I think an important part of achieving success is understanding the methods behind the process - knowing the "why", instead of just going through the motions. Understanding the anatomy of your training cycle and training year is at the top of that list.
I recently made a video detailing the broader picture of periodization and a full training year. This article is focused on the structure of a single training block - meaning your build up from your last goal-race and recovery cycle to your next goal race. While you can, and should, plan multiple races in a season - typically we're choosing one event as your goal-race and the primary focus of your training.
A training block, or season, can last anywhere from 9-12 weeks for half marathon distances or less - or 20-25 weeks for marathon or longer. The duration of your training cycle depends on your current fitness and experience, as well as your goal for the race and the time available to us. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, that's why you have a coach - to help design the right plan for YOU and your experience, fitness, and goals!
We begin your training cycle with a "base training" phase. Our primary goal during this phase is to establish a consistent stress/rest routine on your body as well as a schedule. This doesn't mean you're just running the same thing every day - in your base training, we build your total running volume, but also include a good variety of strides, hills, and short speed workouts. We generally start with a focus on work that builds your fitness, but isn't necessarily specific to your goal race.
As we progress, you will see increases in both total mileage AND time at intensity - sometimes building both together and sometimes building one OR the other in a given week. (Again, this is individual to the athlete.)
The "10% Rule" is a well-known concept for building volume - BUT, it's actually outdated and not useful for 99% of runners. For an example - a beginning runner may start with 7-8 miles per week across 2-4 workouts per week. Adding one single mile in the next week would go above the "10% rule". Similarly, a more experienced runner who is moving from a recovery block into base training, or building throughout base training, is generally capable of building volume more quickly, safely. Rather than focus on an arbitrary number rule, we focus on how YOUR body is responding to YOUR training, your history and durability, and build in accordance with YOUR fitness.
It's also important to note that a training cycle is NEVER a continuous build. We include regular recovery DAYS and WEEKS, even in your base training, to make sure your body is able to adapt to the workload. PROGRESS does not come from building work upon work upon work. PROGRESS is a CYCLE of stress+rest. Every stimulus (workout) creates intentional-damage on your musculoskeletal system; when this damage HEALS, you've built a strong, faster, more durable product. We call this the "supercompensation effect". But if you only add stress upon stress upon stress, without the recovery, your body will only break down over time. If you don't give your body the recovery it needs, it will force you to - via overtraining syndrome, illness, or injury.
It's common, especially early in a training cycle, for athletes to view a recovery week as a punishment - thinking the mileage and intensity steps down because they aren't doing enough. In fact it's the opposite - it's a reward for productive training, and an assurance that your training STAYS productive.
As we progress through your cycle, the workouts and the overall load becomes gradually more specific to your goal. Your peak training phase (generally 6-10 weeks out from your goal event) contains the most race-specific work. In addition to workouts that test and mimic race pacing, this is also an important time to seek out running routes that are most similar to the terrain and variation of your goal race. It's also the best time to be practicing race-specific fueling and hydration. Keep these things in mind - so that we aren't only training your muscles, but your stomach, your metabolic systems, and your routines. Ideally, when you get to race day, you're already fully comfortable in your pre-run prep and hydration/fueling needs.
The second to last phase is your taper - the 1-4 weeks (depending on the race, training intensity, and athlete) prior to your goal race where total training load gradually decreases, and rest and a recovery time increases. In this time, mileage will go down - and while we want to MAINTAIN intensity to maintain fitness, your TIME at intensity will decrease.
Race day - we all know what this is. One single day where we expect and hope that all of the work you've put in will align at exactly the right time for a peak performance. There is a LOT that you can do to control the atmosphere here (such as practicing those routines for sleep, fueling on and off the run, hydration, apparel and shoes, as well as tapering appropriately), and there's a LOT that you can't control (weather being at the forefront). It's important to remember that in this entire 9-25 week cycle, your race is ONE single day among them. Heck maybe it's only even an hour, or a couple hours, out of all of that time. It's not the absolute measure of your fitness and progress. And it's not a measure of your worth or value.
Personal Records (PRs) are just that, the fastest you have EVER run a particular distance in your LIFE. They are not common, you won't hit a PR every time, no matter how perfectly you train - and they're even more rare the longer that you've been running.
Please always, always, always remember that running is about the journey, not the result. When you MISS your goal on one day, you have NOT lost or wasted all of the fitness that you gained in 180 days leading up the one day. Your fitness builds week to week, month to month, cycle to cycle, AND most importantly, year to year.
RECOVERY is the last phase of the training cycle, and it is KEY for that cycle to cycle and year to year long term progress. In this phase, we include more total rest and less total volume and intensity. This is a key opportunity for your body to heal, and your BRAIN to rest. You will, and you absolutely SHOULD, lose some fitness.
Peak-fitness is NOT a permanent state. It's a peak. You can plan recovery, or your body will ultimately force you to (again, via overtraining, illness, or injury).
It's important to note that while you do lose SOME fitness, it's minor. You're not losing everything you've built in the full training cycle. When we begin your next base-training phase, we're beginning from a higher point than where we began your LAST base training phase. We're raising your floor from cycle to cycle, and ultimately raising the ceiling from peak to peak.
Ideally, we want to be planning your goal-race schedule at least one year in advance, so that we can make sure you're getting an adequate recovery block between training cycles, and not grouping goal-races too close together - stifling your peak potential.
Progress is a long term commitment, and ideally for this reason, I hope to have long-term coach/athlete relationships. We get better acquainted with each and every training cycle in terms of what your brain and body can and can't handle, and lessons learned and applied. Remember that we are a team. This is a relationship, not a dictatorship, and you play a valuable role in your planning! Ask questions and share opinions so that together we can work toward your next best!