Running Periodization: It Isn’t Rocket Science

How to periodize your trail running and ultramarathon training.

By on November 6, 2018 | Comments

Periodization isn’t just a training methodology reserved for running coaches or elite frontrunners. Every athlete can learn and employ the basic principles to achieve race-day success. This training framework provides well-timed, realistic, and varied workouts that aid an athlete in reaching his/her optimal fitness level by race day and lowering the risk of injury and/or burnout.

Though training specifics differ depending on the goal event (i.e., distance, intensity, and terrain), there are core concepts that hold true for all training cycles and, if respected, can provide a gratifying training experience.

Concept 1: Break Your Training into Chapters

Every good book develops its characters and plot before moving toward a climactic scene and resolution. Your training should follow suit. Proper scheduling is paramount to a successful training plan. In order to parse out training stressors (read more about understanding training stress) and allow the body and mind to adapt and grow in fitness, break the running schedule into organized, manageable chunks. Focus on four phases:

  • Base phase: Contrary to popular belief, this one- to three-month period of aerobic development includes more than easy and long runs. In order to keep the neuromuscular connection strong, one or two short surging workouts (post-run strides or 30- to 60-second fartleks in the middle of a run) and steady-paced runs (sustained two- to six-mile runs at medium-hard efforts) should punctuate the weekly routine. Use short-distance events to periodically gauge your fitness level.
  • Introductory phase: Within this four- to six-week period, workouts prepare the athlete for the tougher training to come. Depending on the athlete’s goal event, long runs might elongate and/or hill workouts might be added to the routine.
  • Specific phase: This is when the icing on the cake is spread. For eight to 12 weeks, you perform specific workouts that mimic your goal event. For trail ultrarunners, this means extended runs in the mountains and, perhaps, long back-to-back efforts. Road marathoners practice dialing in goal race pace. Runners targeting 5ks work on their speed by heading to the track. Well-timed ’B’ races during this timeframe can help boost fitness and expose equipment, pacing, and nutrition/hydration flaws. The final week or three of the specific phase focuses on a pre-race taper (or sharpening period) where recovery is emphasized in preparation for the upcoming goal race effort.
  • Recovery phase: After a monumental effort or long training block, an athlete deserves a month or two reprieve from goal-oriented training, the permission to dabble in another sport, or some time off completely.

Concept 2: Hone Specificity Close to the Goal Race

Our body best remembers what we’ve most recently subjected it to—so timing is crucial. When developing your plan, make sure to include race-specific workouts, or the training that reproduces the stresses you’ll encounter during your goal event, during the aforementioned 1.5- to three-month specific phase of training. Adding too much specific training before this window can lead to burnout, overtraining, and injury.

Concept 3: Adapt Training to Individual Goals, Weaknesses, and Strengths

We should celebrate the fact that we’re not all the same. Genetics, age, running experience, injury disposition, life outside of running, and our own ambitions set the tone of our training, not what we or other athletes have done in the past. Here are some examples of how an athlete might mold his training to best fit his needs.

Problem: I’m consistently beat up, sore, and fatigued after workouts.
Solution: Break your workouts into smaller, manageable pieces. For example, instead of an eight-mile tempo run, break the workout into four x two-mile chunks with a few minutes of recovery between each repeat. Give yourself an extra day or two to recover before the next tough effort.

Problem: I feel slow.
Solution: Integrate more fast-twitch speedwork, like strides, short fartleks, and drills into your base and introductory phases of training.

Problem: I don’t have any climbing legs.
Solution: Include short, hard hill repeats into your base and introductory phases of training. Add a running-specific strength-training component that focuses on lower-body power.

Problem: I always get injured during track workouts.
Solution: Try incorporating more stamina, hill, and/or targeted strength work (focus on your injury-prone areas) in your base and introductory phases to increase your durability for the track.

Problem: I’m crushed by the competition in races with a lot of technical downhill.
Solution: Place emphasis on refining your downhill running technique during the meat of your training (read more about what downhill training entails). In the meantime, build confidence by entering an event that aligns with your running strengths.

Concept 4: Include Variation to Experience the Unfamiliar and Unexpected

How many times have you been caught off guard at an event? Race day arrives and, when pressured by fellow competitors, mountainous terrain, difficult conditions, and/or impending cutoffs, you must unexpectedly work harder or mentally suffer more. Pace- and terrain-changing workouts force us to practice shifting frequently between easy, moderate, and hard running paces and footing so that it becomes second nature after we push off from the start line. These workouts also add necessary change to routine and boost fitness. (Learn more about gear-changing workouts.)

Concept 5: Improve Your Training Components During the Next Cycle

Regularly review the components of your training. Make positive modifications by altering or eliminating counterproductive practices. Examples of game-changing fixes might include:

  • Training methods: Consider ditching your watch on easy days and running by feel, adding more trail or road racing to your schedule, or supplementing your training with cross training, bodywork, and/or strength work.
  • Training-cycle length: Lengthen and/or shorten the timing of your base, introductory, specific, and recovery phases to best jibe with your individual needs and the timing of your event.
  • Training speeds and distances: Running fast and far is difficult. Move the dial so that neither of these training requirements leaves you frequently worn out or injured.
  • Race-day nutrition: Learn what foods make you feel best and what to avoid before, during, and after workouts and races.
  • Recovery requirements: Consider all life stresses that affect your fatigue level. Integrate optimal-to-you recovery between tough workouts and seasons.

For most, running is a lifelong endeavor that comes with an immense learning curve filled with successes and failures. Learn from past mistakes, be creative, and seek alternatives so that you can continue to enjoy the sport.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How do you periodize your running year? Can you give an example of a recent year or so of your training?
  • How have you adapted the periodization process based upon your races’ specific requirements or other aspects like how you’re feeling in training?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at