Periodization in marathon training

How to: Periodization in marathon training done right!

Whether you are a professional athlete, or recreational distance running enthusiast, once you train year-round, you have to consider periodization in marathon training. In this post I’m going to give you the building blocks so you can do it too.

By periodized running we mean that you break up your training cycle into several blocks. Each of these blocks had its own training purpose, and its own workouts.

Lineair versus non-lineair periodization

The ‘traditional’ lineair type of periodization is known by most runners. It’s the one that you can find in most beginner marathon plans. Your mileage increases over the weeks, tempo work gets harder, you then go into a one or two week taper followed by a race. Each of the blocks in this periodization has its own focus.

With non-lineair periodization each type of training is present in each phase. As Steve Magness writes in his book The Science of Running: ‘during each training period, the vast majority of the training components are included; the only thing that changes is their emphasis’ (2014: p. 239). In this post i’m going to stick with non-lineair periodization. If you are keen on knowing more about lineair periodization, there’s many websites out there discussing it (or perhaps i’ll write a specific blog post about it in the future. In that case, there will be a link here).

A must read by Steve Magness

Periodization in marathon training three phases

We can deduct three training phases (four if you include the post-competition phase). Different coaches and athletes give a different name to them but they all come down to the same thing. I’m going to stick with what Steve Magness calls them. By the way, I Highly suggest you go and read his book, it is literally loaded with valuable insights into training. And for those that are into that (like me) there’s also a lot of science on running too (even though it is from 2014, its still relevant).

The three phases are:

  • Base phase
  • Pre-competition phase
  • Competition phase

Base phase

The emphasis in this phase is on easy running. But this is the phase where you’ll build the foundation for the training to come. Therefore you’ll also focus on your musculoskeletal system (there’s a lot of impact to your body in long distance running, best lay a good foundation). You’ll do both endurance and speed work.

Workouts this phase

Endurance: long runs. The focus is on duration, not intensity. So no progressions or other tempo blocks at the end of your long run.

Speed work: This is not race specific yet. Hill repeats (10 X 1:30 up the hill and in 3 minutes down again), or strides at the beginning or the end of your run. Wait, strides at the BEGINNING of your run? Yes, before your long run. Warm up for fifteen minutes or so, do five or six strides and then your long run as usual. When you run fast, generally your form gets better. Doing a couple of strides at the beginning of your run helps you run in good form the rest of the run.

Strength: do a strength programme two times a week. Focus on both core, arms and legs. Get them strong, and they will elevate your speed, and reduce your chance of injury in the later stages.

Pre-competion phase

In this phase your focus will shift towards strength and prolonging your speed work to longer distances. For marathon training your long run remains of prime importance, but some of your shorter runs will transition into tempo work during this phase. In this phase you won’t see short speed reps. The intervals will be slower and longer. An exception to this are hill repeats, they serve as strength workouts in this phase.

Workouts in this phase

Endurance: you will still do your long run. Your longest runs will be at the end of this phase Occasionally you may start to incorporate some tempo work (but not too much yet in this phase).

speed work: This is the phase where you will start doing longer tempo runs: mile repeats, or two or three kilometer repeats.

Competition phase

You. are. peaking. This is where everything starts coming together. By now you have build your aerobic base, your neuromuscular base and musculoskeletal base. It is time to start assembling. In this phase you’ll start doing race specific work. Long runs with race pace finishes, large tempo blocks. Here’s a few great tempo workouts that work in the competition phase.

Workouts in this phase:

Endurance: long runs never get boring. They will slightly reduce in length though.

Speed work: Here you’ll get to do the fun stuff. Doing long blocks of tempo work. How about 60 minutes marathon pace. I love them. Also: a few weeks before your marahton, how about doing a ten mile race? You shouldn’t go all out on these races, but you can certainly pick up the pace here.

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