“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, let it grow, be like water.”
— Bruce Lee
Succeeding as an endurance athlete requires putting into practice Lee’s advice, and adapting. Periodisation is a simple way to adapt and train smart now for a big payoff later. Basically, it means organising your training to peak for a race. It is a way of dividing your athletic season into a series of phases that will help you conquer plateaus, eat up boredom, and avoid overuse-related injuries. Many trail runners incorporate periodisation into their training without even knowing it.
What Is Periodisation?
The late Arthur Lydiard was one of the first to really promote the concept of periodised training and explain it in understandable terms.
In his book “Running to the Top,” Lydiard sums up the purpose of periodised training: “When I settled down to analyse my defeats, I realised I was hitting my peaks of performance at all the wrong times. I had to find a method not only of building stamina to stand a lot of racing but also of timing my preparation so that I could be reasonably certain of being in top form on the day I most wanted to run best.”
Ruth Hunt, who coached Lee Chi Wo to second place at the 2006 Asian Games Triathlon, as well as second at the Olympic Games, and who now coaches a wide age group of runners (including ultra runners such as Olya Korzh) says: “There are many forms of periodisation. Forty years ago when I was training to be a physical education teacher, periodisation practices were based on the work of the Russian Leo Matveyev. He considered periodisation to be a logical method of planning and developing a training program, using cycles and stages specific to the needs of the athlete, in order to reach the best possible performance.”
Etienne Rodriguez, who won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50km in 2014, explains it as separating your training cycle into blocks that are then used to “improve a specific facet of one’s running through stimulating particular adaptations in the body (e.g., speed, endurance, VO2 max etc.).”
The four basic phases, or blocks, are: Transition, Base, Building, and Peak. Your training cycle, whether it is four months or one year, divides this cycle into phases with specific goals, workouts, and performances. This adds variety into your training and helps you reach peak conditioning at just the right time.
Why Use Periodisation?
It can be easy to get into running ruts or routines that feel good, but ones which are not ultimately getting you into the optimal running condition. And depending on only a handful of workouts throughout the whole year is not enough for reaching peak condition.
Rodriguez notes that periodisation “benefits trail/ultra runners through focusing on a specific facet of one’s trail-running game. In most cases, this means that the area trained is enhanced at a faster rate than what it would be without periodisation. Periodisation can be particularly useful if the athlete is strong in one area but slightly weaker in another.”
Likewise, Hunt feels that an ultra runner definitely benefits more from planned sessions, and that dividing the training year into periods, and switching between high- and low-intensity training gives the body a better chance to recover between target races. She does lactate testing to confirm which energy system is being trained.
How to Use Periodisation?
As with every training plan, a periodisation plan should be tweaked and adapted to fit each runner’s needs. This is especially important for ultra runners.
“Ultra runs are so variable in terms of terrain and distance and elevation gain/loss that it’s hard to put into place a blanket prescription on periodisation for it,” says Rodriguez.
Hunt adds, “Periodisation plans should be specifically designed for each ultra runner and should include monitoring by both the athlete and the coach.”
As mentioned, every runner and coach needs to experiment and find what works best. It will hinge on your training experience, injury history, planned races, as well as other goals. Still, it is good to have somewhere to start. Here is an idea of how you could breakdown your season into four phases. This is a rough template and should be adjusted to your individual needs.
Transition Phase (1-8 Weeks)
This is a break after a significant race or the period following your racing season. There would be no serious training during this time. It can be used to rest and recover, concentrate on your running form and technique, as well as to plan out your next race or entire season.
Base Phase (2-3 Months)
During this phase the goal is to build a strong aerobic base, strength, muscle endurance, and technique while keeping the efforts easy and gradually building weekly miles. You should keep your volume moderate and your intensity low. This period should start about 24 weeks before your first significant race. This is a good time to add speed work and strength training to your routine (see sidebar #1).
Rodriguez suggests: “the initial focus is on volume, the goal being to increase endurance and get the muscular-skeletal system ready for higher intensity workouts. The long run is a key workout in increasing volume and promoting adaptions that will enhance endurance.”
Long Run: Depending on your abilities, include a weekly long run at a very easy pace.
Speed Work: Incorporate strides at the end of one or two of your runs. Try 10 sets of 20-30s bursts of speed, with 2min easy jogs in-between. The idea is to get your legs accustomed to some speed.
Strength Training: Include 1-3 weight or body-weight strength sessions a week (see sidebar #1).
Building Phase (~ 4-8 Weeks)
Start peppering in hill work, speed work, back-to-back long runs, and slowly keep increasing mileage or hours on the trails. Add in tempo runs to train at race-specific intensity.
Long Run: Keep building up your mileage or hours and possibly include back-to-back long runs.
Speed Work: Start with shorter tempo runs and keep building them up to 2h. Tempo runs will train your body to be able to sustain speed over distance.
Strength Training: Hill running is indispensable for strong running. Coach Andy DuBois starts his runners with six 2min repeats, and then builds to five 5min repeats. DuBois states, “Hill reps are race specific, so if it’s something like the UTMB then we’ll do more hiking up, and running fast back down.” He suggests if the race is more runnable to do 60min of running up and down a hill at a hard effort.
Peak Phase (4-6 Weeks)
This is where you start putting it all together with very strong speedy efforts. Your training should be testing you out — finding your limits and noticing possible weaknesses. As always, not getting injured is paramount, and you should be ready to back off at any time that a possible injury begins to creep in.
Rodriguez suggests: “The final phase is the stage to increase fine-tuning for your specific race. You want to be training in such a way that you feel comfortable on race day. If you are planning on running a fast marathon, you’d want to focus on speed and reduce your weekly volume/mileage as you get closer to the race. If you’re running an ultra that has a significant amount of elevation gain or loss, you want to use this phase to ensure that you are comfortable running it.”
Long Run: Start picking up the pace on the long runs and decrease the volume to allow for the extra speed. Taper down the long runs as race day nears.
Speed Work: Concentrate on longer tempo runs and long repeats of 1,200s or even 1,600s.
Strength Training: Keep up the weekly hill work to keep your climbing and declining strength. DuBois suggests, “If the race has stairs then they will have to fit into training as well, and may alternate with hill reps.” He suggests to possibly hike the stairs two at a time, do them with a weighted pack, and then, depending on the athlete, run them 1-3 at a time.
Periodisation undulates like the trails we run. It is a useful training tool that we can adapt to our needs and goals to become stronger and faster runners.
“Strength training will strengthen a runner in ways and to a degree that running itself will not,” says Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports writer, coach, and nutritionist.
Every trail runner wants to be strong and run their best. Supplementing your trail-running program with strength training can get you on track to achieving running goals and staying injury-free.
Fitzgerald feels that good core strength helps improve running economy. He says that it makes the transfer of forces between upper body and the legs more efficient. He also notes, “there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that core strengthening reduces the risk of some injuries.”
As we get older strength becomes more important. Fitzgerald points out: “the big difference I’ve seen is in runners over 40. Those who maintain a commitment to strength training are able to extend their peak performance years, much longer than those who do not.”
A trail runner can start seeing strength gains with as little as 2-3 sessions of 20min a week. Like trail running, start with shorter easy sessions and gradually increase.
With little time investment, strength training will make you a stronger trail runner.
By Clint Cherepa
Clint is currently in Nicaragua engaged in volunteer work, writing, and ultra training. He plans on returning to the USA this summer to crew and pace his little sister in her first 50mi trail ultra.