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An introduction to training periodization

A look at what training periodization is and how it can make you a stonger runner

Going out running every day for the same length of time on the same terrain will keep you fit, but it won’t necessarily make you faster. If you’re looking to change up your running routine, periodization is a concept you should familiarize yourself with.

Periodization has changed over the years, but the most current definition is to integrate the different aspects of training year round, with one specific focus to anchor each phase (for example a focus on base training, speed work or sharpening). Nick Symmonds is a 2012 Olympian who explains periodization well in the above video.

Kevin Mackinnon is a coach to runners, cyclists and triathletes. He writes that the main five components of training are: aerobic, VO2 Max, anaerobic threshold, speed and explosive strength, and that working each phase into every period of training is crucial for injury prevention.

2018 Ottawa Race Weekend. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 26-27, 2018. Photo: KevinMorris@PhotoRun

Distance/ Aerobic


These are those long, slow miles, a critical component for developing your aerobic capacity.

VO2 Max

This type of training is geared towards improving your ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles. VO2 Max intervals are typically anywhere from three to eight minutes long, at around 3K to 5K pace, with a half to full recovery.

Anaerobic Threshold

Your anaerobic threshold is the point at which you can’t get enough oxygen to your muscles, so you start using glycogen as your main energy source and your body begins to create lactic acid. This is a critical part of distance racing, especially if you are trying to improve your marathon or half marathon time. You want to be able to train your body to go as fast as possible before you reach this point. These intervals are shorter–30 seconds to three minutes in duration, with a very short recovery–no more than half the time of the interval.


This type of training is fairly self-explanatory. The faster you are, the easier a slower pace will feel. So, if you are hoping to run a three-hour marathon, you need to be able to run much faster than a seven-minute mile (which would net you a 3:01 marathon). Speed intervals can actually be fairly long–even up to mile repeats, as long as they are done faster than your goal race pace and with a full recovery.

Explosive Strength

This training is designed to make you stronger so that you can either handle more training, improve your speed or prevent muscle imbalances that can lead to injury. I incorporate hill training, stairs, weights and short sprints to try to work on this aspect of an athlete’s training.

Kate Van Buskirk is a Commonwealth Games medallist and has used periodization in training throughout her entire career. She says, “I have worked predominantly with self-professed “old school” coaches. This means that my training has been centred around the decades-old principle of periodization, in which you have (usually) four distinct training phases: base, strength, race pace, and speed work. The analogy my coaches use is that throughout the year you are building a house (or my favourite version of this, baking a cake); you cannot put the roof on a house, or the icing on a cake, unless you have a solid structural foundation upon which everything else is built.”

RELATED: Training tips: The new face of periodization

But she continues to say that the notion of periodizaion has changed over the years. What was once four starkly different phases, now blend into one another so that a runner can maintain speed and strength throughout the year.

“The main difference between how my coaches trained 30 years ago and how we approach training now is that there is a lot more crossover between the phases to help prevent injury. I do gentle strides throughout my base season to keep the anaerobic system primed and my tendons and muscles used to higher intensity loading. Likewise, I keep the long run (just done at a slower pace) during the speed phase to maintain my overall aerobic capacity. Tapping into elements of all four phases year-round has been key to my success and progression throughout a long season.”

It’s also important mentally to keep training varied, with different phases of intensity. It’s very hard to maintain the highest level of focus throughout the year. You want to save that for the most important training phases and the weeks leading up to your goal race.