When it comes to endurance sports you have to take into account each athletes individual needs. I would rank this as the number 1 thing when you are designing a race strategy. Number 2 in this plan is periodization and this article will explain just what that is, as well as how to lay out this concept.
Periodization is defined as a systemic plan for an athlete to reach their best performance possible in their biggest event of the year. A long story short it basically means “peaking” at the right time and doing all the necessary things to reach that peak.There are three different cycles in periodization- macro, meso and micro. Macro would be your calendar year, meso would be a certain number of weeks, and micro would be your daily sessions. There are numerous other things to consider when planning out this periodization scheme and some of them are- certain training hours per week/month (frequency), length, duration, and intensity of those sessions, when to add or possibly take away some “cross training workouts”, and for some it might include adjusting your nutrition to be at a certain body composition for your peak. I like to get athletes to pick 2 peak races in a calendar year and count back to where they are currently and then start the plotting process. When done properly, it can come together quite nicely but things can often not go according to plan so the athlete has to be flexible (injury,illness,work,family,etc.)
Endurance sports typically have a prep, build, peak, and transition phase. There are numerous terms to describe a proper periodization protocol but I will stick with these 4 for this article. This is a classic periodization scheme for an athlete, but often you will see what I call a reverse periodization as well, depending on the athletes goals, race distances,etc. (more on that later.) The prep phase would be what I like to call “get out the door” sessions. If you are a runner and you have a marathon in 6 months this would include getting back to running after a lay-off(transition phase.) For example, if your biggest weekly run mileage is roughly 45 miles a week in the peak phase you might get back “slowly” to 25 that first month and be doing other forms of exercise (weight training,yoga,spin class,etc.) After several weeks of this schedule you will go into the next phase which will be the build phase. This phase is where the training gets more specific and I suggest you drop all the other extra forms of exercise (weight training, yoga,spin class,etc.) You will also start to add duration to one of your weekly runs (this becomes your long run.) Depending on the level of runner, quite often you might start to add 1 speed session to the mix but you have to be careful with too much intensity too soon. The next phase is the peak phase and most all athletes (again depending on fitness level) will add 1 weekly speed session in this phase.This speed session can consist of a 5k, 10k, and possibly a half marathon or maybe just a weekly track session. I recommend if you choose races that you make sure and do them at the end of every 3rd or 4th week (following a rest and recovery week.) A key ingredient to proper periodization is to know that no athlete can maintain high weekly volume and intensity every week 24/7, 365 days a year. Having and knowing when to incorporate these rest periods within the macro, micro, and meso cycles is the key to building upon your fitness each year. Once the taper comes for the athlete (1-3 weeks depending on ability), and the athlete has run their peak race then the next phase is the transition phase. This phase typically lasts anywhere from 2-8 weeks depending on the level of the athlete and where they are within the macro phase. I like to see athletes take a short break after peak # 1 of maybe 2-4 weeks (typically mid season), and then a bigger break after peak # 2 of 4-6 weeks (typically end of the season.) These rest and recover weeks as well as the breaks inserted within the transition phases assure the athlete has built in proper rest to not only keep the athlete injury free physically but also to insure the mental break as well!
I mentioned earlier in this article reverse periodization and would like to mention just what that is. In the example above I gave an example of a runner training for a marathon on a 6 month plan. Optimally I like to see a runner have one peak race be longer than the other peak race. For example, if you have a marathon planned for December, then it is best to have your other peak be a shorter race. This might be a half marathon or even better a 5k. That way the athlete can spend parts of the year focusing on shorter, harder efforts and less weekly mileage and then transition into more marathon type sessions where weekly mileage and a weekly long run is more important. For triathletes you can even switch sports within this concept. Maybe you live somewhere that has bitterly cold winters and can use the winter sports to focus more on swimming and the summer months to focus more on cycling (or opposite if you live somewhere with hot summers.) I have found there are several ways to go about periodization but it always comes back to the same concept and that is you have to keep changing your workouts to continually improve. The timing of frequency, duration, and intensity and how much at certain times times of the year is where a good coach can come in and help strategize all this for you so when that peak race comes all you have to do is execute!