Perhaps the most important component of an athlete’s macrocycle programming is periodization. Periodization is the deliberate manipulation of training variables in order to optimize overload and the balance between stress stimulus and recovery. Coaches accomplish this by altering the types of muscular contractions being performed, the number of sets and reps, amount of resistance, recovery between sets and exercises, and/or frequency of the training (Rhea et al., 2003). A lot of research on periodization is focused on traditional resistance training, however, all of the principles apply beyond the weight room, as muscular contractions and the adaptations produced by stressors and recovery periods are general principles of how skeletal muscle behaves. Therefore, these overarching, guiding principles brought forth in strength and conditioning research can be applied to innumerable specific training situations. In this post I will adhere general principles of periodization to training for endurance runners specifically, and show how research aimed at strength gains in the weight room have far reaching effects into other specific branches of competitive athletics.
During a 2015 coaches clinic I attended for cross country and track and field coaches, Dr. Jeff Messer, director of the exercise physiology lab at nearby Mesa College, renown coach of young distance athletes in Arizona, and host of the clinic, described a backward approach to periodizing cross country athletes’ training. At that point in time, every coach I had ever worked with or discussed training with, periodized the training of their athletes in a “linear” manner. In this traditional periodization model, as the macrocycle progresses, the volume of training decreases, while the intensity and recovery of training increases as the athletes approach their goal performance for that macrocycle; usually their championship race. Dr. Messer presented data that seemed to advocate for a “reverse" linear periodization model wherein athletes continue to increase (or at very least maintain) volume while decreasing intensity as the macrocycle concludes and the goal race nears. I remember being so thrown off by this apparent “180” from the norm and I remember seeing puzzled looks on the faces of other coaches in the room.
It appears as though Dr. Messer’s attention toward a reverse linear periodization model was spurred on by research of fellow Arizonan, Dr Matt Rhea from 2003. In this study particular study, Rhea et al. tested the aforementioned linear periodization (LP), daily undulating periodization (DUP), and reverse linear periodization (RLP) models on endurance exercise. The study found a significant increase in muscular endurance in the study’s participants whose training volume progressively increased while intensity progressively decreased (the RLP group). The other groups, LP and DUP, saw improved single-repetition strength, but did not experience significantly enhanced muscular endurance. Rhea et al. (2003) speculate the cause of this outcome. They suggest that endurance is favored when the most recent training stimuli place greater endurance-focused demands on the muscles prior to the completion of the endurance-focused macrocycle (Rhea et al., 2003). The result of their study points to the principle of specificity, which states that in order to optimize its effect, training ought to closely resemble the performance it is intended to enhance. Training with a long term focus on increased endurance, therefore, seems to fall in line with this principle.
How does all of this translate to programming a twelve- to twenty six-week macrocycle for an endurance athlete like a high school runner preparing for a fall cross country or spring track season? Based on the work of many great coaches who have preceded me, like Dr. Jack Daniels, I periodize the macrocycle into four mesocycles, or phases. These phases each have a different emphasis meant to optimize performance at the end of the macrocycle and minimize the risk of overtraining, plateau and injury (Daniels, 2014).
The first phase, as taken from Daniels, is focused on building a foundation of general strength and injury prevention. During this period, or phase, runners slowly progress their ability to run long enough to undergo a week of full volume training in later phases, while keeping the intensity of the running (speed) relatively low (Daniels, 2014). Also during this phase, athletes work to strengthen the muscles that synergistically support an athlete’s running frame; hip, core and lower leg stabilizing muscles, as examples.
During the early part of the competitive season, runners typically work on improving running economy by undergoing short repetitions of moderate intensity (Daniels, 2014) and light additional plyometric training. The aim during this phase is to build neuromuscular connectivity and tendinomuscular stiffness. This may include 30 to 60 second bouts of running at 5k race pace or faster with long periods of recovery, or similar runs at slower paces uphill (Daniels, 2014). By this phase, athletes have reached full running volume, and the majority of that volume is low intensity running.
In the third phase, the focus shifts toward longer bouts of work at challenging intensities that begin to mimic the demands of competition. For runners, this means sets of two-minute to five-minute bouts of running faster than 5k race pace (the velocity that elicits VO2max) and steady-state running at the pace that sits right on the threshold of lactate accumulation (“tempo” running) (Daniels, 2014). These “higher quality” sessions are spaced-out throughout the microcycle (a microcycle is usually seven to ten days in length) in order to allow for enough recovery to gain the desired adaptations between challenging higher intensity workouts. Also during this time, the heaviest implementation of plyometric exercise is employed, since plyometric training relies on the stretch-shortening cycle of eccentric followed by concentric muscular contraction. Since running is a plyometric activity, the emphasis on plyometrics represents a highly specific overload stimulus.
In the final phase of training in the macrocycle, the traditional “taper” would have athletes decrease overall volume, and focus on high intensity “speed”-focused workouts. This is representative of linearly periodized “traditional” macrocycles. A practical application of RLP, however, would prescribe that athletes maintain total training volume, and decrease the frequency and volume of workouts that call upon intense running speeds. The reverse linearly periodized end to a macrocycle would be misnamed as a taper, so most coaches who have traded LP for RLP have renamed this phase the peaking phase. This new transition toward “peaking” for an end-of-macrocycle goal race is in line with the research put forward by Rhea et al. (2003).
While the classic “tapering” LP-style conclusion to a training cycle has been effective in the past, it is characteristic of evidence-based coaching to press into unfamiliar and uncertain areas that follow the data put forth from reliable research. The recent transition toward reverse linearly periodized macrocycles follows the evidence and has proven itself as an effective way to produce peak performances.
Daniels, J. T. (2014). Daniels Running Formula, 3rd ed. Human KInetics; Champaign, IL.
Rhea, M.R., Phillips, W.T., Burkett, L.N., Stone, W.J., Ball, S.D., Alvar, B.A., & Thomas, A.B. (2003). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for local muscular endurance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(1), 82-87.