One of the most common struggles among athletes is how to manage time and balance all the moving pieces of an optimal training plan.
Determining the specifics of your training schedule can be a beast, especially with so many options on how to structure your season… Plus, every individual athlete responds differently to varying forms of training.
Chances are, if you’ve looked into the best way to train for an upcoming race or long-term athletic goal, you’ve heard of a little something called periodization.
It’s a super common form of training that creates a highly targeted, systematic approach for optimal performance results — but plenty of athletes feel a little lost when they first get introduced to the idea. (After all, by name alone, it doesn’t provide us with much insight into what it is and what you can expect from it — except for maybe breaking training into periods.)
But that’s what we’re here for! Let’s unpack the details behind periodization and why it’s structured the way it is; it just might be what takes you over the top in your next race or training goals!
What is Periodization in Training?
The basic premise of periodization is to practice overloading your muscles for a sustained period of time, which is then followed by a diligent period of rest. Sufficient recovery time is especially vital for periodization, as your muscles will need extra time to recover and rebuild before you cycle back to overloading them for further gains.
But there’s a lot more to it than just alternating training and recovery.
Periodization is much more specific in structure — it consists of a series of training cycles that allow for targeted training, thus allowing for more specific muscle adaptation as you progress through your training plan. The emphasis for each training cycle, as well as their corresponding adaptation goals, will vary with your sport or race.
For the purposes of this blog, we’re going to provide a general overview of what periodized training looks like for endurance athletes; so let’s dig a little deeper and uncover the purposes behind each of those training cycles!
Three Levels of Periodization
In order to effectively implement periodization into your training, you have to build structure on multiple levels — or in the world of periodization, cycles. There are three main cycles of training to work with a periodized training schedule: macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. Each covers a specific period of time at a certain level of detail.
It might sound like a lot to process, but it’s actually quite simple in structure. One macrocycle is made up of multiple mesocycles, and one mesocycle is made up of multiple microcycles. (It’s like those Russian nesting dolls, where you just keep uncovering smaller units that make up the larger collective.)
Macrocycles are the largest cycle of your training plan. They encompass the big picture of a full training season, often lasting around a full year, if not more. Ultimately, your macrocycle comes to an end once you’ve completed your race or hit peak performance (whatever that end goal might look like for your sport). Think of this as the full timeline from when you completed your last race or goal through the time you complete your new one.
Granted, while it’s great to think in the grand scheme of things, it’s not always the most productive approach — and that’s where you start to break the macrocycle down into the smaller chunks of training known as mesocycles.
Mesocycles typically last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the overall timeline and structure of your periodization. These cycles represent a certain “training block,” like your strength or speed phases. (Don’t worry, we’ll go into more detail on those later.)
However, a well-rounded training plan requires much more specificity than simply doing strength work for x amount of weeks. And that’s where microcycles come in; they’re probably what most athletes are familiar with when it comes to training plans.
Microcycles are the smallest unit of the periodization training structure, often used to describe an athlete’s typical training week. These cycles will include the specific types of workouts planned throughout a 7-28 day schedule. (For example, an average runner’s typical microcycle may include some tempos, some hill training, 1 long run, 1-2 easy runs, and a rest day.)
And that’s the basic breakdown of the three periodization cycles! Not as wildly complicated as it may have initially seemed, right?
But, that’s not all… There are also a few different styles of periodization that can be leveraged to better produce the results you’re looking for.
How to Structure Periodization
Because of how specific periodized training can get, there are plenty of ways to manipulate its structure for optimal, individualized benefit, but we’re not here to cover ALL of that (at least not yet, and not in just one blog post!).
Three of the most common forms of periodization are known as blocked, undulating, and linear training plans. Although they all follow the basic macro-, meso-, and micro-cycle structure, each provides a niche emphasis on different training aspects depending on an athlete’s needs.
Take blocked training, for example. Here, an athlete will still be striving for the main goal of reaching peak performance at race time, but how they get there is specific to each mesocycle. They’ll dedicate every mesocycle, or “training block,” to a different attribute of performance, like their VO2 max or anaerobic capacity.
Meanwhile, an undulating training plan is designed to reach peak performance several times within one macrocycle for multiple tune-up races. (If you imagine a graph of your training and performance, you’ll see more peaks and valleys that are reminiscent of this method’s “undulating” nature.)
Lastly, we have linear training, which is a progressive plan meant to build your performance over time. Similar to blocked training, linear plans are focused on reaching peak performance at race time, but the process isn’t quite as segmented as the aforementioned method. Here, you’ll be focused on a training progression that will likely decrease in volume over time, but every workout will gradually increase in intensity and specificity. This will allow for more targeted training to attain your goal as you get closer to peak performance time.
Why Should You Consider Periodized Training?
Now, that’s all well and good, but how exactly is something so nuanced (and seemingly complicated!) more beneficial than just consistently exercising and training? After all, isn’t consistent practice the most effective method for producing the best results?
Oftentimes, yes — but constant training also creates more room for error, including an increased risk of injury, burnout, overtraining, or even a lack of forward progress.
So, rather than simply training for the sake of training, periodization provides a more targeted approach; it ensures that you’re making enough training progress while also dedicating chunks of your training time to solid recovery, ensuring you aren’t excessively overloading your body.
But sufficient recovery time isn’t the only benefit to periodization…
Many people view periodization as an almost “exclusive” kind of training that really only benefits strength or power-focused athletes (i.e., weightlifters or football players). But that couldn’t be further from the truth! Endurance athletes can also greatly benefit from periodization, as it allows them to clearly plan their workouts and recovery in addition to any supplemental strength training.
Basic Structure for Periodization
Alright, it’s time to review the basic building blocks for periodization (and how those cycles come into play as we uncover the structure layer by layer).
Here, we have a diagram representing the grand scheme of periodized training. The brown-ish diamond shape represents the macrocycle, encompassing the bird’s eye view of what your training plan will look like. From there, the shape is divided into different sections, each one representing one of six standard mesocycles most often found in periodization. The weekly time frames associated with each mesocycle is representative of the microcycles, which can technically be broken down even further to specify what each weekly schedule consists of.
But reviewing a training plan in that much detail is difficult without knowing your personal end goals, so the following overview is going to focus on the more middling mesocycles and what they often entail.
Let’s dive in!
The first piece of the plan is what’s known as the “transition” phase, otherwise known as your first recovery phase. We know, we know — it feels super counterintuitive to start your training plan with recovery, but there’s good reason for it. Think from the grand scale of your macrocycle: if you just ended one training macrocycle by finishing a race, your body’s in need of some hearty recovery time before you start up another macrocycle.
Research still has yet to uncover what the ideal recovery time looks like for this transition stage (although it likely varies with every athlete), but the key takeaway is that it happens and that it’s a mandatory piece of the periodization puzzle. Even elite level athletes will take 2-4 weeks to recover following a race season.
After your body’s had the chance to take a breather, you’ll start moving into the preparation phase… which is exactly what it sounds like.
During this mesocycle, your training will be focused on shorter durations and low-moderate intensity with the primary goal of getting your body back to its basic fitness levels and usual mileage. While “preparation” can encompass a wide range of exercises, this phase typically includes technique drills and dynamic balance work to help reestablish proper form as you ease back into your training again. You’ll also have to adjust your strength training to mirror a similar, lower intensity to ensure your body is refamiliarized with adapting to the stresses of weight training before you dive headfirst into strength work.
The length of your preparation phase can vary depending on the timeline of your macrocycle and the style of periodization. Some athletes may not require as much time to readapt to their usual training habits, and others may need a little while longer to get their body warmed up again.
This is likely the phase that most endurance athletes are familiar with; it’s where you’ll typically experience a progressive increase in the duration and intensity of your workouts.
Now, your base phase can look pretty different from another athlete’s depending on the structure of each microcycle during this stage, but the general purpose will hold true: it’s all about creating a “base” of endurance while throwing some speed training into the mix. For reference, your heart rate will remain within the range of 70-75% of your max heart rate zone.
As your athletic practice progresses, so will your strength training; your base phase is meant to build up your maximal strength and eventually progress towards increased power and muscular endurance. (This is the point where you want your muscles to increase their peak strength while simultaneously improving their overall workload capacity.)
You’ll likely have a pretty even mix of high intensity workouts alternating with lower intensity, easy days. Because this stage is meant for establishing a solid strength foundation, this is the point in your training where you’ll make the largest strength gains that you’ll learn to maintain through any remaining mesocycles. It’s important to build strength during this phase so that as your sport-specific intensity increases, your focus (and energy) isn’t split between conflicting goals.
Here’s where things start to get a little more intense… quite literally.
Your build phase will include more intense training at a moderate volume, likely involving a wider variety of training. For example, you’ll probably have more long, low-intensity workouts as well as some extra short, high-intensity interval exercises. (But as your sport training grows more varied, keep your strength work steady; there’s no need to switch things up here! Just maintain those previously established levels of strength.)
It might sound like a lot to strive for within one phase, but remember: you aren’t taking on all of this at once, but over the span of several weeks. This is where the more detailed structure of a microcycle will help you keep tabs of all your workouts and ensure that you’re getting all the necessary variation for your progression. Plus, dabbling with different intensities and distances is what helps your body to continuously build your endurance in conjunction with your anaerobic capacity and power generation.
The peak phase occurs just a few weeks prior to your race, usually consisting of somewhere around 2-3 weeks of training… and it’s a little more of a challenge.
At this point, your goal is to maintain the same levels of intensity as before but with less workout volume! Several of these exercises will even work you harder than you would at race pace, pushing you all the way to working at VO2 max levels. (If you couldn’t tell by this sudden increase in intensity, honing your speed is the key focus of this phase!)
Of course, that’s not all you’ll be doing; you’ll also work on practicing one long workout that shortens incrementally as your race day approaches. Additionally, that steady variety of workouts comes in just as strong during this phase — you’ll also be practicing plenty of longer repeat workouts to boost your speedwork training. All the while, don’t forget to keep up that same level of strength training to ensure that you aren’t losing out on those vital stores of strength and power throughout!
(No, this one isn’t listed in that handy diagram, but that doesn’t mean it should be neglected!)
Tapering is a commonly recommended phrase for most endurance athletes; it’s not a required facet of periodized training, but it’s become more widely practiced to allow for more rest and recovery before race day.
Most often, people are suggested to taper within 7-14 days of their race, but some studies have indicated that a shorter taper period (closer to the 3-7 day range) may be more optimal for allowing recovery while also maintaining peak phase outcomes well into your race time.
Lo and behold, the fated day has come: it’s race day!
This one’s the most straightforward of the phases, and the most rewarding! All that planning and progressive training will finally pay off once you head out and crush your race, and the fulfillment will finally come to fruition!
And there you have it, endurance athletes — a breakdown of how periodization training is structured and what each phase is generally focused on. While the outline above can be followed strictly for a liner style of periodization, cycling through the phases multiple times in one macrocycle (to prep for multiple, smaller races before your big “A” race) would give you the variation of an undulating training cycle. Depending on your season’s final goal and what your check points look like can help determine which type of training to plan for.
Regardless of what kind of endurance sport you’re dedicated to, it’s vital that you have a thorough knowledge of what specific areas need to be targeted to get you to that highest level of performance; and that’s where working with highly trained specialists, coaches, and medical professionals can be especially helpful. Due to the long and repetitive nature of endurance sports, there’s more room for error when it comes to your biomechanics (which is pretty much the fastest way to derail all your hard-earned training progress).
So! Be sure you have the right team of coaches and professionals to maintain training progress and hit those end goals.
Now, go forth and train!
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Josh Tatsuno, DPT
Dr. Tatsuno is passionate about high-level sports training and rehabilitation and is dedicated to educating his clients of proper maintenance and care for their bodies. After graduating from the Chapman University Doctorate of Physical Therapy Program, Josh explored his passion for developing and implementing vertical jump, strength and conditioning, and speed and agility programs for all levels of athletes. Josh stays active through his personal passions of backpacking or playing a variety of sports, though he also enjoys traveling, photography, and being a foodie in his spare time.