How to use cycles of training to run your best

Pregnancy has reminded me that running has cycles and phases.  And in fact, it gives me comfort because I know I’m not necessarily “losing” fitness when I’m not running at my peak miles and intensity.  Each phase has an important role.

Pregnant Running

Do you plan out your running (or training) with cycles?

These are the major cycles that you should be rotating through:

1) Base building

In this phase, you are running consistently but they are mostly easy miles as you maintain fitness and conditioning and get ready to start a training program.  It should last at least four weeks, but can be longer.   This is also a great time to use MAF training (heart rate based training to build aerobic fitness over 3-4 months).

2) Training

Once you have a goal or a race on the calendar, you can plan out your training weeks.  You want about 16-20 weeks for a marathon, and 12-16 for a half marathon.  You can train for a 5k or 10k in about 10-12 weeks.

In the training phase, you are incorporating a variety of runs to improve your performance and prepare your body for the race distance.  Depending on your previous experience and whether you are a beginner or an experienced runner, this may include weekly tempo and/or speed workouts, easy paced runs, and a distance run.

Your training should build every 2-3 weeks (distance and/or intensity) and then you want to incorporate a cut back week to allow your body to recover and adapt to the demands of your training.

3) Peak Training and Taper

In the final weeks before your race, you will peak your mileage and intensity (4-6 weeks out for the marathon, 2-3 weeks out from the 5k) and then begin slowly cutting back in order to have fresh legs and run your best on race day.  Taper 2-3 weeks for a marathon and 1-2 weeks for shorter distances.

4) Recovery

Post race, you should enjoy some down time guilt free! Your body needs approximately one day for every mile raced to rebuild micro muscle tears and to repair itself from the inflammation and work of a hard racing effort.  You can ease back into running during this time, but mostly running shorter distances than in your training and at an easy pace.  When you’re recovered, you begin again at the base building stage and repeat the cycles.

Running cycles(You can also break the training phase down into cycles of strength, tempo and speed- cycles inside of cycles!)

It can be helpful to plan out your running cycles over the course of an entire year.  You can start by choosing 1-3 goal races, and then working backwards from each race to fit in each cycle of running.

Of course, you can also have multiple races mixed into a training plan on your way toward one goal race, and you can choose to do mini tapers or to use them as part of your training.

The benefits of using cycles of training includes:

  • a healthier, stronger body with careful planning
  • injury prevention from adequate build up and recovery time
  • planning your peak fitness to prepare you for best performance on race day
  • less risk of burn out mentally from planned down time
  • confidence in a “plan” so you can run with purpose

We can’t be at our “peak” all of the time.  I’m entering an extended base training phase until after this little one is born, and then I’ll pick things up again.  But even the base training can be useful in improving and maintaining fitness and endurance.

(PS- If the planning phase is overwhelming, I have a few slots left for spring running coaching.  Contact me for details!)

How many goal races do you aim for in a year?

Do you plan out your training to include base building and recovery phases?

A few related articles that might be helpful:

How often do you REST?

8 Tips for New Runners

How do you choose a training plan?


34 thoughts on “How to use cycles of training to run your best

  1. I feel like I’m finally coming out of recovery mode after Richmond. Sure, three months is longer than 26 days, but I’m blaming the horrible winter conditions for the longer recovery/hibernation! I’m looking forward to rebuilding my base and finding a spring race to train for. I love the structure and discipline a training plan requires. But I absolutely believe in the need for rest and recovery after big events.

  2. Great tips! I’m in this weird in limbo phase. I am trying to build my mileage back up but was just sick for awhile and not doing anything. I also have a race in early May but I don’t see that as one that I will truly race. Going with feeling right now rather than a calendar. I don’t want to end up injured all over again!
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  3. Great, informative post! I see so many people skipping recovery and pushing too hard for too long. This current plan I’m on doesn’t seem to have cutback weeks where I like them….if it does I hadn’t noticed. Ha!
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  4. Laura, you are so wise with your posts! This is something so many runners do not understand, and it is SO important!! I think most people think I am crazy when I talk about phases/cycles….isnt running just running?! But it is only due to my coach knowing how to cycle my training right that I have managed to run 33:24 in a 10k, and 16:08 in a 5k. Without that, I would never have got anywhere near that!

    This is such a helpful post, you will really help a lot of people become so much better!
    Tina Muir recently posted..Sweet Potato Stir FryMy Profile

  5. Awesome article, thank you! You make me even more excited to complete my RRCA training in a few weeks! I definitely train in cycles – I usually have 1 marathon or 2-3 half marathons during the fall, and again during the spring. After each of those, I take at least 1 week off of running all together, and a few additional easier weeks. It helps not only my body but also my motivation!!

  6. Thanks for the guide. I am just getting into enjoying running and I have been increasing my distance and speed. I am up to running a hour straight (which is huge for me) a 7mph. I have been keeping my runs to an hour for now, while increasing my speed. My target is 8-9mph before I increase my distance. I think I need to look for a 10k to run for my first race.
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  7. This is so true–good reminder. I am in a “run when, where and as easy or hard as I want to” phase in my running. I have too much going on with my son–he must be my focus, so racing and blogging come second. I miss having something to look forward too, and my fitness has dipped a bit, but I still feel strong and more important, I’m not stressed about yet another task I must complete in my life–if I run great, if not, I don;t feel guilty.

  8. This is good!

    I think your timeline is really good, especially for first timers. My first marathon, I trained for it in about 9 weeks, but that was just because I was working for Fleet Feet, and my base mileage was right up there where it needed to be, so I jumped right in in the middle. But a good timeline!
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  9. Thanks for sharing Laura!
    I spent a couple of weeks resting/easy running after my 26km trail run, and now I’m base building too. It is slow going as it is summer here and my HR goes up a lot quicker which is quite discouraging. I have found it helps to picture the base of that pyramid – the bigger the base, the taller the mountain!
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  10. This is a favorite of mine b/c I love most all the phases of training cycles. They have definitely served me well in the past but, I admit, I need to be better about my “recovery” phases – they are always too short b/c I want to do another race :-)

  11. Very informational Laura! I do use a training plan and I do take recovery as per the plan OR as I need it. When I start getting cranky or feel like I have lead legs, I step back. I am prone to all kids of aches and pains and would like to remain injury free. I have two goal races this year. Too many stresses me out and takes the fun out of running.
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  12. Yep – I certainly do! One of my favourite classes in University was Periodisation of Training, taught by none other than Tudor Bompa (pretty much the grandfather of periodisation). I do micro and macro cycles, with a base building phase, followed by a strength phase, then a power phase, then a taper and active recovery. Great post Laura!

  13. So much great information here Laura. Honestly, I’m so haphazard with my running, mainly because I don’t train for many races. I knew that I had to take care to plan out my training for NYC Half. This year, I’m actually running 2 half marathons (what?!) so we’ll see how all of this goes :-)
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  14. I love your approach! Base building while pregnant, with the added difficulties and weight sounds perfect. :)

    I usually have half a dozen goal races each year. I usually run 1-2 road marathons, a half, and a few 5K-10K races for time. The rest are just for fun or challenging myself at my current fitness and not building specifically for them.
    Karen recently posted..NetworksMy Profile

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