5 Phases of Endurance Training
For the past few months, I’ve been working on my marathon coaching certification. [My first test is this Sunday, and I’m excited to be one step closer to helping more runners accomplish their goals.] As I’ve been reading a number of running texts and doing a lot of studying on the more scientific and technical aspects of endurance sports, the importance of training cycles and the phases of endurance training has been on my mind.
Unless you’re working one-on-one with a personal coach or have been running for a long time, chances are that you may not be too familiar with the periodization – or progressive cycling of training – that is critical to help us peak at the right times and avoid injury. Even runners who do understand the basic phases of endurance training may not be paying close attention to how it dictates their weekly workouts (I know I certainly wasn’t when I first started running … and even last year I didn’t really understand how critical these cycles were to my success until I started training for Beach2Battleship). Have you ever found yourself incorporating too much speed too quickly/too early or not enough intensity when you should be focused on running faster than race pace? Confused altogether?
Without sending you back in a time machine to your high school anatomy/science class or letting your eyes glaze over too much, I want to share some basic guidelines around the phases that a solid long-distance training plan should take into account (for events longer than a 10K, with primary emphasis on half marathons, marathons and long distance triathlons). As with all things related to running and triathlon, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach or one right way to do everything. There are many different ways to structure training programs, and we also learn over time what works for us based on trial and error.
Today, I’m sharing some basic guidance about progressive training for you to think about as you successfully build your own training plans or work with a coach to do so. As my coaching certification process and journey continues, I will regularly share tips and guidance on the more technical aspects of running to help all of us focus on running as safely, efficiently and successfully as possible.
Basic Phases of Endurance Training
1. Base Phase (4 weeks to 6 months, depending on fitness level)
The base phase should account for the longest portion of your training plan. This phase focuses on developing your aerobic conditioning and improving cardio and muscular endurance. The base phase includes easier running and strength training/cross training that gradually builds in duration, allowing all of our body’s systems to adapt to the activity and reduce the likelihood of injury. Base building is the key to successful long-distance training. Here are a few things to note about the base period of training:
- How long should the base period be? For more experienced runners, it may comprise 4 to 8 weeks of the training cycle. For beginning runners, it may take 4 to 6 months. The key to determining how long this period should last is in your interpretation of how easy your running feels. You want to develop good running fitness and strength but not get bored or unmotivated with the lack of intensity. When you’ve reached that point, you’re ready to move on.
- Training paces should be easy and aerobic. If you use a heart rate monitor, this phase should mostly be done at 70 to 75 percent of maximum heart rate or 70 percent of VO2 max (I’ll be talking more about heart rate training in the coming weeks).
- Training volume should increase gradually (this applies to all phases) with no more than a 10% increase in mileage week over week. A good rule of thumb is that every third to fourth week, you should drop your weekly mileage by 25% to allow your body to rest and recover.
- Strength training during the base phase should focus on total-body fitness and consist of lighter weights and higher reps. For example, multiple sets of 10 to 12 reps of exercises 2 to 3 days per week after runs or on non-running days can help build muscular strength.
According to Running Anatomy authors Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy, “A training program that ignores or diminishes the importance of the base training component is a training program that ignores the tenets of exercise science. Without an extensive reliance on easy aerobic running, any performance enhancement training program is destined for failure.”
2. Build/Strength/Threshold Phase (4 to 8 weeks)
The build or threshold phase is typically 4 to 8 weeks of your training cycle (depending on the kind of race you are training for and your current fitness level) and introduces faster-paced training that gets the body used to running a comfortably hard pace that can be sustained for 5 to 6 miles before reaching exhaustion. This is the phase in which intervals and tempo runs begin to be introduced. This phase focuses on furthering your running performance by better developing your cardiothoracic systems and increasing your muscles’ ability to adapt to faster paced running. In other words, this phase will start to help improve your ability to huff and puff without getting too tired (improving your anaerobic conditioning). During this phase, you always want to alternate hard training days with easy ones. Additionally, strength training can be done twice per week and should focus on countering weaknesses and on functional exercises that directly correlate to running faster. Read more about strength training for runners here.
3. Peak/Speed Phase (2-3 weeks)
The peak phase of your training is a short period of time – typically 2 to 3 weeks – in which you are running at a high intensity. Several key workouts should be designed to be completed at your VO2 max (the rate at which you are running with the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume during exercise). These are paces that are much faster than your race pace, allowing your cardiovascular system to work at peak efficiency to deliver oxygen to your blood.
4. Taper (1-3 weeks)
The taper is the period in which we cut back on our miles to prepare our legs and body to be rested and recovered for race day. The purpose of the taper period is to maintain conditioning while simultaneously recovering. Energy stores will be maximized and muscles will repair and become rested. This is also a great time to focus on mentally preparing for an upcoming race – developing your mantras and positively preparing your mind. For those running a half marathon, 10 to 14 days is the typical taper period for a recreational runner, while a more competitive runner may only taper for 7 days. For those running a marathon, 14 to 21 days are typical for most recreational runners, while more serious athletes may only require a taper period of about 10 to 14 days.
At some point amidst all this training, you actually get to participate in your race. Woo hoo!
5. Recovery Phase (2 to 5 weeks)
The most often overlooked phase of many training plans is the recovery phase. It is critical to allow our bodies to properly recover after a race before dialing up too much intensity for our next race. This period can last between 2 to 5 weeks depending on the runner and is designed to address symptoms of low energy, soreness, muscle damage and depression that can sometimes come when a race is over. There are a variety of ways to approach the recovery phase. For some runners, engaging in a month of low intensity activities that incorporate new and fun workouts is optimal. For others getting ready to run another race, running easy for 2 weeks after a race and then slowing reintroducing speed work and strength training during the third week is ideal. The goal is to mentally and physically recover from a long training cycle and to focus on having fun.
Note: Although I am currently working on my marathon coaching certification through the North American Academy of Fitness Professionals, I am not yet a certified marathon coach, nor am I a medical professional. Before beginning any fitness training program, please consult your doctor. The information in this article is based on a variety of guidance from three primary texts: The NAAFP marathon coach manual, Running Anatomy by Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy and Precision Heart Rate Training by Edmund R. Burke.
Here are some conversation starters to get us talking more about training. I want to hear from you!
Are you consistently incorporating these (or similar) phases of endurance training into your overall plan?
Do you have a personal coach helping you build your training plans? If not, where do you get your training guidance from? What areas of your training planning would you like to improve or understand more fully?