The training plans of most recreational runners fall into the hit and miss approach of "I get out and run a few times a week (mostly at the same pace)." These runners make some progress over time, however they tend to find that they have higher injury rates and race performances can vary greatly. It is an approach that can be improved significantly by applying the very basics of the body's response to stress, the General Adaption syndrome first described by endocrinologist Hans Selye, and it can be greatly improved upon by using the training principles of Periodisation.
The General Adaption syndrome is made up of three stages.
- The Alarm stage - involves the initial shock of the stressor on the system (Training).
- The Resistance stage - involves the adaption to the stressor by the system. However, the body aims to over-compensate in order to protect itself from the potential reapplication of the same stressor in the near future. This is referred to as Supercompensation, and is the key to improvements in athletic performance (Recovery + Supercompensation).
- The Exhaustion stage - While recovery will occur when the systems compensation mechanisms have successfully overcome the stressor, Exhaustion occurs when compensation has been inadequate and results in a decrease in system function.
Red line = Fitness
Runners who follow the "run a few times a week" plan can improve by increasing their overall workload as their fitness and their capacity to absorb training gradually increase, however without the correct structure it is easy to find yourself training or racing too soon or too long after the previous session. If you train before you have recovered to your previous level you will be at risk of overtraining. If you train when you have reached your previous level but before or too long after supercompensation, your fitness will plateau. When you listen to your body, pay attention to your training load vs recovery and allow for supercompensation to occur before training again your running fitness will improve. This process can be seen in day to day training as well as in longer training blocks lasting weeks, which is why modulation of training is important to allow adequate recovery from a series of busy weeks.
Periodisation divides the training period into phases of training which focus on different goals or phases. Depending on what method you follow the number and names of the phases can vary. Some of these phases are: transition, base, build, strength, speed, preparation, peak, taper, competition and recovery. Periodisation can also be classified as Linear, in which the various major training stimuli (aerobic, anaerobic, strength, speed, etc.) are largely separated into different phases during the training process, or Nonlinear, in which the various major training stimuli are mixed together throughout the entire cycle and only the emphasis changes. Both Linear and Nonlinear periodisation can work well for different runners, and there is no strict rules on when or how much of the chosen training stimuli should be included at each phase.
To simplify matters a bit you can reduce the main training period into a Base phase and Specific phase. This would result in a Nonlinear Periodisation plan as the various training stimuli would be used during both phases. For some runners, such as beginners (those who have completion of an event as their main goal) or runners who have struggled with constant injuries, it is possible to have an extended Base phase (remember being Nonlinear, all training stimuli will still be used). The main benefit of this method is reduction of injury risk.
If you think of your running fitness as a currency, then the Base phase is your main job. It's what you work at most of time, relatively safe (for the sake of this argument we'll assume it's a government job) and you build up some savings (fitness). Your training in this phase would follow a slow progression in both volume, intensity and frequency, with some regular reductions to make sure you fully absorb all the training benefits (holidays). As well as endurance, you would also be adding in and progressing safe amounts of strength and speed work into this base. The key is that you pay attention to your body and keep the risks low.
If your goals are to prioritise completion and injury reduction over performance, then it is possible to stick to the types of sessions you would be doing in the Base phase for almost your entire training season (allowing for taper and recovery) - as long as you adhere to the concepts of the General Adaption syndrome by paying close attention to your body's response to training loads and allow the process of supercompensation to occur. It's important to remember that different training sessions will have different goals and the time to supercompensation may vary. Basically these people are only working on their main job to acquire running fitness currency.
For runners that are more performance orientated, the Base phase may not be enough. You may move onto a race specific phase only if you have built up sufficient savings through your Base phase (main job). The race specific phase consists of sessions that are generally at a higher risk of injury and overtraining. If the Base phase is your main job when building your running fitness income, then race specific sessions are like investments. They require some savings to be built up before use and are higher risk but also offer a higher reward. Just as with earning an income you wouldn't be making any investments if you haven't built up some savings, or if you were recently unemployed or just starting in the workforce (injured or a beginner runner). It is also important to remember that race specific training is just that... specific to the race you are training for, if you are training for a 5k be prepared for your marathon time to take a hit during this phase of training.
Do not confuse the Race specific phase with specificity, which can be safely used in the Base phase of training. If you are training for a hilly, technical race then you can do low risk progressive hilly, technical training during the Base phase to be better prepared for race day. Race specific specificity (say that three times fast) would be harder, higher risk sessions such as race pace and interval sessions on hilly, technical terrain.
The main takeaway from this analogy is that it is more important to be aware of how your body is adapting by being aware of the processes of the General Adaption syndrome and supercompensation. This process can be seen in day to day training as well as in longer training blocks lasting weeks, which is why modulation of training is important to allow adequate recovery from a series of busy weeks. Think about whether your body has made the desired changes that will allow it to safely move on to higher risk training sessions and if it hasn't then you are much better off continuing with the lower risks of the Base phase. If you feel you have made the desired changes, then by following the principles of Periodisation you can make even greater performance gains. Do not feel that you have to follow the same progression in training as everyone else. Individuals will adapt at different rates and response to the numerous types of training stimulus will vary. You should consider the risks involved, be flexible and modify the plan to meet your rate of progress. If you have worked for long enough at your main job and built up enough fitness currency (endurance, speed, strength etc) then investing in the next phase of training can result in excellent performance improvements. If on the other hand you are progressing a little slower and you may not quite have enough currency to safely invest in the next phase of training then four extra weeks of Base phase low risk training will result in better gains than one week of high risk Race specific training followed by three weeks of recovering from an injury.