The Long View: Periodization Done Differently

You don't necessarily have to segregate base training from racing. How to successfully blend your strength-building and competitive periods.

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Success without sacrifice? Isn’t that against the unspoken runner’s credo?

Self-described marathon specialists—who perhaps outnumber those focused mainly on 5K to half marathon distances among amateur adult athletes these days—have typically operated under the assumption that dedicated training for the 26.2-mile distance necessarily bleeds them of speed, at least in the short term. They, in the main, have come to treat shorter races as stepping stones or fitness gauges rather than events worthy of focus in their own right. This is a marked departure from the racing scene of the mid-1980s and before, when athletes such as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Craig Virgin unassumingly tested themselves on the track, in cross-country, and in the marathon without any talk of necessarily giving up one for another.

Not Always Lydiard

Periodization is an important part of any training program; you clearly need to know when to work your hardest and when to rest for your main race or races. But some of the terms made popular by Arthur Lydiard fans don’t have to be used to mean what you may think they should. For example, base training and aerobic development don’t have to be carried out for one season a year, or independent of serious racing. If you are indeed looking to run your best marathon, but aren’t unconditionally set on accomplishing this in the next six, 12, or even 18 months, you should take advantage of the competitive and training freedom this confers.

Brad Hudson works with a cadre of young, fast and rapidly improving women in Boulder, Colo. His goal is to produce a group capable of running under 2:30 in the marathon by 2016. As ambitious as that sounds, early returns suggest that his runners are on track to get there. Three of them, Tera Moody, Kara Lubieniecki, and Alia Gray, qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials in January by turning in half-marathon times of 1:13:25, 1:13:34, and 1:13:38 respectively. In April, Lubieniecki and Gray smashed their 10,000-meter PRs at the Payton Jordan meet at Stanford by 59 seconds (32:38) and 40 seconds (32:57) respectively, while Addie Bracy and Maggie Callahan carved 23 seconds (9:53) and four seconds (10:03) from their best steeplechase times.

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“Brad’s big thing is that no matter what we’re training for—3K, 10K, or marathon—we just never seem to get too far away from anything,” notes Bracy. “We always have a good speed aspect as well as a volume and aerobic aspect. So, you just always feel fit and ready to race regardless of what the race is.”

Unlike some, Hudson doesn’t segregate base training from racing in the near term. In the fall and early winter, his runners are either prepping for half-marathon or cross-country events, which Hudson considers base training by any definition. His athletes move from general aerobic conditioning to specific event preparation as track season approaches.

“I use a lot of the same training in every cycle,” he says, “but the paces and strength aspect both get more specific and the strength component remains critical.”

Most runners, Hudson says, are always in need of more threshold and raw-strength-type running, but at the same time he advises never letting this get in the way of your specific race goals. So whether you want to run a 5K PR in May or a top-notch hill or trail race in August, use the final four or so weeks to focus specifically on the pace, terrain and strategic elements you’ll need for top performance.

Rise and Fall

Because Hudson regards strength development as a perpetual process rather than as something limited to a given time of year, he’s careful to include programmed down time into all of his runners’ schedules.

“In an ideal world, we prepare for a fall marathon, a winter half-marathon with or without cross-country, and spring track,” he says. “But they get mini-breaks or four or five days as needed in there and two-week break at the end of year.”

In contrast to what a lot of coaches and runners believe, he says, you can become overtrained and burned out in any period, not just when you’re doing anaerobic work.

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There is a mental payoff in blending your strength-building and competitive phases, too. “I think athletes’ motivation is much better if you use a racing as a base season the same way college teams do with cross-country,” Hudson says. “Make this important.”

Again, he emphasizes that you should get more specific as you get closer to a goal event, but it takes a year-round focus to reach your potential. Hudson advises limiting anaerobic work, which, if overused can turn fit athletes into overcooked ones.

A sample week in a non-event-specific training period:
Monday: Two light runs, hill sprints, core training

Tuesday: Fartlek or short intervals

Wednesday: Medium-long, “feel-based” progression run, core and circuit training

Thursday: Two light runs, strides

Friday: Long threshold intervals of 2 to 3 kilometers, core training

Saturday: Light 6-mile jog

Sunday: Long progression run with the option of pushing the second half if feeling fresh—this is up to the athlete.