“Think Big! Dream Big!“
We are bombarded with feel-good motivations like this, and yet, sadly, we often fall by the wayside in striving to reach our dreams and goals.
The most unfortunate creature is the runner who has put heart and soul into her training, yet is doomed to failure due to a lack of planning and not understanding the key role that periodisation plays.
Planning and periodisation are the glue that keep your dreams alive and enable you to work systematically towards achieving your goal.
Back in the early 1980s, I vaguely understood the need for a Master Plan and I charted it on graph paper pasted to my wall (this was long before I owned a computer). My plan was breathtakingly simple. I had a clear goal – a sub-six hour at Comrades – with weekly mileages starting at 160km per week in January and increasing to 200km per week in April for a total of 3,200km from January.
But my Master Plan was also breathtakingly naïve. It did not allow for rest if I had races, worked late, was sick, tired, or travelled.
However, I followed this master plan religiously, hitting my mileage targets. By April I was flying and ran a 3h06min at the Loskop 50km, to finish sixth. But by Comrades I was a shadow of myself, and bailed on my goal race.
The Comrades Syndrome
It takes about five months to prepare properly for a 100km or 100 miler. And that is provided a runner is already fit enough at the start of this training phase to run a 21km comfortably and has run a marathon before. But with the boom in ultras, runners often underestimate the training needed to do an ultra and this is a recipe for disaster. I call it the Comrades Syndrome. After Comrades every year, runners who have no idea of the demands of the race and the training that is needed, ask to be coached for the famous ultra. They see thousands of runners on the live TV broadcast doing it, and underestimate just tough training for it is, and how tough the race is. I suggest they rather build up to it over a two-year period and be patient. And the same applies to ultra trails.
Enter the term periodisation (we coaches like using a plethora of fancy terms for things that are often quite simple). Periodisation is just a term for what we used to call the running season. To use periodisation, we sit down and plan our key races, dividing the year into seasons.
An Olympic athlete may have a four-year periodisation plan, building up each year to bigger goals until she gets to the Olympics (see more about step-progress further on).
A one-year periodisation plan can be broken down into seasons, and then into further micro-training phases of weeks or even days. But it all starts with the overall periodisation plan.
Two seasons a year
This works for those running longer races such as marathons or ultra marathons where a runner plans for a big race in the first half of the year and a big race in the second half of the year.
This allows sufficient time to build up to a big race, with a recovery phase after a race, before the build-up again begins for the next race.
A good example is a runner who does Ultra-Trail Drakensberg in the first half of the year, followed by a rest phase, and then builds up again to run the 100km SkyRun or 100km Ultra-trail Cape Town. This is then followed by a rest phase and the periodisation cycle starts again the following year.
The recent explosion of ultra trails – especially 100 milers – in South Africa, brings with it the danger of runners attempting to run too many ultras in a year or attempting one before they are ready to tackle an ultra.
A good rule of thumb is a maximum of two 80-100km trail races in a year, with at least five months between the two races or one 100km and one 100 miler with at least five months between them. Running two 100 milers in a year is extraordinarily damaging, and yet I have heard of runners who plan to do a number of 100 milers in a year.
This is better suited to those doing shorter races of 10km to 30km as it allows for more peaks in the year. The training build-up is shorter and the recovery after racing is quicker, as these races are much less damaging (unless it’s a race with extreme vertical ascent and descent).
It is trickier planning for multiple peaks in a year than for the two-season approach. In effect, what will happen is that a runner will remain at a high level for a few months, racing once or twice a month, with a short taper before and short recovery phase after races. But even so, it would still be wise to plan the year around the first half and second half with a rest phase between.
The danger with a multi-season approach is that a runner may forget to take a rest phase and then burn out later in the year, becoming stale and injured.
Progress is in steps
A common misunderstanding by runners is that they think improvement in their running should be linear. They expect to run faster each week or each month, but this doesn’t happen, leading to frustration and possibly injuries as the runner keeps trying harder. Physiological changes from training take time.
A runner who is training optimally can expect to reach her potential after about four years of hard training, after which progress will plateau and she will remain at that level for about a decade (see my article on this in TRAIL 30).
When we train hard, we stress our bodies, and it takes a while for the body to become stronger and adjust to the training load. In the short-term, a runner may actually become slower as she is fatigued and ‘running tired’. It is tempting to then give up, but provided your training is well balanced with sufficient recovery, the improvement will be seen over a period of time.
And then, suddenly, the training benefit kicks in, and the runner is at a higher level and running faster or longer. Once at this new level, the runner will again stay at that level for a while, before taking the next step up in performance.
The question then is how long does it take to move up to the next step? This varies from runner to runner, depending on their training and whether a runner is a fast responder or a slow responder (another fancy coaching term, which simply means whether a runner is talented or not).
A fast responder is a talented runner, who will respond well to changes in training and improve quickly. I used to coach a runner who was insanely talented, and I joked that if I just looked at her, she ran faster!
A slow responder is a less talented runner, and it takes longer for the training benefit to be seen in their running. It is these runners who may become frustrated, since they will remain on the same step for much longer before reaching the next step. But their persistence will pay off, provided they keep training and understand the need for patience.
Upward and onwards
This is where periodisation becomes exciting. Once a runner understands this sling-shot process, she can plan for continual progress over a few years until she reaches her potential.
Let’s use a two-season a year periodisation plan to demonstrate this with a hypothetical runner. This runner (let’s call her Sue) starts the year able to run 10km at the most, and her best 10km pace is around 7min/km.
Sue does the first half of the year as her first season, and builds up to running 15km comfortably. Her best 10km pace improves to 6.30min/km. This season is followed by a two to three week rest phase.
Sue therefore starts the second half of the year (after her rest phase) at a higher level than she was at the start of the year. In other words, her baseline level of fitness is higher. In this second half of the year, Sue builds on what she did earlier in the year, and at the end of the year can now run 21km comfortably and her best 10km pace has dropped to 6min/km. This season is again followed by a two to three week rest phase.
Sue starts year two at a higher level than at the start of her second season in year one. At the end of this season, Sue can now run 30km comfortably and her best pace for a 10km has dropped to 5.30min/km. This is followed by a two to three week rest phase.
Sue starts the second half of the year again at a higher level, and at the end of the year can now run a marathon, and her best 10km pace has improved to 5min/km. This is again followed by a rest phase of two to three weeks.
As Sue starts to approach her potential, two things occur. Firstly, her improvement in pace becomes more gradual, and secondly her ability to run longer distances improves exponentially. So, at the end of her first season for the year, Sue has improved her best 10km pace by just 15sec/km so it is now 4.45min/km. But with all the mileage in her legs she is able to increase her longest run to 50km.
Sue then does the second half of the season and her best 10km pace improves by 10sec/km to 4.35min/km and she is able to do a race of 80km.
This is followed by a rest phase of two to three weeks.
Sue starts the year already close to her potential and ends it at her potential.
At the end of the first half of the year, Sue’s best 10km pace is now 4.30min/km and she is now able to do a race of 100km.
In the second half of the year, Sue’s best 10km pace is 4.28min/km and she can run a race of 160km.
By using periodisation and the step method, we not only avoid becoming over-trained and stale, but can reach our potential, and dream big. An ultra marathon may be unimaginable now, but using these methods a runner can do amazing things and the world of trail running becomes our oyster.