Updated: Nov 26
Part One: Periodization training as it relates to performance
Let’s start with two athletes who qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Dash signs up for Boston when registration opens. He trains all year round and knows he’ll be in some type of form to compete at Boston. Dash’s weekly volume stays high and he does one to two interval workouts per week. He tempos the majority of his runs. It is rare for his weekly volume to dip below 50 miles.
Violet also signs up for Boston. She’s a little more structured than her younger brother and prefers consistency and periodization. The majority of Violet’s runs are kept easy to moderate. Occasionally her weekly mileage will reach above 50 miles but this is usually succeeded by a down week. She performs anywhere from 0-2 workouts per week depending on the time of year. When she does her interval workouts she’s full-gas.
Both Dash and Violet can be successful at Boston and there are plenty of case examples where both philosophies have succeeded. What philosophy works for one individual will be different for another; this is true at both the professional and amateur levels.
At Golden Endurance we tend to endorse some type of structure. Structure is important from a performance standpoint: achieve faster times over the course of a season by peaking systematically. Structure allows athletes to develop solid foundations over years of training while avoiding burnout and injuries.
The rest of this article will aim at parsing both Dash and Violet’s workload and recovery cycles and further, understanding how this relates to performance. While they are both superheroes, they still carry human flaws that are surprisingly relatable.
PERIODIZATION: MACROCYCLES, MESOCYCLES, WORKOUTS
To understand the differences in Dash and Violet’s training lets first take some time to talk about periodization, macrocycles, mesocycles, and workouts
Periodization training was first introduced by Leo Matveyv in the 1960’s and has since provided the bedrock for modern endurance programs. Matveyv described periodization as subdividing the calendar year to fit around the competitive season. The gross subdivision of the calendar year is referred to as Macrocycles. If a runner were training to peak at the Boston Marathon, a Spring race, they may structure their year for base building over the Summer (Preparatory Period), interval work in the Fall/Winter (Transition Period), and race season in the Spring (Competition Period). As such, their fitness over time graph would look like this:
The primary incentive for structuring training like this is that an athlete is setting themself up for peak form when it is time to compete. Thus, Violet’s year using periodization and macrocycles looks very different than Dash’s:
Violet is training to peak in April and the Boston Marathon is the climax of her training while Dash may perform some type of climax for Boston, he has not structured his year to peak in April like Violet has. He maintains a baseline level of fitness most of the year and keeps his volume relatively high.
Macrocycles are subdivided into mesocycles. A mesocycle is a two to four week period within a macrocycle that aims to achieve a specific fitness goal. Common mesocycle goals include targeting specific aspects of performance such as speed, volume, technical skills, power, or endurance.
A typical mesocycle starts with the hardest work first in order to account for compensation. Individual workouts are structured similarly with the intent of achieving a common training goal. Bearing in mind, the improvement in fitness typically isn't seen until a recovery period and the start of the next cycle. Where an athlete is in their macrocycle will affect what they target in their mesocycle. For instance, an athlete in the preparatory period for a marathon may have a mesocycle that includes slow paced runs with more of an emphasis on cross training while an athlete in the Transitional Period may be focusing on developing speed and have several high intensity interval workouts per week. Keeping in mind that the target of each period is also going to depend on the type of race the athlete is training for.
Workouts are an individual unit of a mesocycle and comprise what the athlete does in each individual day. There are different terminologies for different types of runs performed on any given day, but some examples of workouts include distance runs, long runs, tempo runs, and intervals.
GAINING FITNESS: COMPENSATION AND SUPERCOMPENSATION
The development of fitness requires compensation and supercompensation over time which is primarily achieved through interval work after a solid base has been established. When an athlete achieves greater fitness they do so by conditioning their body to take more of a workload. Intervals assist this process by providing a stimulus that results in compensation.
Compensation is the body’s response to a stimulus or event that stresses their cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Immediately following an interval workout an athlete is fatigued and their body is recovering. At this point the athlete has not gained fitness but lost fitness and is working to return to baseline. The athlete’s muscles have microtears and their resting heart rate is elevated. If you asked them to perform the same interval workout day after day they would likely perform worse. In the period following a workout or mesocycle, rest and recovery are extremely important. As an athlete recovers, what they eat, how they hydrate, the quality of sleep they get, the mobility routines they do, and the stressors of life outside of running all play pivotal roles in the training stimulus they receive from any given workout.
Supercompensation is achieved following a period of compensation. Supercompensation is the development of fitness that is greater than the athletes form prior to a workout. Ultimately the body will repair muscle, will steady a high heart rate, and make a variety of other adaptations; by doing so, the athlete has become stronger. This is depicted in the graph below.
If the athlete is training appropriately, a dip in fitness immediately following a workout (recovery) is followed by a return to baseline fitness (compensation) which is subsequently followed by an increase in fitness (supercompensation). It is important to note that what works on paper does not always play out and is dependent on where the athlete is in a macrocycle, how much they stress their body in a workout, and how efficiently they recover. We will now examine how supercompensation is achieved for both Dash and Violet.
Dash runs roughly the same mileage all year round which results in him maintaining a high level of baseline fitness. He consistently performs one to two days of hard interval work on a weekly basis and tempos most of his distance days. Because he runs the majority of his normal distance days hard his interval workouts are often performed at 75% effort. He often feels burnt out and sometimes apathetic about running. He has a lot of aches and pains but no injury that has curtailed his running.
Violet runs from late Summer through the Spring. While she runs close to all year round, she enjoys tertiary sports (swimming, cross country skiing, and weight lifting) and factors them into her training plan. Thus when she starts building her base, she is at a lower level of running performance compared to Dash. Over the Summer and Fall Violet develops a solid running base and slowly starts incorporating interval work to increase her fitness. After several weeks of heavy training she takes a down week of lower mileage to allow her body opportunity to compensate and then supercompensate. She then starts a new training block fresh and ready to work. After many mesocycles of compensation and supercompensation she has developed greater overall fitness. She rarely feels burnt out. As she transitions into Winter she feels strong and performs interval workouts at 95% percent effort because she has trained her body over the course of many mesocycles to be better adapt to hard workouts. For this reason, she maximizes her training potential and has earned some well earned (and needed) easy days in between her workouts.
While Dash may maintain a relatively higher level of fitness than Violet year round; he does so with a smaller margin for error in terms of performance. Consistently training hard allows less time for recovery, a shorter period to achieve supercompensation, and if recovery is cut short, less gains in supercompensation. Thus, while Dash is still very fit as he approaches Boston, he oftentimes is not maximizing interval workouts and is consistently a little burnt out.
Violet in contrast has a greater margin for error because she has developed a solid foundation over the course of the last year that is built on specific and intentional training blocks. Importantly for Boston, because Violet has appropriately blocked her macrocycles she has a larger opportunity to peak than Dash.