How do you manage your training leading up to a race? Some follow a pre-written plan. Some take each day as they feel, and some let their coach tell them what to do! But what do the pros do?
In this article, we look at how professional athletes structure their training in preparation for a big race. If you are looking for a little more guidance in your training or if you’re just interested to know what others do, stick around and we’ll get going.
You may have heard the phrase ‘training block’. It is a specific period in a year when an athlete focuses on a race and targets their training to be fit and ready specifically for that race. An athlete may have two or three blocks in a season, and in between those blocks they may rest, or simply train in less focused or intense ways.
A training block is divided into Phases to bring the athlete to maximum fitness with minimum fatigue on race day. Let’s look at what these phases are and how we might incorporate these ideas into our own training!
This phase can last between 4 and 8 weeks, longer if you are a new runner or coming back from injury. The base phase typically takes up 30-40% of the training block.
The base phase is all about building a strong foundation of aerobic fitness. In this phase we do minimal hard efforts. Almost all the running is slow, low heart rate, and low power.
In this phase we are strengthening bones and tendons, we are producing more mitochondria which convert energy sources within our cells as well as more capillaries to transport blood to the muscles.
It’s also about building volume. On average we add 10% volume each week, ‘volume’ being the number of miles run or the amount of time spent running. We might also incorporate some core strengthening exercises into our weekly regime.
A typical session might be a slow 90-minute or 10-mile run. If we think about zones, this session would be in zones 1 and 2 of your heart rate, power, or pace range.
During the build phase, we begin to add more speed work to our weekly sessions. This phase may last 4 to 6 weeks, or around 30% of the training block.
Volume continues to increase gradually each week, but we might also build some rest weeks into the schedule to give the body time to recover. Rest weeks typically reduce volume and hard efforts by 30-40%.
Interval training and high heart rate threshold runs are an important part of the build phase. High-intensity sessions increase the amount of oxygen each cell can utilize. The more oxygen your body can use, the faster you can go for longer. This is your VO2 (Volume of Oxygen) Max.
Along with your base phase training, these added high-intensity sessions help build an efficient metabolism for fast, effective energy conversion, transfer, and utilization.
A typical session might be 10 minutes or 2km warm-up, 8x2minutes or 8x400m at max effort with 1-minute recoveries and a 10-minute cool-down.
This phase lasts 2-3 weeks and is the most intensive, comprising 15-20% of the training block. By this stage, we have reached maximum training volume and we are doing regular speed and elevation sessions while continuing the long, slow, low heart rate runs.
With the body at maximum training load, this peak phase cannot be sustained for long before fatigue sets in and the risk of injury becomes significant. The athlete continues to run long and slow for approximately 80% of sessions, but also continues the high-intensity sessions added during the build phase.
The difference between the build and peak phases is volume. The balance of workout sessions is the same but if mileage during the build phase is 40-70 miles a week, during the peak phase it may be 70-100 miles or more depending on the fitness and experience or the athlete.
Depending on the runner, the taper phase lasts from 1-3 weeks or 15-20% of the block as a whole. This phase is all about recovery. Volume is reduced by up to 50% and we focus increasingly on sleep and diet to aid muscle rebuilding and reduce fatigue.
It’s important not to stop high-intensity sessions completely. Instead, frequency is reduced, allowing the body to recover in preparation for race day.
The more experienced a runner, the less time is generally needed for this phase. Some runners can recover very well after only a week of reduced volume. Newer runners often take longer to feel fresh and ready.
Having meticulously prepared with the base, build, and peak phases, it’s now time to execute the race day plan.
If the work has been done, you should arrive at the start line feeling refreshed and ready, rather than tired from weeks of hard training. You should also be at the peak of fitness.
For less experienced runners, it can be easy to allow weeks of hard work to go out of the window on race day as you get caught up in the excitement and fly off at a faster pace than planned.
Race day is about discipline, concentration, and determination. If you have completed the first three phases of your training block correctly, you should be confident that you can perform well. But this should not lead to overconfidence. Execute your pace, power, or HR plan to the letter without deviation until at least 70% into the race. If you still feel great, then can you consider pushing on.
It can be a useful mental exercise to break down your race into the same phases as the training block.
Early in the race is your base phase, settling in and getting a feel for your body and the environment. As you get into the race, you start to build momentum, confidence, and power through halfway. You could see this as the build phase. In the final third the peak phase kicks in and it’s all out to the finish. Just don’t forget your recovery run afterward!
A pro athlete’s training block does not end on race day. An important and often neglected phase of any training block is the recovery phase.
High-intensity sessions are gone from the schedule and we are back to low heart rate, low power long runs, for a period of 2-5 weeks.
Volume is reduced by 50%, allowing for full recovery and rebuilding of muscle tissue leading into the next training block, or an extended period of rest.
Some athletes move seamlessly from one training block to the next and can fit three or four ‘A’ races into their season. Others may take time off completely and others may adopt a vastly-reduced training schedule before starting another training block.
Recommended Training Plans on Zwift
The following training plans can work nicely within the phased structure outlined above. Depending on your goals and current level of running fitness, one of these plans may be just right for you!
5K Record Breaker
This plan was designed for competitive runners looking for guidance and structure to take them to the next level. A high level of commitment is required in terms of both effort and mileage. By the end, you should be fit, fast, and ready to race.
Meant to be done in-season, use this plan for the final 6-8 weeks leading into a 5k race. You should have a strong base under you before beginning this plan. The distance and intensity start at a fairly high level and increases quickly. This is meant for runners who have experience with structured training, aggressive speed work, and who put a premium on speed. This is not a plan that is meant to be done regularly. It should be saved for a big push towards a special goal. Speedwork is always a challenge, and this plan requires it.
Cyclist to 10k
Designed for cyclists who have strong aerobic engines and a real sense of structured training, this plan is meant to help regular riders make the jump to running. If your time on the bike has left you wanting a new or different challenge, this plan will help you make the transition.
This plan assumes you understand the principles of training and workouts, but doesn’t expect you to have any real foundation as a runner. With a focus on running regularly and using hills to build strength without excessive speed, this plan steadily and predictably builds your volume. Meant to be done at any point in the year, this plan starts with a low volume requirement and steadily builds over the 6-8 weeks before peaking and culminating in a 1ok run.
This method of training in blocks and breaking each block into phases to gradually increase volume and intensity does not apply solely to elite athletes. It’s a useful strategy for anyone who is regularly in training for races.
It requires good discipline to stick with a plan. But that good discipline will serve you well on race day.