Periodization Training for Endurance Athletes

Periodization training is a systematic training plan used by athletes to ramp up and ramp down training in order to be in the best condition at a target time frame. Each phase may last weeks or months, depending upon the ultimate goal, but the principles of conditioning are followed so that fitness increases but the risk of overtraining or developing an overuse injury decreases.

Periodization training plans can be complex and individually designed, but the basic annual (Macrocycle) periodization phases outlined here can be used by most athletes with some minor tweaking.

Phase One: Preparation

periodization preparation phase
periodization preparation phase. Getty Images

The goal of the first phase of training is to gradually return a rested athlete to training in a slow, controlled routine. For new exercisers, this phase builds fitness slowly, by performing low-intensity, moderate-duration activities. If you are a seasoned athlete coming off a rest phase, you may have been cross-training and need to slowly return to the activities you'll be training for in the upcoming season. Easy, moderate sessions that are comfortable and steady are a good way for most athletes to prepare for the season. Walking, cycling, hiking, and swimming are all popular options.

You should also lock down your schedule in this phase. Tuesday will be a moderate to hard day in the future, so start doing some more quality workouts on Tuesdays. If Sunday will be a long run day, then start making Sunday your longer day even if it is only longer by 5-10 mins than other days at this point. During this phase, you should also get out the calendar and begin to target your competition goals for the year.

Phase Two: Build a Fitness Base

Build Athletic Strength & Power
Build Athletic Strength & Power. Getty Images

The real training begins after about a month of easy preparation. You now focus on improving all the major areas of fitness, specifically cardiovascular endurance and strength. During this phase, which can last for several months, you'll ramp up your overall fitness, build strength and power, add interval training and do a variety of all-body exercise. This is the phase where you are a jack-of-all-exercises and work on your weaknesses, your flexibility, your balance and develop a solid nutrition plan. Joining a club or team, or working with a coach is great for those who need a specific plan during this phase of training, but many experienced athletes return to their "tried and true" base training routine.

Phase Three: Build Sports-Specific Fitness

Build Sports Specificity
Build Sports Specificity.

The next two months are the time to focus on sports-specific fitness. This is the Principle of Specificity, which implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.  During this phase, you simulate race-like conditions and practice skills needed during your event. Your body is strong and fit and you can focus on race technique, strategy, and mental skills training. You'll practice skills again and again so they become second-nature and combine them in one coordinated, flowing movement. You may also start competing in "lead-up" events to get used to actual competition and race-day conditions. 

Phase Four: Tapering

taper phase
taper phase. Photo (c) Tyler Stableford / Getty Images

Tapering refers to a decrease in training volume the week or two prior to major athletic competitions. According to research, the ideal tapering strategies include a drastic decrease in training volume, but adding short, high-intensity interval training sessions leading up to the competition. The guidelines include:

  • decreasing your training volume (mileage) by 50–70 percent
  • decrease your frequency of training (number of workout sessions) by 20 percent
  • for events lasting an hour or less, use a one-week taper
  • for events lasting more than an hour, use a two-week taper

Phase Five: Peaking

Woman meditating on beach
Peak Performance. felixhug / Getty Images

"Peaking" refers to an athlete being in the absolute best condition (physical, emotional and mental) at a specific time for an event or race. The peaking phase of periodization training can last one to two weeks and is the ultimate payoff for the periodization training program. After the Taper phase, most athletes will find that their fitness is at the maximum for a period of one to four weeks, depending on how they spend that time. If you have a long season (soccer or football) you will need to create smaller rest/work phases during the active season. For example, if you compete each Sunday, Monday will be a recovery day, building back up by Wednesday and Thursday and tapering again on Saturday.

Phase Six: Rest and Recovery

rest & recovery
rest & recovery.

After you've peaked and raced, you'll need to plan for a certain amount of rest and recovery time. This phase can last from one week to two months depending upon the intensity and duration of the competition or season. It also depends on how fit you are overall. A novice marathon runner may need more rest than an experienced runner who completes several marathons each year. Even if you feel fine physically, you need to allow yourself some mental downtime as well. This is critical to help reduce the risk of overtraining, burnout, injuries, and depression.  This is a great time to cross-train or just kick back and let your body relax. I find yoga is a perfect activity to do during my recovery phase. 

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  • American College of Sports Medicine, The Team Physician, and Conditioning of Athletes for Sports: A Consensus Statement, 2000.[] Last accessed Dec 2010 online at The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) [].