Periodization to Varied Training

In my last race report, I hinted that I would be elaborating on some of my recent training ideas.  This isn’t exactly a new idea for me– it’s just particularly acute for me this time of year.  Add to that a suggestion from a friend, a recent post by Joe Friel, and my desire to simplify my training routine and voilà, I have the foundation for a new training regimen.  I can’t quite say that this is the best training philosophy ever, but it is the one that will be guiding my training for 2016.  Read on if you would like to shake things up a bit as well.


I first started thinking about this idea on Tuesday, March 8 at about 7:30 pm.  I had just finished a really tough set of 4 x 1 mile repeats at about 18 seconds per mile faster than my recent 5K race (in other words, around 6:28 per mile).  I remember being a bit disappointed in my performance because it was about 5 seconds slower than my last workout and I was feeling really tired running the workout.  I had created a build over the last five weeks to get me to this point was feeling quite ambivalent going into the workout.  In short, I was hitting a mental (and possibly physical) plateau.

Plateau Busting and Speedsters

tired runnerI contacted my buddy Mark down in Adelaide.  He suggested a nice hearty set of maxVO2 intervals.  This made perfect sense to me as I’ve been a fan of working on a variety of energy systems.  Steve Magness always emphasized it so it had to be good.  My friend pointed me to a post by Hunter Allen for busting out of an FTP plateau by engaging in a eight-week intensive max VO2 focused training program.  “Good grief,” I thought, “I’ll surely plateau on the program designed to bust my plateau!”

In general, I’ve found that I peak really quickly for races.  For instance, it takes me relatively little time to build volume in either high or lower intensity work– but then I have a relatively short window in which to use that  volume or I start to burn out on it.  This happened a few years back when training for Powerman Zofingen.  That legendary race was about three times longer than any duathlon I’ve ever done.  To get ready for it, I had to build my long runs up to about 16 miles and get a regular dose of 80-mile training rides.  That took about 2 months of solid effort, but then I found myself super strong and ready to go about 2 months before the event.  The next two months keeping up and refining that volume was utter hell and I’m certain now that I only became slower in the process.  I’ve heard from several sources that this isn’t atypical for a fast-twitch dominant athlete– we peak a bit more quickly and then need to move on quickly to something else.

So my Tuesday night experience got me thinking that I just needed to pepper my longer speed training with an occasional “pick me up” in the form of hill training and some Tabata intervals.

Varied Training for Older Athletes

… and then I came across Joe Friel’s article about mixed training.  The basic point of the article is that the decline in anaerobic capacity (read: speed) is faster than the speed at which we lose endurance fitness.  This means that, if you want to be a speedy old person, you have to work more on the speed component than your younger competitor.  Along with hair loss, weight gain, and incontinence, we have to worry about speed training too?  Sadly, the answer is yes– we shouldn’t spend long periods of time focusing on developing aerobic abilities without a good mix of hard anaerobic training.  While I sometimes find myself disagreeing with Joe, this time his advice rang very true to me.

Combining these two thoughts means that all training needs a good amount of variety in training stimuli.  Apart from the obvious example of not focusing only on workouts at FTP effort or slower, even faster workouts need some variety.

So How Does this Work in Practice: Alternate with “Variety Week” Workouts

Tuesdays are usually my days for hard track running.  For the last five weeks, I have been building up to a set of hard mile repeats.  These are all run fast– probably about 25 to 30 seconds per mile off of maxVO2 pace.  But even a steady diet of this kind of workout needs some variety.  So, instead of focusing only on mile repeats during my build, I’m going to add in much faster shorter work on the alternate weeks.  Every other Tuesday, I’ll spend my track workout focused on harder efforts.  Or maybe I’ll spend a workout doing hill repeats or Tabatas on a treadmill.  This should give some variety to my workouts and make that those mile repeats a bit more bearable.

Oddly enough, I recently also did the same thing on my bike workouts.  Every Sunday, our team meets for a hard session of indoor FTP training.  While so much focus on lactate threshold training squarely violates the principles of polarized training, I’m less concerned about polarized training in cycling than in running.  On the bike, I’ve heard so many people complain about being a “mental midget” on the bike that a few weeks of 2 x 20 minutes at FTP should solve any problems of power on the bike.  Well, we just hit 2 x 20 minutes last weekend– and the prospect of endless weeks of this was simply soul crushing.  So instead, we are alternating weeks FTP work with two higher intensity workouts.  The first is 4 x 8 minutes at pretty much the highest sustainable intensity.  I’ve mentioned this workout before as a particularly effective workout.  The second workout is 12 x 30 seconds at maxVO2 on 15 seconds recovery.  Joe Friel highlighted this Tabata-like workout that Norwegian researchers found particularly effective for cyclists.

Perfectly Consistent with Polarized Training

As long-time readers of the Athletic Time Machine will know, I’m a big fan of polarized training plans.  Incorporating higher and varied intensity is consistent with a polarized training plan.  These hard workouts only take place once a week per sport.  That leaves at least 5-6 other days for gentler workouts.  In fact, I’m finding that I’m getting faster by making my recovery and longer workouts slower (the subject of my next post).  So, if anything, my training is becoming more polarized.

What about Periodization?

Even longer time readers of the Athletic Time Machine will know that I’m also a big fan of periodization.  But as I explained in a long-ago post, I’m not a fan of Lydiard based periodization models.  I think these really only work for slow-twitch dominant athletes while encouraging injury and burnout in other kinds of runners.  Instead, I subscribe to Steve Magness’s ideas about a “funnel periodization” in which workouts become more and more specific as the race approaches.

If you’ve noticed how the higher intensity workouts fit into the overall training strategy above, only half of the speed workouts include the higher intensity “variety” workouts.  The other half is where the specificity occurs.  One way to think of it is that the periodization still funnels to the demands of the race– it’s just that the funnel is a touch wider for older athletes and needs to include some higher intensity work.

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