Before COVID struck, we had an abundance of races to choose from. Consequently, it was very easy to fall into the habit of jumping from one race to another without any sort of structure. It could also be tempting to think that to improve our time over a certain distance (perhaps most often the marathon) we need to just keep racing that distance.
All this has been paused, which in many ways is deeply frustrating, but does afford us the opportunity to consider longer term planning.
In my 12 training tips for Christmas, I talked about thinking where you might want to see your running in 12- or 18-months’ time. Do you have an ultimate performance goal? Is there a target race for 2022 you can identify? If you do, how can you structure your training to reach that goal at the right time?
In coaching we talk about periodising your training. This is effectively breaking your training down into training blocks or phases with each phase having a particular goal. Typically, these phases break down into four main elements, base building, intensity, competition, and recovery. To help plan these we look at training cycles. There are 3 levels of these; Macrocycle, Mesocycle & Microcycle.
A Macrocycle is long period of training and racing which includes all four phases of training. In its “purest” form the macrocycle is 12 months long (i.e. a competitive season). However you can also think of, say, a 20 week marathon build-up and recovery as a macrocycle. For most of us as enthusiastic club athletes, I think it is most helpful to consider a blend the ‘season-long’ macrocycle and the race specific macrocycle.
The big advantage of the season-long macrocycle is that it allows you to get a bird’s eye view of your training plans. You can mark down where your target race or races are (I realise this is a bit speculative at the moment but bear with me) and work back to map out the route towards them (using the four phases mentioned above). Having this overview is helpful in making sure you can maximise your training, perhaps most crucially allowing space for enough recovery. You can actually make a long-term macrocycle as long as you want – many Olympic athletes will have a four year plan between games (which is why the postponement of the 2020 games has meant serious adjustment to training), broken down into a series of season long cycles.
A Mesocycle tends to be around about a four-to-six-week block of training. The content of each mesocycle will depend on what phase of training you are in (e.g. if it’s in the base building phase it may consist of progressively increasing mileage with lots of easy aerobic running and only a small number of high intensity sessions). A well-planned mesocycle will have a goal attached to it, giving you a useful signpost of how your training is going.
The Microcycle is your week’s training. The content will be determined by the goal of the mesocycle.
Here’s a handy diagram!!
As I mentioned above, the other crucial benefit of the macrocycle is that allows you to monitor recovery, especially between target races and/or training blocks. Without sufficient attention to that you will not be able to maximise your training and you will risk burnout.
You will notice I have spent the most column inches on macrocycles. This is quite deliberate as, in my experience, it’s the bit us club runners tend to do least well. It can be daunting looking ahead so far and trying to see the ‘big picture’, but it is worth the effort. If nothing else, it will give you pause to think about what your goals are and then what you might need to do to get there. For example, you might have the goal of running a sub 3.30 marathon in spring 2022 and your PB is currently 3.50. Chances are to achieve that improvement you will need to improve your basic speed, so a good plan would be to have a block of training over the summer of 2021 that focussed on improving your 5k performance. This would likely be more beneficial to that big goal than just running an autumn marathon and making a small improvement on your PB.
A couple of other things to mention – having long term target races marked out does NOT mean not racing at other times; but it does allow you to understand how those races will fit into the bigger picture. Now, that might mean that you are more selective with your racing IF you have a major goal in mind, but that is all part of smart training and racing! It might also mean, therefore, that you will not be at the right time in your overall cycle to run at your best over a given distance; for example if you are at your base building phase you will not be in peak shape for a 5k race. This doesn’t make such races redundant though – they can serve as ‘marker points’ to gauge your longer term progression over the macrocycle!
So you get the idea, I hope! It’s sort of a trickle-down approach; your macrocycle informs your mesocycles which in turn informs your microcycles. This sort of planning is quite hard to do on your own….so this where we, your coaches, are here to help. If you fancy learning how to love the Macro, then get in touch and we’ll make some plans!