By Kevin Mackinnon
It’s hard to believe us distance runners ever made it to our goal races in the late 70s and early 80s. Back in the early days of the running boom just about every distance runner worth their salt would follow the same, four-stage process to prepare for their races.
It all began with four to six weeks of long, slow distance running (LSD), which athletes would refer to as “working on their base.” Those miles (about 100 to 120 miles per week) weren’t hard – the idea was to spend lots of time working on your aerobic capacity and improve your body’s ability to get oxygen to your muscles.
Once we returned to school and started hooking up with the team we would begin the next phase of our training, what we used to refer to as the strength phase. This phase would last three to four weeks and included lots of steady state runs at a quicker tempo and a hill workout at least once a week. Just to add to the stress on our bodies, we’d typically start racing a week or two into this phase.
For those of us lucky to survive this sudden jump in intensity – by the second or third week of this phase, Achilles tendons and shins would start to ache – we’d then move into the third phase of our training, where we started to do VO2 Max-oriented intervals. These were longer repeats and fartlek workouts that had us running our intervals at our goal race pace with anywhere from half to full recovery.
The final phase of our cross-country season would include three to four weeks of very fast intervals as we honed our speed before the big race. During these final few weeks we would have our biggest races of the season.
Periodized Training 2.0
It should come as no surprise, looking at the above schedule, that many distance runners spent a lot of time injured back then. Thankfully things have changed dramatically in the coaching world these days. I cringe when I start working with athletes and they talk about their “base” phase of training. I wasn’t the only coach who saw the problems of the traditional approach to periodized training. Most successful coaches these days have their own versions of the above phases, but one critical difference now is that we blend the phases much more. Rather than subject our athletes to the shock of going from long, slow distance running to suddenly hammering out intervals or hill workouts, we’ll incorporate a bit of each phase of training almost all year round.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]It should come as no surprise that many distance runners spent a lot of time injured in the 70s and 80s.[/quote]
Types of Training:
In talking to various coaches and experts over the years, I’ve found that we typically follow a similar approach, although we might define the terms differently. Here are the five types of training I incorporate into my training programs:
1) Distance/ Aerobic — These are those LSD miles, a critical component for developing your aerobic capacity.
2) 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.
3) 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. Some of my favourite AT workouts are 200 m intervals done on a minute or 1:15 cycle. Tempo runs, usually 20 to 40 minutes, also work your AT system.
4) Speed – 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.
5) 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.
So what do you do, when?
Periodization isn’t a completely dead concept in the world of coaching. What we’ve come to realize, though, is that at different times of the year you need to emphasize different types of training, but not completely exclude the other components of your training plan. As you lead up to your big race, you’ll probably want to follow similar phases to the ones I outlined earlier, but not in such an exclusive fashion. Your build might look something like this:
Phase 1 (4 to 8 weeks from race):
Emphasis on LSD training, with one or two interval sessions a week that include hills, longer VO2 Max intervals and some explosive strength work in the weight room. At least once every two weeks you should do an AT set during one of your interval sessions.
Phase 2 (4 weeks):
Now you need to start adding some tempo runs and more VO2 Max work to your training plan. You should be doing two to three quality sessions every week – ideally a couple of interval workouts along with a hard-pace effort. Strength work needs to remain part of your weekly routine.
Phase 3 (3 to 4 weeks):
Here’s where we really start to work on your anaerobic threshold. At least one workout every week should be focussed on AT work (fast paced intervals with short recovery), another on speed and one VO2 max session.
Phase 4 (2 to 3 weeks):
This is the final peak period before your big race. At this point you should be focusing on speed intervals with lots of recovery. Once a week you should include a short AT set to keep that system tuned up and ready for your big day.
A program like this is definitely geared towards serious runners who are after a personal best time, but no matter what your level, adding some of these ideas to your program can be a fun way to add some variety to your training and will definitely help you get to the line faster.