Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Have a new year’s resolution to get faster? Periodization can unlock improvement, and lead to long-term success.
Periodization is a fancy way of saying plan your training season and year in phases with different stimuli. It’s based on a loose formula that’s proven successful for many a runner: Stress + Rest = Adaptation. Periodization allows runners to break down, recover, and progress.
When Summer Was Summer
During high school, for example, my training was periodized and kept me hungry for each phase. For example, I took two full weeks off from running after each competitive season, which recharged me. Summer was summer: stress and competition-free. After my junior year, I rode long distances on my mountain bike and climbed 14,000-foot peaks until July, when I started running again.
This didn’t hurt the sky-high goals I’d set for senior year: winning the Colorado state cross country championship, setting a course record at Footlocker Cross Country Nationals, and winning the World Junior Cross Country Championships. (I nailed two out of three, and landed myself on the podium at Worlds with a third-place finish).
Recharging was easier then, without the multiple championship meets now spread throughout the year. That’s one reason why periodization—and listening to one’s body—is especially important today, more than ever.
The aim? Structure for success. Avoid injury and burnout. Stack uninterrupted training blocks on top of each other—allowing for PRs.
Cycles, Small and Large
The specifics? Well, they depend on each runner’s goals. Whether you’re a high school harrier or an adult resolved to conquer a longer race, periodizing volume, intensity, and frequency can help you meet your goals throughout a lifetime of running.
Zoom in to a week’s worth of running, you might see periodization in a cycle of hard workouts, recovery jogs, long runs, and rest days.
Zoom out, and you’ll see periodization in a life-long career: Cycles of interval and speed training (say, to PR in the mile), others of lower intensity and higher volume (for marathoning), periods of aerobic base building, and even breaks (for life events).
Periodization clicked for me after college, when I was coached by Olympic bronze medalist marathoner Lorraine Moller. Her mentor was the great coaching legend, Arthur Lydiard, who I was lucky to spend time with. He would say, “Train, don’t strain.” He railed against runners eager to rigidly follow a plan without paying attention to their body’s response to it, or without paying attention to the priority of a given training phase.
In his book Running The Lydiard Way, Lydiard says, “Schedules are only for guidance…Always study your reactions to training from day to day…Attempt to understand why you are doing your training, and what physiological and mechanical improvement each phase will bring you.”
Knowing that the body needs appropriately timed stimuli to improve and learn, we as a sport should reconsider the sledgehammer approach—the “no pain, no gain” mentality that pushes the pace and wears exhaustion like a badge of honor.
Mind the Seasons
Thanks to the competitive seasons, running has a built-in periodization. This is especially true for youth, scholastic, collegiate, and pro runners who change surfaces, venues and distances during different seasons.
Every year has an ebb and flow to it. Experience a sense of coasting at certain points, as you step off the gas pedal. Reserve intense focus for special times of the year—say, six weeks of cross country and six weeks of track season—and you’ll be able to floor it!
Adult runners can take cues from the youth schedule and change their focus at different times of the year. You might focus on the marathon during one phase and aim for a series of shorter, fast races in another. Throw in a season of trail racing, cross country, track, or even something really different, like hiking or gravel biking.
On my Boulder Mountain Warriors youth running club, consistent top performers follow a periodized yearly schedule that includes other sports like swimming, soccer, and climbing. Periodization is especially important for young runners whose brains and bodies are developing.
For high schoolers, I recommend periodizing a year like this:
After cross country, take one week totally off.
Take another week of whatever activities you want, except running.
Prioritize strength training.
Depending on what’s available:
1) Do another sport like swimming, basketball, Nordic skiing, or alpine skiing.
2) If you’re not doing another sport, focus on very easy running (no racing) and strength training, with cross-training as desired.
3) If you’re running indoor track, think about which two seasons during the year are your priority. If it’s XC and outdoor that matter most to you, enjoy indoor with a pressure-free approach to races, except perhaps the last one or two of the season, which can be a barometer of fitness heading into outdoor. Stick to easy running or cross-training when you don’t have meets.
Pre- and early season: re-introduce higher quality work, including strides, drills, hills, and tempos. Meets where you do multiple events are incredible training.
Mid- and late season: Prioritize sleep and recovery. Know that one workout, one or two meets, and a longer run per week suffice for hard work.
After track, take one week totally off.
Take another week of whatever activities you want, except running. (Think: Bike, frisbee, swim, hike!)
Gradually start running with easy, conversational efforts.
Build up mileage.
First half of summer: No hard workouts needed.
Second half of summer: Introduce hills and tempo runs, but avoid endocrine-taxing work.
Add in longer intervals, race pace work, and other targeted workouts.
Include strength training.
Early season: If you’re aiming for Nike Cross Nationals or another post-scholastic championship, and one or two meets a week, know that all races are not “A” races.
During competitive season: A week with one workout, one race, and one long run is plenty of work.
Prioritize recovery; take one day totally off and another for cross-training.
Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of The Melody Fairchild Girls Running Camp, and master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), co-authored with Elizabeth Carey, is forthcoming. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.