A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Periodization - One Key to Longevity in Endurance Training

This conversation happened about a week ago as I was waiting for the pool to open. The name has been made up, but the exchange was real:

Sam: "You run too?"

Me: "Yes, I come from a triathlon background."

Sam: "So you do triathlons, have you ever run a marathon."

Me: "Yes, in fact I've run some ultramarathons as well."

Sam: "An ultramarathon? What is that?"

Me: "Any race that is longer than the 26.2 mile marathon distance."

Sam: "They have races like those?"

Me: "Yep, they do. There's a lot more ultramarathons now than there ever was before."

Sam: "And what ultramarathons have you done."

Me: "I did the Vermont 100 race last year."

Sam: "100? As in miles?"

Me: "Yes, miles."

Sam: "Holy crap, how long did that take you?"

Me: "About 21 and a half hours."

Sam: "How long have you been running?"

Me: "Since 1988, about 25 years."

Sam: "And your knees aren't bad?"

There is a common misconception that too much running, or anything long for that nature, will eventually lead to a breakdown of the body. So much so that it will render you permanently injured.

And if you do look at trends, it seems to be the case with really competitive athletes. In their 20's, they do so well that they place high in the standings, even making the podium, but when they grow older, they undergo a series of debilitating injuries that will render themselves disabled, in a more permanent basis.

Twenty years ago, in an era I call the "No Pain, No Gain Era", the science of endurance training was not as researched or developed as it is now. Most of the competitors used to have 2 speeds back then. Fast, and faster. Anything slower than that was considered "junk miles" and was considered not beneficial to overall fitness.

The science knows better now, and that those "junk miles" were actually the best way to improve on fitness and race times. Those "junk miles", we know now, actually give an athlete a huge foundation so that when it was time to run fast, his body is more adapted to the extra stress, which will minimize injuries and contribute to a quicker recovery from the stressful workout.

But this science is slow to filter to the athletes themselves. I see athletes finish up their last race in 2012 only to start training hard for 2013 without much of a rest. I see athletes doing track and hill workouts in January when their big race is 5 months away, in May.

In other words, I can easily tell who is going to suffer through major injuries in the future and disappear from endurance training altogether.

Folks, remember why you started running, cycling, and swimming in the first place, to increase your overall quality of life and hopefully lengthening your life for several more years.

This is a long term goal, of course, one can be easily distracted from this goal when one is focused on day-to-day activity.

It is also, in my opinion, the most important goal of fitness and one that should never lose focus on.

When Sam asked about my knees, I briefly told him that my training was set up so that I can allow my body to recover from the stress of racing. I told him that, even after 25 years of running, I felt that I actually had the knees of a 20 year old. No stiffness, full range of motion, no arthritis, nothing. Just a pair of very healthy knees (knock on wood!).

And that is the key to longevity...building rest into your training. And that is where Periodization comes in.

What is Periodization?

Well, the Wiki states it accurately... "Periodization is an organized approach to training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period. It is a way of alternating training to its peak during season. The aim of periodization is to introduce new movements as one progresses through the macrocycle to specify one's training right up until the start of the season."

Cycles are big. Everything around you revolves around cycles. Some cycles are very short, like the progression of day and night. Others take a very long time, such as a star's life cycle. Our sun is going through its life cycle in billions of years. There are smaller cycles inside bigger cycles. Cycles are the actual order of the universe.

If it works so well for nature, then it's only natural that you should incorporate it into your training.


The 3 cycles of Periodization

In my training approach, there are 3 significant cycles that I use to plan my training. First, there is the macrocycle. As the word implies, this is the largest cycle of your training. This is your entire competitive season, which, in most cases, is a year.

The second is called a mesocycle. In normal cases, the mesocycle lasts about a month. Each mesocycle has an overall theme, or objective, that will hopefully contribute to your success during the season.

The last cycle is called a microcycle. This is usually a week of training.

When it comes to building rest into your training routine, ALL 3 CYCLES have to be addressed. Remember that.

Microcycle

Starting off with the microcycle, most people already understand that during the week, they need to follow a hard training day with an easy training day (or two if the hard session was particularly hard). That hard session will break down their bodies significantly; they need to allow the right amount of recovery time for their bodies to heal and adapt to that stress.

The hard/easy day approach most people understand. What they cannot come to grips with is building rest into their other two cycles. And these are much more important.

Mesocycle

Each mesocycle is about a month long. You've been doing the hard/easy day approach for the first 3 weeks of your current mesocycle, building up your overall running volume in the meantime. That third week, you really hammered out the workouts well, giving 110% and getting a great response in return.

Now is the time to back off the entire 4th week and consolidate your gains.

And by backing off, I mean, no hard workouts at all, and cutting your current weekly volume by at least 25%.

Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at this moment. A whole week off?! Is he crazy? I'm going to lose everything I gained.

No, you won't. Trust me on this. As a matter of fact, when that recovery week is done, you'll be stronger than ever before. You just gave your body a significant time off after 3 hellish weeks of training; you're going to be stronger, faster, and less prone to injury.

And that first week back after the recovery week will be epic, to say the least!

So give yourself a week of recovery after 3 hard weeks of training.

Hopefully you jotted that down. That is a rule of thumb. :-)

Macrocycle

As for building rest into the macrocycle, this is the biggest of them all. Listen, I think that most athletes still want to train and race well into their sunset years, right. I still have this dream that when I turn 100 years old, that I'll still be racing in some capacity.

Hey, after a quarter century of racing, I'm well on my way of getting my wish granted!

Anyway, the rule of thumb here is to allow yourself AT LEAST 2 MONTHS OF RECOVERY after your last important race of the season. I usually go with 3 months, but 2 months is acceptable.

Think about it. You trained hard for 7 months, then did about 2 months of hard racing. That's a lot of accumulated stress on the body! You need to down-shift now. Those little aches and pains that you're starting to feel are no joke. There shouldn't be anything stressful during those 3 months and your overall volume should be very low for your offseason.

It's also healing for your mind too. There is a lot of mental energy that is spend during your ramp-up to your season. If you keep concentrating on training immediately after your season is over, you run the very real risk of mental burnout. It's happened to me once, and it took me nearly a year to recover.

This is where having a balanced life is important. Allow your mind to drift to other important areas of your life. Start getting to know your spouse and children again. Do some cross-training (skiing, mountain biking, karate, yoga, etc.) to keep your mental focus sharp while you maintain your fitness base.

And yes, it's OK to detrain here. I know the loss of overall fitness is taboo in our field, but trust me, it's OK. Remember, when you start your new macrocycle, you WILL have time to improve on what you did last year.

Plus, you'll keep your mind sharp and your body healthy for years to come.

If you have any questions in your overall planning for the 2013 season, I can definitely help you out with designing your plan using the above methods so that you can perform to the best of your ability in 2013.  If you have any questions, you can contact me at ironpete@ironpete.com. Here's to a successful 2013!

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