I just finished my last training cycle of the year which culminated with the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile race on December 5, 2015. The race went really well, especially considering it was my first 50 mile race, and I attribute the success of the race to my training plan. I used a 5 month build-up plan to prepare myself for the farthest distance I have ever run, but training is not merely a steady build up of mileage to prepare for a race. You need to build in periods of rest and intensity in order to properly allow the body to adapt to the stresses you are putting it through.
After the race I was approached by a few of the people in my running club to help them set up training plans for 2016. I was eager to help them as I miss putting together progressive training programs for enthusiastic and determined runners. Admittedly, it has been at least 8 years since I’ve put together a training plan for runners (high school coaching), and even longer since I’ve customized training plans for specific runner’s goals and abilities. I needed to dust off the old coaching stopwatch and get back to basics, which is the impetus for this article.
A lot of folks train themselves. Sometimes they Google a training plan for their distance and follow that. Sometimes they just run farther in a hopes it will prepare them for the race. Sometimes people run faster in hopes that it will help them achieve their goal. None of these approaches are wrong per-se, but to truly prepare oneself to achieve the goal they are shooting for requires customization of a training plan to suit their strengths, and address their weaknesses.
So What Is a Training Cycle?
A training cycle is a period of time that an athlete dedicates to preparing their body for a target competition. For some, this may be a full calendar year. For some it’s a season (cross-country, basketball, bowling, etc.). For some Olympic level track athletes, a training cycle could be as long as 2 years. You could consider a high school or college running career of 4 years to be a single training cycle. It all depends on where the athlete is today, and where they want their fitness to be when they toe the line at their target competition.
“12 months? 2 years? 4 years? Seems like a long time.” I know. It is. But these training cycles are broken into smaller components that focus on improving specific aspects of the athlete. Since this site primarily focuses on running really far distances, we’re going to use ultramarathoners in the examples. Understand, though, that these are sports medicine principles that are applied to all sports, from hockey to skiing to curling and beyond. You don’t need to be targeting a 50k, 50 mile or 100 mile race to use this training structure, it’s just as applicable to someone looking to lower their 5k or 10k, or looking to run their first half or full marathon. Hell, this structure can be applied to life in order to finally hit that 5-year goal of yours.
Breaking Down a Training Cycle
I like to use the analogy of a road trip to explain the concept of a training cycle. The destination of your road trip is your goal (time, distance, whatever). The training cycle is your plan to get there. If the road trip is long enough, you will need to break it up into manageable sections. Let’s say you’re driving from New York to L.A., this will help us understand the segments of a training cycle better.
You obviously can’t drive straight through from New York to L.A., you need to break it into pieces with stops along the way. Maybe you want to check out some points of interest as you go along, that’s fine, who’s to say what’s the right and wrong way to approach your road trip. Right? You probably want to hit major cities along the way to stay on schedule. Nashville by the end of the first week, Denver by the seond, Vegas by the third… These are your Macrocycles.
Within each of these stretches you need to drive a certain amount per day to stay on schedule. Dividing the distance by days to reach Nashville, or Nashville to Denver, or Denver to Vegas, will give you the average daily distance you need to cover. These are your Mesocycles.
But as you travel through cities along your trip, you know there are certain points of interest you want to hit: museums, National Parks, landmarks and the such. You need to plan for these detours in order to hit your goal of arriving in L.A. at the set date. These are you Microcycles.
Bringing It Back To Running
Hopefully the anology made some sense. If not, here’s the straight application to running…
Most people have one or two training cycles per year. This is usually based around one or two target races they want to crush. Maybe it’s a Boston qualifier and then the Boston Marathon. Maybe it’s testing a new distance and then a farther distance again (this is my situation). Training cycles for these situations usually last about 6 months on average. Within each of these training cycles you will find Macrocycles, Mesocycles, and Microcycles that all help to keep the work being done relevant to the goal.
I’ll write another post about setting goals, which will help you understand the long-term effects of endurance training and how these cycles apply.
A Macrocycle is the longest period of a training cycle. Macrocycles can last from 2-12 months with the goal of improving a specific area of fitness (aerobic endurance, hill strength, lactate threshold, etc.). Macrocycles should move from general fitness (strength and endurance work) to specific fitness (workouts tailored to your race distance) in order to move you closer to your goal.
Objectives of Macrocyles should be high-level: improve aerobic endurance, improve lactate threshold, increase leg strength, increase leg speed. This singular objective of the Macrocycle informs the Mesocycle and Microcycle training plans.
A Mesocycle is the medium length period of a training cycle. Mesocycles should last about 2-4 weeks with the goal of improving a specific area of fitness (endurance, speed, strength, etc.). An athlete should see quantifiable improvements in fitness after a successful, or series of successful Mesocycles. Mesocycles should be specific to the area of fitness that they are trying to improve.
Objectives of Mesocycles should be specific and measurable (qualitative and quantitative). Based on the Macrocycle that the Mesocycle lives in will dictate the kinds of workouts that completed during this training phase. Runners generally see the most measurable improvements after Mesocycles have completed.
A Microcycle is the smallest period of a training cycle (apart from a daily workout). Microcycles usually span 7-14 days with the goal of managing short-term effort. Athletes will usually have 3-5 “hard days” during a Mircocycle (again, focusing on the goal of the Macrocycle) broken up with rest days. Microcycles help athletes manage their workload both physically and mentally as they push their bodies to new limits.
Objectives of Microcycles should be to keep athletes healthy. Athletes that break down (get sick or injured) with 4 hard workouts per Microcycle should be dropped to 3. Microcycles will often be repetitive for 3-4 weeks in order to achieve the goal of the Mesocycle, in turn building toward the goal of the Macrocycle.
So What Does It All Look Like?
Good question. I gave you a ton of theory around training, and now I want to give you some practical application of these principles. Below is my 50 mile race build up. The Macrocycle was 5 months focusing on improving aerobic endurance and hill strength. Mesocycles usually were 4 weeks: 3 build weeks, 1 rest week. Microcycles were consistent throughout with a longer, shorter, longer on Tuesday through Thursday. I rested completely on Monday on Friday to bookend back-to-back long runs on the weekend. I did not try to train for speed or anaerobic systems during this training cycle.
You can see my 50 mile build up here: http://bit.ly/50-mile-training-plan
Things To Consider:
- Macrocycles can focus on more than one goal. Aerobic endurance and hill strength tend to go well together, but even when you’re goal is improving speed you need to include a long aerobic run into your Microcycles.
- Mesocycles are the most effective training blocks. You should repeat the same Microcycles during a Mesocycle to see the most improvement. For accelerated training cycles (my race is in 10 weeks!) you can build weekly mileage Microcycle over Microcycle, but it’s essential to include a rest week where you drop mileage to the same level you started.
- 4 week Mesocycle: 1st Micro: 38 miles, 2nd Micro: 43 miles, 3rd Micro: 48 miles, 4th Micro: 38 miles
- Listen to your body. If your body is beat up half way through a Mesocycle, rest. It’s better to forfeit a workout or long-run than to risk injury. Your body will not lie to you, listen to it.
- You will feel crappy during a taper, this is guaranteed. I had no injury issues in my build up to the 50 miler, but as soon as I started tapering my knees hurt, my foot felt broken, and my achilles felt like it was about to tear away from my heel. I felt nothing but good on race day. Don’t panic.
- Be honest with yourself. If your goal is break 6 hours in a 50k and you’re at 7:30 and struggling with the pace during training runs, readjust your goals. It’s better to feel positive going into a race than terrified of the possibly unattainable goal you’ve set for yourself.