This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.
Note: This is another article that I’m rewriting without change into the blog. It’s been a popular article so, even though I’d write it slightly differently now, I’m going to preserve it as it was originally written.
This is a topic that I don’t think can be stressed enough. It is a very hot topic with elites. Whether they actively think about it or not, virtually all elites do it. Unfortunately, it seems like many average runners are not taking full advantage of this concept. I just wanted to take some time to explore this topic, going through each phase and explaining how I would normally implement the phases.
Before I start, I should point out that different people will use different terms for the cycles (big surprise, right?) and some may add, possibly remove, and will most likely adjust the amount of time in each phase. In fact, the length of the cycle itself can vary. In my example, I will be going on a 6 month cycle. This is very normal, as it gives a person two peaks a year. However, at times, people will go on an 8 month or 12 month cycle or some other duration. Going shorter than 6 months, though, can leave you skipping or cutting too short important components of training. Specifically, my example will be what a high school or college runner might want to do, where they will have two peaks. One in May for track and one in October or November for cross-country.
I will start with the cycle that most runners consider to be the beginning of their training season, base training. I will then progress through my phases of training in order, which are laid out in an order that tends to be the most popular. Second will be race preparation, third will be taper, fourth will be the race, then on to recovery. After recovery phase, a runner would start back at the beginning of the cycle with base training again.
Phase 1, Base: This is probably the most simple and most important phase for most race distances, especially the longer ones. Unfortunately, it is also probably the most overlooked phase. The concept is quite simple and straight forward. Run a lot of miles. Don’t worry about pace, don’t even worry about how far you are going to go tomorrow. Just run. How much? As much as you can, more than you ever have before if possible. Build up cautiously, listening to your body and backing off if it’s rebelling, but build up as high as you can. This is the time to build your aerobic endurance. As my high school coach always told the team, running is like a pyramid. The bigger the base, the higher the peak. If you don’t get an adequate base in and try to build your peak too high later, the pyramid is just going to come crashing down. Some experienced runners get away with skimping on base because they are relying on their base from previous years of running. However, even experienced runners can’t do this forever. You can’t keep going to the well without replenishing it at some point.
Keys to the phase: Weekly mileage and long runs. Yes, do your long runs here. Maybe not right away but, by the end of base phase, I would plan on having in at least one run of the longest distance I’m planning on doing. Want to do speed? Throw in a fartlek or tempo run when you’re feeling good but I wouldn’t do it more than once a week. I’d plan on doing this phase for at least 2-3 months. Between this and the next phase, especially if you are in base phase for a long time, you may want to take a down week or two. Less miles, maybe 50% of peak – play it by ear, but no more intensity. An occasional race isn’t a bad thing during this phase but I wouldn’t race very frequently and I wouldn’t treat the races in this phase with any importance.
Example: For the high school runner, this is what you do during the summer or winter off-season months. Starting after your recovery phase, simply build your miles. When I was in high school, June, July, and August would be my base building months for cross-country and late November, December, January, and into February would be base building for track.
Phase 2, Race Prep: This is where most programs you see on books and websites pick up. Unfortunately, they assume you didn’t get in a proper base phase so the books and websites have you building your mileage and long runs through here. If you are properly prepared, you will already be at your peak for mileage and long runs. At this point, the focus shifts to quality and you are just maintaining your base. Typically, this phase lasts for about 8-12 weeks.
Keys to the phase: Intensity, while maintaining the base. Keep the long runs going and keep your weekly mileage up as much as you can, although a step back in mileage is far from the end of the world. At this point, add in whatever speedwork you decide to implement. Of course, the type of speedwork depends on what the distance of your goal race would be and where you are in this phase. It’s a very good idea to start this phase with some hill repeat workouts to build strength before launching into real intense speed workouts. About a month of strength work before launching into track workouts is a great way to lay a strength basis for the big speed workouts. Experiment to find what works best. This would also be the point to have occasional races thrown into the schedule.
Example: This ties in with the season in high school. All the early season training and meets are part of this. Race prep in high school for me basically started right about the time official practices started, mid to late August in cross-country and early March in track. I would start a bit early for track, maybe in late February, but my coach would know what I was doing and would make sure it fit into the overall plan. The thing to remember when you’re in high school or college for that matter is which meets mean something. How important are those early season meets? The end of the season meets are what matter, the rest is just preparation.
Phase 3, Taper: Probably the hardest phase to get right, this is all about cutting back your training enough so you are well rested for the goal race while not cutting back so much that your legs get stale. It’s a tough balancing act.
Keys to phase: Cut back basically everything in this phase. How much? That’s a very individual thing. Some people need to cut back a lot, others find they run best when not cutting back much at all. Some people find holding volume nearly steady but doing virtually no fast stuff works, others find dropping volume significantly but keeping nearly all the intensity works. You have to find what’s right for you. How long do you taper? Well, it depends some on the individual and some on the race. The longer the race, in general, the longer the taper. For a 5k, a 7-10 day taper is plenty good. For a marathon, the standard is usually 3 weeks. I also like the idea of blowing out the pipes with one big effort in a race 2-3 weeks before the goal race.
Example: For high schoolers, this is kind of a tough phase because you are usually peaking for multiple races. You will usually have multiple mini-tapers. For me, this would start in mid-October in cross-country as we tapered for conference, then continue for the sectional race and, if we made it, continue all the way on to state.
Phase 4, Race: For a high schooler, this may be multiple races between tapers. For a marathoner, this is a one day (one morning?) phase. The one thing to remember is this isn’t every race you do. This is the goal race or races.
Keys to phase: You know, all the good stuff. Don’t go out too hard, if you’re running a long race like a marathon drink early and often, leave it all on the course.
Example: For the high schooler, this can consist of multiple races between mini-tapers. Hopefully not more than about 3-4 races and hopefully over a span of no more than 2-3 weeks. This would be your conference, state qualifiers, and state meets.
Phase 5, Recovery: If the base phase is the most overlooked phase, this is second. A lot of people launch right back into training too soon. Take some down time. Some Kenyans are well known for taking a month completely off from running after their racing seasons. You’ve been pushing hard for a long time at this point, let your body regroup. Don’t worry about your fitness, sure you’ll lose some but you’ll still come back next season stronger than you were this past season. If you don’t let your body recover, you could end up tearing yourself down so far that you can’t get in effective training next time around. Personally, I think the key to deciding on a duration for this phase is to let your mind and body decide. When the motivation to train hard is back and the body feels like it’s ready to fire things back up, that’s when the phase is over. Once that time comes, return to the top of this page and start over at phase 1.
Keys to phase: Just do what you want. If you want to run, do it for the enjoyment of running. Don’t even think about training. If you want to get away from running for a little while, this is the time to do it. Do some cross-training if you wish, do nothing but sit on the couch and watch your whole DVD collection 5 times if you wish.
Example: When I was in high school, I would take anywhere from a couple weeks to a full month either off or just easy running at the end of a season. It was always different for me because I would simply let my body decide when this phase was over.