Many runners race every few weeks, or even every week, or even every Saturday and Sunday. Yes, really. Nothing wrong with that if you build up to it very gradually, if your body can tolerate it, and if your goal is not to PR, but few people fit into that category.
If you are a Marathon Maniac or Half Fanatic, you may race most every weekend, and once in a while you will likely PR, but you’ve probably noticed that it’s almost always after you’ve taken a break of several weeks from racing. After a break, your body can perform better because it has had time to recover and rebuild. Also, you may have accepted that you’ll have to forgo PR’s in exchange for other kinds of records.
But let’s talk about the average ‘Joe’ or ‘Joan,’ who just enjoys racing and enters every race that sounds like fun. Often Joe and Joan expect to improve, over time, with this regimen, but it’s actually a given that if they race very frequently, their speed and endurance may well plateau, or they may even become detrained, meaning that they will get slower and less fit, or worse, experience an injury.
Whether you are Joe or Joan, or not, what I’d like to explain here is the whole concept of how and why you might want to structure your training into macro and micro cycles to experience the most improvement and greatest success.
Why should you implement macro and micro training cycles to plan your racing schedule? Periodization is the combination of macro and micro training cycles to define a training regimen carefully choreographed to provide your body with optimal training for a given race.
1. You will improve much faster.
2. You will experience fewer injuries.
2. You will have more fun. Really. Who wants to do the same thing year round?
Before we get into more detail of how to do this, let me touch once again on the most common mistake runners make: doing too much, training too hard, with too much intensity, too often.
Hard running workouts will only provide payoffs if you allow your body to recover. That is when the strengthening occurs.
We call it the hard/easy principle. Well, that principle should also be applied to weeks periods of training as well. Every month should not be as hard as every other, and every week shouldn’t, either. Give your body some easy times, even weeks or months when you take it easy. I’m not saying to stop running during those times. I’d never say that, but you do want to give your body plenty of easy, gentle, low intensity running, and a few times during the year – at least twice – it should be several weeks of just easy running with nothing even remotely intense. This will give your body time to really recover, to rebuild, to completely heal, and the result may be nothing short of amazing.
How many macro cycles should you have in a single year?
It’s up to you, and it depends on how important it is to maximize your performance. You can have two macro cycles a year, and many elite athletes do this, but I think most competitive runners will have at least three, and some people may have four. The more cycles, the less effective the system, but it will still be effective, to a limited degree, even if you start the cycle over every eight weeks.
I want you to understand how to build a cycle and understand that such a cycle – when combined with a great coach or even a great training schedule – will lead to greater success. How great depends on how many cycles you incorporate into your year and how well you execute each cycle. Fewer cycles means each cycle can be more definitive and longer, leading to better results.
But most of us seek a balance. We love to do well, but we also want to enjoy the experience with our friends; we’re willing to trade off some superior performances for the opportunity to be able to participate in more races with our friends.
I think the average competitive runner probably races three or four times per year. What I’m hoping is that by providing this information, that runner can treat the weeks leading up to and following each of those races as a cycle, and thus, optimize the whole period, leading to greater success and more satisfaction.
After all, for us, running is more than an exercise; it is a hobby. Understanding periodization, i.e., the utilization of varying types of workouts/training during a cycle, and evaluating how our bodies respond, is fascinating. It’s a great element of the sport of competitive running.
Your macro cycles look like this:
This period consists of from one to many weeks of easy, gentle miles. Be leery of people who tell you that lots of slow, easy miles will only train you to run slow and easy when you race. If you plan and execute a macro cycle correctly, those slow, easy miles are setting you up for the harder, more targeted miles that lead to great performance. The better your base, the greater the opportunity for laser-targeted, effective speedwork later in the cycle. Your base is the time when you build up your mileage to where you want it to be before you launch your next phase of training. If you build it up to 25 miles a week, you’ll get by, but build it to 40, and you’ll really start to see a payoff. Of course, the longer the race you’re training for, the more of a base you need, but I see many 5k and 10k racers who would do much better to build bigger base. A little bit of speedwork, such as fartleks and tempo runs is okay, but I would recommend keeping that to no more than once a week.
This transitional phase is when you start to incorporate speedwork at least once per week, real speed work. Most coaches will recommend one traditional speedwork session and one tempo run while still maintaining a long run once each week.
This is a period of gradually decreasing mileage while focusing on race specific runs.
During this time, give your body time to recover from your last goal race. It is just as important as the above three parts of the cycle. In fact, without proper recovery after the goal event, you will never experience the potential for success proper utilization of periodization can produce. This is the single thing that may be most responsible for some people running well for years, and others either never reaching their potential or experiencing frequent injuries.
That’s it. If you haven’t been building your training schedules on this principle, please try it. It may be the one thing that will completely change the effectiveness of your training.