits for the next season can be substantial. Don't cheat yourself, this phase is necessary. Relax and kick back.
You don't have to stop running entirely, but limit yourself to some easy running or cross-training. Keep in mind, though, that after this phase you will return to the beginning and start building your endurance again. To be ready for that first phase of your training cycle, don't let your mileage in the recovery phase drop below 50 percent of the maximum mileage you hope to attain in the next cycle. Runners should give themselves at least three to four weeks of rest on the short cycle, and four to eight weeks on the long cycle.
With your recovery phase over, you're ready to start the cycle again -- building on the past season's gains to develop even better times for the next.
To see how the training cycle fits into a running schedule that fits your individual needs, check out the Cool Running training schedules to see recommendations for building up to your race goals.