How to Use Periodization Training in your Cardio Workout

There are many potential stumbling blocks that may pop up as you pursue your fitness goals. Plateaus, overuse injuries and even plain old boredom can all slow your progress and eventually impede your performance in competitive events.

A common piece of wisdom, heard in gyms all around the world, says that variety is the key to avoiding these pitfalls, and periodization training provides an organized way to inject that variety into your workouts. This can appear difficult for endurance athletes, whose chosen activities(such as running or cycling) seemingly leave little room for changes. But periodization can be utilized in even these sports to round out your training and keep you engaged.

What is Periodization Training?

Periodization training is, in the most basic terms, a goal-oriented training program. It works by dividing your athletic season into a series of cycles, the largest of which is the “macrocycle,” which will typically end with your event. For example, a marathon runner will set his race as the end of his macrocycle, and divide the months leading up to the race into smaller training blocks called “mesocycles.” Each of these mesocycles will ideally focus on a different skill needed in your sport, such as speed, strength and endurance. An active rest cycle is generally incorporated as the last phase before the event in order to prevent exhaustion. This use of cycles allows you to focus on several smaller objectives that together will lead you, step by step, to your larger goal.

Periodization for Endurance Athletes

We don’t always think of cardiovascular exercise in its most detailed terms. Many people who decide to train for a race, for example, will simply run. They may focus on increasing speed or distance, but rarely use a standardized approach. Strength training is sometimes totally overlooked. The truth is that all of these components work together to finally carry you across the finish line, and by working on each one individually, you can build a more complete cardiovascular unit.

While the exact construction and length of your mesocycles will vary based on your personal training schedule and sport, we’ll consider a 6-month macrocycle for runners as an example of periodization training.

Example Program

Mesocycle 1 – Active Rest (3-4 weeks)

Because this first cycle is typically either coming after your last race or a period of inactivity, it’s important to start slowly. This active rest period will keep you moving while giving your running muscles a break. Cross-train with light cycling or swimming. Small amounts of jogging are allowed, but try to spread them out, and don’t push yourself. Even household chores like yard work can be used to fill in this cycle. The goal is to build and maintain a healthy cardiovascular base while not exhausting your muscles.

Mesocycle 2 – Endurance (8-12 weeks)

At this stage, your real training begins. Focus on long, steady runs with a focus on volume. Tempo runs or slow intervals can also be used for variety, but be careful not to focus on your time. Your goal in this cycle is to build an endurance base; you’ll improve your speed later.

Mesocycle 3 – Strength (6-8 weeks)

During this cycle, use hill runs to increase the strength in your key muscle groups. Schedule faster intervals and more difficult tempo runs. Your focus should  be on increasing your intensity while maintaining the same mileage.

Mesocycle 4 – Speed (4-6 weeks)

Continue to use more intense tempo and interval runs during this phase, while lowering your total mileage. Adequate rest is vital during speed training so that, even when fully exerting yourself, you maintain good form and allow your muscles time to recover. Your concentration now should be on increasing your speed and decreasing your time.

Mesocycle 5 – Competition

By now, race season has arrived. The length of this period will depend on how many races you plan on running, but it will typically last between four to six weeks. Run early in the week using a high-intensity, low-distance formula so that you can fully recover by race day. At this point, you should be able to give the race your maximum effort.

Periodization training can take some time at first, as you lay out a long-term schedule, but the benefits will be well worth the extra effort.

Have you using periodization in your cardiovascular routine? Do you have any tips to share?