The Seven-Day Training Paradigm

Back in my college running days, I remember debating with a teammate about weekly mileage. Well actually, that was a common debate topic, but this one stands out in my memory. I had just run over 100 miles in the previous seven days. My body was a wreck, but I could finally say that I ran my first 100-mile week. I was psyched until my teammate insisted that it didn’t count because the seven days fell outside of the normal Sunday-to-Saturday calendar week. Eventually, I conceded and started my next week with a long run so that I could get a head start on a “real” 100-mile week.

Looking back at that experience now makes me wonder why the calendar had so much power over my training plan. (And I won’t even begin to get into the arbitrary nature of a 100-mile week right now.) It also makes me realize that I may have grown somewhat wiser in the years since college, but I still rely heavily on a calendar to decide my training structure. I even remember a similar philosophical debate I had with myself when I started logging my runs on Strava that (gasp!) would organize my training weeks from Monday to Sunday instead of Sunday to Saturday like a physical calendar. I would still be doing the same training, but somehow it felt all wrong.

How has this happened? How have I and many like me become so dependent on the seven-day training structure? Part of the answer comes from a basic training principle: periodization. For a good primer on periodization, check out this iRunFar article by coach Ian Torrence. To quickly summarize, periodization breaks training down into macrocycles that last several months to a year, mesocycles that last two to six weeks, and microcycles that last several days to two weeks (1). The figure below illustrates how proper periodization optimizes stress and recovery to improve performance.

How proper periodization can optimize stress and recovery to improve performance. Image: Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (1).

For many runners, the microcycle in their training plan is a week. A normal, seven-day week allows us to easily compare workouts and volume from previous weeks based on our training calendars. A seven-day microcycle is just really convenient. However, when we decide that a microcycle must begin and end on the same days of the week, every week, we are not always considering the overarching goals of a good periodized plan.

Zaryski and Smith (2) explain that the success of a periodized plan for ultra-endurance athletes depends on the principles of all-around development, overload, specificity, individualization, consistent training, and structural tolerance. In my experience as an athlete and coach, individualization is one of the most important principles of any training plan. The authors go on to explain that, “Individual athletes will react and adapt differently when presented with identical training regimes” (2). This is a simple, but hugely important factor of training-plan development. That varied individual-response factor makes me reconsider why the most commonly used microcycle is based on a seven-day week. If each person responds to training stimuli differently, wouldn’t their recovery times vary as well? And if each person recovers from training differently, then why is the weekend long run so ubiquitous?

Once we start to ask these questions and rethink the goal of each microcycle, we can begin to problematize the seven-day training calendar. What if it takes five days to fully recover from a workout, but you only have two days before your next long run? In this case, maybe a 10-day microcycle would make more sense. The important thing to remember is that we are not machines and we are all different. We so often judge the value of our training on the results of a seven-day microcycle, just like I did as a college athlete. That outlook is too narrow and it does not align with the goal of a quality periodization plan.

This is a tricky subject because I know that much of our lives does revolve around the calendar. Most people have weekends free for long runs, and cannot give full priority to the training schedules. But what I hope you can take away from this article is that flexibility is beneficial and perhaps there are times in your life and training when flexing from the seven-day paradigm will help you achieve better results. In the case of my college training story, my body was feeling the effects of a 100-mile training week, even if it wasn’t reflected on my training log. Each day of training builds on itself and our bodies don’t suddenly start all over again once we hit Monday morning. If you can reflect on that, then you will have a better chance of adapting to your training and reaching your next level of fitness.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever converted to “training weeks” that are longer than a calendar week? If so, for what purpose and how did it work out?
  • Do you ever feel like your training could be organized better beyond the limitations of the calendar week?
  • Does the calendar week actually work well for you?

References

  1. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Zaryski, C., & Smith, D. J. (2005). Training principles and issues for ultra-endurance athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 4(3), 165–170.

Image courtesy of Alex Nichols.

Alex Nichols

coaches at Colorado College as well at Trails and Tarmac. He's a graduate student pursuing his master's in Sport Coaching at the University of Denver. On the trails, Alex has won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile; he holds the supported Nolan’s 14 record; and he's fallen on his face roughly a million times. He's supported by SCOTT Running and Honey Stinger.

There are 6 comments

  1. Henry Bickerstaff

    After reading Joe Friel’s book “Fast After Fifty” I converted to a 9-day week. I get two full recovery days between quality workouts and at the end of two 9-day weeks I take an extra three days recovery for twenty-one days. Being semi-retired it is very easy for me to do a four hour run in the middle of the week and get to work by nine. I have found I am injured less frequently then when I was trying to do three quality workouts in a seven day period.

    1. Alex Nichols

      That sounds like a really solid plan Henry. I have also found that having those extra days to recover after a big long run is really helpful. Instead of trying to squeeze the other quality runs into a seven-day cycle, moving to nine days makes so much sense. Glad you found something that works for you!

  2. Rok Bratina

    Very good article which makes me think of my own approach! I think that 7-day microcycle comes from the fact that most of the races are scheduled on Saturday or Sunday. So you do in between those races one or two quality sessions and then the day after the race one long run in a comfortable pace and that’s it. After one rest day, let’s say Tuesday, you can do hard training again on Wednesday and so on. That’s how my previous coach was doing.

    Please take into account that I am thinking here more about short races, like vertical kilometers, 5 or 10k road races. I know that it would be different for ultras where sticking to 7 – day microcycle isn’t really a good idea. Here we talking about the process, a long term goal that you are planning months before the event (like road marathon) so it would be better to take more cautious approach for training, specially with quality sessions and long runs that you can combine with back to back runs.

    I am not so familiar with training programs for ultras but I agree with you when you wrote about flexibility. We can’t just say that it is okay for one beginner to increase millage every single Monday. That’s to fast and he will quickly get injured. That’s something coaches should be aware of while writing training plans to others.

    If I understand coaches sticking to 7-day microcycle for road marathons (few short test races before the event), it makes me no sense for doing so in training for ultras but that’s just my opinion. I think it’s more reasonable to have 10-day or 14-day microcycle and here I totally agree with you.

    Best regards,

  3. Terry Miller

    Now my schedule is fixed my the days I have my daughter, but before I was flexible enough that I could do my long runs every 6 days instead of 7. Started that when I did my 2nd marathon and realized I had 10 weeks to do 12 weeks of training. 6 day weeks worked perfectly.

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