Periodization: what it is and how we use it

Whenever we pick up a new training plan, it looks complicated. We know we have to get from where we are sitting right now to a future goal, but we need a map to get there. The training plan is the map, and all we really need to do is follow it, right? Sure, but how are these things designed? Is there a method to this complex creature that is the training plan? Yes there is.

Most coaches use Periodization as the framework for their plan. Before we put up that framing, though we need a goal, because different goals will affect how each plan is designed. For example, in my current training to get faster in the half-marathon (goal), I’m spending every Wednesday doing intense speed training over increasingly longer distances (plan based on conversations between me and Coach Christine). When I switch to training for back-to-back races, my training plan will have less speedwork and more days in a row of long distance.

Phases of Training vary slightly depending on the athlete’s goal, the coach, the race calendar, and the plan itself. We can generally group phases of training in this way:

The Base Phase gets your body ready to increase workload by doing a lot of volume (high mileage or time), at low intensity (slow speed and/or low heart rate). This helps build the heart up to pump blood and deliver oxygen to muscles more efficiently. The Base Phase can last several weeks to a couple of months depending on the time until the target event. This may feel like the most boring part of training because week in and week out it looks basically the same with lots of easy miles with short bursts of occasional speed, but this phase is vital to your success in the next phase. 

“The goal of base training is to develop a runner’s aerobic potential before implementing anaerobic training in the form of interval work.”

The Build Phase of training is where you start to see increased intensity and volume, usually marked by a 3:1 weekly ratio — 3 weeks of increasing effort with a week of recovery before rebuilding all over again (although depending on the coach, athlete, goal and plan that ratio may vary). The build phase may last only a few weeks or several months depending on the frequency of target races. This is arguably the most intense training period, and the recovery in between workouts is crucial to gain the strength and endurance you are looking for. Frank Campo’s article has a lot more about the Build phase. 

Then finally we come to the Peak Phase, also known as Taper. While the Build Phase is tough physically, the taper is the toughest mentally. Lasting only a couple of weeks before a target race, volume decreases, and intense workouts are very short. Runner’s World says there is Science AND an Art to the Taper period. This is when the ingredients are in the pan, and now it’s time to bake the cake. The work is done, now we relax a bit and wait for our bodies to build muscle and recover from the intensity of the Build weeks. The hardest part about the taper period is believing that all that rest and very short workouts will actually make us race-ready. It’s counter-intuitive, but an effective taper period of 1-3 weeks before race day will prime the pumps to crush the target.

Recovery phase takes place right after a race and lasts a few days to a few weeks depending on the recent event. A 5k for example doesn’t take as long to recover from as an Ultra-distance event.

What it looks like graphically:

IMCDA training graph

This is an example of my own training for Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2015. If you follow the Blue shaded area (which indicates training volume), you see the base phase of training goes until early April, then increases dramatically as I move through the Build phase. In early June, I began taper, readying me for 140.6 miles.

The concept of periodization has been around for decades, and it’s not really necessary that we understand all of the subtle nuances behind it. It may, however, be important when you get off track — miss a few workouts or a couple of weeks worth. You want to know what the purpose of your training is in that moment to help you get back on track.

What is your favorite phase of training? Please let me know in the comments!

The information contained in this channel is for general information purposes only. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional.