Consistent Variation: An Introduction to Periodized Training for Trail Runners!
by Sandi Nypaver and Sage Canaday
So you’ve finally entered a hilly or mountainous trail race several months down the line? Now you have to figure out how you’re going to prepare for this beast! How are you going structure your training? In this post we will outline the basics of “periodization” in a training plan and what main variables will come into play with your running schedule over the course of several months.
The basics of “periodization” simply refer to how your training changes over time. For example, instead of doing the exact same weekly runs and workouts (and mileage and vertical gain totals), you may find that in a periodized schedule that after a time frame of 4 or 6 weeks there is an emphasis shift on the types of workouts you are doing. You enter different “phases” or “blocks” of training as race day approaches.
On Strava we track our weekly metrics like total mileage, training time and vertical gain. These are all important quantitative training stress variables that influence how your body adapts and gets stronger in (hopefully) a progressive manner. Something you must be very aware of while training for a trail race with a significant amount climbing vs. a flat road race is the addition of weekly elevation gain/loss. Even on easy days, most people find their heart rate is higher when going uphill compared to running easy on a flat surface. Additionally, there’s the added stress of downhill running, especially when trying to run downhills at a good clip. All of this means that it’s important to consider that you may have to reduce the amount of hard workouts you do - or have more time between quality workouts compared to when you’re training for a flat race. As we like to preach at Sage Running, put your ego aside and actually listen to your body!
When you begin your hilly or mountainous race training you may start off by steadily building your weekly mileage totals and vertical gain totals at relatively low intensities or just “easy paced” running. The stress in this kind of “aerobic base building phase” comes from slowly increasing volume (time on feet, but also mileage) and slowly climbing uphills. In this type of cycle it is usually important to still have some sort of hilly Long Run (or Longer Run) perhaps on the weekend. We look at Strava data for race event profiles to figure out how much climbing a race may have relative to its distance and what percent grade the hills may be. For your Long Runs, you want to try to mimic the steepness (percent grade) and elevation profile of your target race. Some races start out flat and then climb, others may have several transitions of rolling uphills and downhills all in a row. Try to mimic the the terrain and grade of the hills in your Long Runs!
After that first 6-8 weeks you could enter a “new phase” of training and your weekly mileage totals won’t increase anymore as you have hit your maximum volume. Instead, now we can add a new training variable like higher intensity workouts. An example here would be adding in hard workouts like targeted Hill Repeat sessions once a week. With higher intensity workouts like this you are changing the training stress and developing muscular and aerobic power. This is all part of the “consistent variation.” You are still being consistent with your high mileage and climbing totals, but now you are also doing some climbs at faster paces and spiking your heart rate to higher levels!
So with this example there is a shift in the training emphasis from running low intensity miles and doing “easy uphill climbing and long runs” to having an interval session of high intensity once a week. There may still be an element of a Long Run once a week as well in this training phase too. Future high intensity workouts could also eventually be in the schedule like an all-uphill tempo run, and long rolling hill runs where you practice transitioning from downhills to uphills and vice versa. There could even be some even short (i.e. 30-60 second) hill sprints thrown in there as well!
To list all the training variables and intricirites of a periodized training plan is beyond the scope of this article, however we hope this gives you a general idea of how periodization works in its application to trail-mountain running and training
Thanks for reading and following along on Strava!
Coach Sandi and Sage