Periodization Training for Endurance Athletes

Periodization training is a systematic training plan used by endurance athletes to be in the best condition possible at a target time, such as during their sport's active season. Each phase of this training can last weeks or months, depending on the ultimate goal.

During periodization training, principles of conditioning are followed so that fitness increases while at the same time decreasing the risk of overtraining or developing an overuse injury.

Periodization training plans can be complex. However, the basic periodization phases, also referred to as macrocycles, outlined here can be used by most athletes with some minor tweaking to better personalize the plan.

Phase One: Preparation

Nordic Walking Urban Couple
Nordic Walking Urban Couple.

Scott Markewitz / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

Time length: 30 days

It is common for athletes to take time off from training after their season ends. So the goal of the first phase of periodization training is to return a rested athlete to training via a slow, controlled routine. New exercisers can also use this phase to build fitness slowly and safely.

Easy to moderate-intensity exercise sessions that are comfortable and steady are a good way for most athletes to begin to prepare for the upcoming season. Walking, cycling, hiking, and swimming are all popular options.

This is also a good time to lock down the rest of your training schedule. Decide in advance what your workouts will look like on different days of the week. During this phase, you should also get out the calendar and begin to target your competition goals for the year.

Phase Two: Build a Solid Fitness Base

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

Time length: Variable, usually several months

After the preparation phase, it's time to focus on improving in all of the major areas of fitness, specifically targeting cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.

During this phase, you'll ramp up your overall fitness. This can be accomplished by adding interval training and doing a variety of total-body exercises.

This is also the phase where you will work to improve upon your weaknesses, strive to increase your flexibility and balance, and develop a solid nutrition plan.

Joining a club or team, or working with a coach is great for those who've never engaged in phased training. Once you've been through periodization a few times, you'll know what routine works best for building your fitness base.

Phase Three: Build Sports-Specific Fitness

Build Sports Specificity
Build Sports Specificity.

Time length: 60 days

The next couple of months are the time to focus on improving your sports-specific fitness. This is the Principle of Specificity, which states that in order to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.  

During this phase, simulate race-like conditions and practice skills needed during your event. Focus on your technique, endurance strategy, and mental skills training to further boost your performance.

Practice these skills again and again so they become second-nature. Seek to develop one coordinated, flowing movement. In phase three, you may also want to 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

Time length: 1 week for events lasting one hour or less; 2 weeks for events lasting longer than one hour

Tapering refers to a decrease in training volume the week or two prior to major athletic competitions. Though it may seem counter-intuitive to slow training before a big event, research shows that this actually improves performance.

Effective tapering strategies include reducing training volume (mileage) by 50–70 percent and reducing training frequency (number of workout sessions) by 20 percent. It's also helpful to add short, high-intensity interval training sessions during the tapering phase.

Phase Five: Peaking

Woman meditating on beach
Peak Performance. felixhug / Getty Images

Time length: 1-2 weeks

"Peaking" refers to an athlete being in the absolute best condition— physically, emotionally, and mentally—at the time of a specific event or race. This is the ultimate payoff of a periodization training program.

After the tapering phase, most athletes will find that their fitness is maximized for a period of one to four weeks, depending on how they spend that time.

Often called in-season training, the main goal of this phase is to maintain your fitness gains, though you will likely continue to see some improvements. Because you will also be participating in competitions or events, training sessions are typically reduced.

Phase Six: Rest and Recovery

rest & recovery
rest & recovery.

Time length: 1 week to 2 months

After you've peaked and raced, plan for a certain amount of rest and recovery time. The length of this phase depends upon the intensity and duration of the competition or season. (The longer or more intense the season, the longer the recovery.)

The amount of time spent in recovery also depends on how fit you are overall. A novice marathon runner may need more time to recover than an experienced runner who completes several marathons each year, for instance.

Even if you feel fine physically, giving yourself some downtime offers many benefits. Research shows that not having a balance between training and rest can reduce your sleep quality, decrease your libido, and negatively impact your mood.  

This is a great time to cross-train, giving your sports-specific muscles a break, or to just kick back and let your body relax. Yoga is another perfect activity for the recovery phase. 

If you have a long season, 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, tapering again on Saturday.

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