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Periodization and Return to Running

Part 3: Periodization and Return to Running. 


Part 1 of this series discussed how periodization affects performance through compensation and supercompensation. Part 2 of this series discussed how runners can periodize training to avoid injuries. The following will go over how coaches can appropriately progress a runner back from an injury. As a disclaimer, if a runner is currently injured, they need to be working with, and cleared by, a healthcare professional prior to beginning any return to running program. This is more directed at runners who have been cleared to begin a return to running program or are generally more injury prone. Runners who successfully progress back to running have good communication between their coach and their healthcare provider. 


As discussed in Part 2, Periodization as it Relates to Injury Prevention, musculoskeletal tissue capacity takes longer to respond to training stimuli than cardiovascular fitness. A common mistake a lot of runners make when returning to running after an off season or an injury is to try to resume running at close to their normal volume and intensity. After a period of not running the body is not accustomed to loads that were previously acceptable. It takes time to rebuild this capacity. If done properly, the runner starts a return to running program that is not challenging aerobically but does challenge the muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments appropriately. 


This commonly presents in the as a walk:jog program where the runner’s first several weeks to months of running involve intermittent walking. An effective walk:jog program takes the runner from the majority of the time spent walking to the majority majority of the time spent running over the course of weeks to months. A walk:jog program is typically progressed by increasing the time spent running or by increasing the duration of the total time on feet. These two variables should not be progressed within the same run to avoid large increases in load and to avoid not knowing which caused more symptoms if a runner regresses.


This approach allows progressive overload of the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments at a timeline that is consistent with tissue growth and development. While it will not effectively stress the cardiovascular system as much as pure running does, it does allow the time needed for tissues to adapt. Runners using this return to running model should look for more ways to load the cardiovascular system through cross training to get more of a challenging aerobic stimulus. 


Once a runner has returned to running the emphasis should be on building a base at low intensity. This is best achieved by frequently incorporating down weeks in a runners training block and keeping the runs slow and controlled. A runner who just graduated to continuous running and has a significant history of running related injuries would be a good candidate for one loading week followed by a deload week of 50-75% of their previous week. Alternating one loading week followed by one deload week is an effective way to train for entry level runners. We have seen this strategy work for up to the 50K distance for relatively new runners who have a history of injuries. 


Eventually it would likely be of benefit for a runner to be progressed to two loading weeks followed by a deload week. This is also a perfectly acceptable and responsible way to train for runners new to the sport, new runners with a history of injury, and even semi competitive runners who are injury prone. At this point, a coach may have runners that are missing training stimulus by not loading greater than two weeks at a time; however, it’s important to ask if the extra week of loading is worth the risk? If a runner can train at 75% capacity injury free for a year that is going to be a more effective training program overtime than if the runner tries to train at 100% capacity but can only sustain that for three months at a time before getting injured. 


At this point the discussion has primarily focused on building volume at a low level of intensity. This is primarily because building volume is typically safer and easier to progress than trying to build intensity. Speed work puts significantly more stress through the body than slow and controlled jogging. Only after a runner has demonstrated three to six months of building a solid base should speed work be reintroduced. If there is a reason to perform speed work before three to six months it should be performed on a bike, elliptical, or stairmaster in order to reduce impact forces. 


Once a runner has built a solid low intensity aerobic base they may be a good candidate to return to speed work if they have done speed work in the past. Keeping in mind that speed work has largely been held from their program thus far because faster running is associated with more force through the body as well as higher rates of injury. This should be staggered similar to building volume- the coach should consider total time at intensity. For instance, a coach may prescribe 2-3 sets of 8 minutes at 10k pace with a 4 minute recovery jog. For this workout there is a total of 16-24 minutes at intensity. This would be more minutes at intensity than 3 sets of 3 minute intervals, but significantly less than 4 sets of 15 min intervals. It would be inappropriate to start an injury prone runner who has not been doing speed work above 20 minutes at intensity because their tissue tolerance at speed is largely unknown. 


Speed work should be started once every other week in order to gauge tissue tolerance and assess readiness. Once the runner has demonstrated some ability to perform one speed session every other week the coach may consider doing speedwork on consecutive loading weeks. A deload week without speedwork should likely be incorporated every two to three weeks at this point so that the runner only does speed work 1-3 weeks in a row. 


For most people returning from an injury or who are injury prone, performing one speed session a week for 1-3 consecutive weeks is an excellent training stimulus and does not need to be exceeded. However, competitive runners may need to do more in order to be competitive. When I say competitive I mean competitive. The middle of the pack runner who is trying to increase their marathon time from a 3:30 to a sub 3 hour marathon still has a lot to benefit from one speed work session a week. For the competitive runner, it would be appropriate to introduce two speed work sessions a week, and the conservative coach may have one of those sessions on the bike, elliptical, or stairmaster to mitigate impact. 


Two speed work sessions a week is typically the capacity that most runners can handle. High school and college programs often have three speed sessions a week or two speed sessions and a weekend race. However, these runners typically are younger and demonstrate more resiliency. It’s important to note that a lot of these runners in rigorous high school and college programs have high amounts of burnout and injury rates as well. On this subject, it is becoming more common for runners to perform double threshold speed sessions, or two speed sessions in one day- one in the morning and one in the evening. This is typically a bad idea from a tissue capacity standpoint and most runners, regardless of their age, can not tolerate this overtime. These programs should be used selectively and conservatively. 


This series concludes a three part series on performance and injury prevention. The first part discussed periodization as it relates to performance. The overriding theme of the last two parts of this series was progressive loading to increase tissue capacity overtime in order to both prevent and manage running related injuries. It’s important to note that some of the principles discussed in Part 3 require a healthcare provider to progress appropriately and were intentionally kept vague and theoretical. If you are coming back or dealing with a running related injury it is important to work with a healthcare provider who is versed in managing running related load. Please feel free to reach out to Golden Endurance directly if you have further questions.


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