Whether you’re running a marathon or competing in a triathlon, chances are you’ll be training for six to 12 months — just enough time to succumb to mental and physical fatigue and possibly even injury. But thanks to macrocycle training, you can take things slow and steady and properly recover throughout the year (yay for rest days!).
Macrocycle training — aka periodization — is a year-long training plan that’s broken down into four quarters. Many pro athletes follow the concept, says Marni Sumbal, sports dietitian and triathlete coach, but even newbie competitors can hop on the plan. Each quarter “allows for a smooth progression of skills, strength, endurance, power and speed. And, each quarter includes specific sharpening or taper to help the body prepare for an event,” says Sumbal.
Another reason it’s so popular: Periodization proves that, even if you’re training all year long, you can avoid feeling burnt out, Sumbal says.
How Macrocycle Training Works
When you break down a training plan into four quarters, you focus on improving one aspect of fitness at a time. That can be anything from mastering the basics to improving your strength and endurance, or really revving the engines to see how far you can push your limits. It’s a smart training strategy regardless of competition level. “Periodization is built off the individual needs of each athlete,” says Sumbal.
That means factoring in your personal strengths and weaknesses — and working around your schedule, too. “Everyone progresses differently, whether it’s because of injuries, life circumstances, motivation, timing of races or individual fitness goals,” says Sumbal. The plan your workout BFF is following isn’t necessarily the best one for you — even if you’re competing in the same race. Sumbal suggests working with a coach to develop a plan specifically for you.
Avoiding injury and burnout aren’t the only benefits of macrocycle training, either. Since it’s based on adjusting volume, intensity and frequency to the timing of your important races, Sumbal says periodization can lead to a ton of fitness gains. For one, you’ll improve your neuromuscular firing (aka your brain telling your body what to do and those muscles actually doing it). You’ll also hone technical skills, increase endurance, and build stamina, resilience, power, speed and strength. Periodization can also prevent overtraining for the average athlete. “You’re practicing slow and steady development so that training volume and intensity doesn’t increase too quickly,” she explains. By allowing your body to gradually adjust to the different levels of intensity, it helps build endurance. “This way the body can adapt slowly, which also helps the athlete build confidence for race day. You’re less likely to experience setbacks throughout your training,” she says.
Your Periodization Training Plan
Ready to give macrocycle training a try? Check out the following six-month sample plan, which Sumbal developed for Olympic-distance triathlon training. You can tailor it to fit your race schedule with the help of a fitness coach, but consider this your jumping off point!
Building the Foundation: Weeks 1-8 (Months 1-2)
Now’s the time to focus on strength, strength, strength, says Sumbal. Building strength will help hone your neuromuscular firing and retrain motor patterns. Strength training also helps fix any weaknesses in form, posture or mobility. Not sure what to do? Here’s a great guide to get you started, along with tips for training for three sports at once.
When you’re not lifting heavy things (and putting them down), Sumbal says focusing on your triathlon skills and building resilience are top priorities. In other words, have a swim coach analyze your stroke, make sure you know how to change that flat tire, and see how you can improve your running form.
Improving Strength and Endurance: Weeks 8-16 (Months 3-4)
Keep up with your strength training routine, but add in more dynamic cardio workouts so you’re building endurance at the same time, says Sumbal. For example: “Doing high-cadence drills on your bike, hill running and incorporating paddles and ankle straps in the pool,” she says. (By now, these beginner swimming mistakes should be a thing of the past.) And if you haven’t been working on mental training, hop to it. Being able to stay strong mentally when workouts feel physically tough is half the battle.
Increasing Sustained Power: Weeks 16-20 (Month 5)
With four months down and two to go, it’s time to scale back on strength training. Sumbal says your weekly routine should be limited to one day of plyometrics and one day of mobility. She also recommends high-intensity workouts that are coupled with low-impact recovery sessions to bridge one workout to the next. Don’t freak if you feel sore AF in this month, either. “There is more residual fatigue and soreness in this phase, but that’s why the phase is short,” Sumbal notes. “By this point you should be feeling fit, strong and building confidence for race day.” (Oh, and make sure you’re doing these foam rolling moves to help ease that soreness.)
Race Prep: Weeks 20-22 (Month 6)
You’re officially in race month, so for the first two weeks, you’ll want to zero in on your nutrition strategy and how you want to pace yourself for the entirety of your race. Be sure to also double-check that those mental skills are on point (visualization is a helpful tactic for many athletes), says Sumbal. As for strength training, “You should be focused on mobility and maintain good core and glute strength.” Think: Squats, lunges and plank variations.
Taper Time: Weeks 22-24 (Month 6)
With only two weeks to go, you’ll want to reduce your training volume but maintain intensity. “The biggest mistake is athletes resting too much,” Sumbal says. “It’s expected to feel a little flat in the first few days of taper, but it’s important to maintain training and not let the body get too stale during this time,” Sumbal adds. Translation: Take only the rest days your coach says you’re supposed to take. (And try these tricks to avoid coming down with a case of the taper crazies.)
Maintaining: Until Your Next Race
Congrats, you made it across the finish line! Assuming you rocked your race and finished injury-free, it’s likely you’re eyeing your next race with a new set of goals in mind. Until then, continue to incorporate strength training and maintain your current level of fitness. “You can do that through a mix of training found in the previous phases,” she says. Based on how far out your next starting line is, your coach can incorporate appropriate levels of strength training and interval work.
Off-Season: 2-4 weeks
Ahh, the blessed off-season. It’s important to give your body adequate time to rest, but Sumbal says it’s equally essential that your off-season doesn’t last too long. “You want to carry your fitness from one season to the next,” she explains. Feel free to swim, bike and run without structure or a strict schedule for right now — just do what feels good to you. You can even forgo all three in favor of workouts you don’t normally have time for (like that hiking trail you’ve been meaning to explore, or those mountain biking skills you’ve been wanting to develop). Doing so will keep you physically stimulated, while giving yourself a break to mentally recharge and get excited to do it all again.