Running Periodization: It Isn’t Rocket Science

How to periodize your trail running and ultramarathon training.

By on March 5, 2024 | 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 or her optimal fitness level by race day and lowering the risk of injury or burnout.

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

Trail runner on West Matukituki Track

Meghan Hicks of iRunFar training in New Zealand. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

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 these 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 races 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 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 outings in the mountains and, perhaps, back-to-back long 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 as well as expose equipment, pacing, or nutrition and hydration flaws.

The final week or three of the specific phase focuses on a pre-race taper (or sharpening period), when 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 completely off.

Ciele W DBSShort - Elite - feature

iRunFar’s Alli Hartz getting in some faster running ahead of racing the Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

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 one-and-a-half- to three-month specific phase of training.

Adding too much specific training before this window can lead to burnout, overtraining, and injury. However, as important as specificity is, be sure to sprinkle in workouts that you’re good at to build confidence as race day approaches.

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 her training to best fit her 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 separate 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. Be sure you’re not training too aggressively on your easy and recovery days. Use a heart rate monitor or good friend to keep you in check.

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

Problem: I don’t have any climbing legs.
Solution: Include hard hill repeats or sustained weighted uphill hiking 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 speedy workouts.
Solution: If speedy runs continually produces injury, don’t do them. Instead incorporate stamina, hill, or targeted strength work that focuses on your injury-prone areas in your base and introductory phases to increase your durability over the long run.

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.

Jared Hazen running fast at the 2019 Western States 100.

Jared Hazen running fast at the 2019 Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

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, 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, or strength work.
  • Training-cycle length: Lengthen 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

  • 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?

[Editor’s Note: As one of iRunFar’s best training articles, we’ve worked with author Ian Torrence to update this article before resharing it.]

San Juan Mountains fall running - Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell of iRunFar training in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

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