Blooming in the Spring

By Karen Hancock

The days are shortening at an accelerating pace, you have been thinking back over what you’ve achieved this summer, and you’re marking a target event in your calendar for the Spring. It could be a marathon - our club’s local race up on Blackheath in April or one further afield - or it could be a half-marathon, 20-mile race (Bramley has good age-group prizes), the National Cross-Country Championships or even a series of races. Whatever your goal once the daffodils are in bloom, you’re more likely to achieve it if you make a plan.

A periodised and personalised training plan

A detailed plan does not make sense at this stage: instead what you need is a high-level plan with a framework which allows for some flexibility. Life, after all, has a habit of throwing up some unexpected surprises and every individual is different. So start by organising your winter-to-spring training into phases. Each phase should have specific aims for your athletic development and a different mix of training session types which will bring you to your peak when the sap rises again in the Spring.

A system of organising the training year into phases is known as “periodisation” and was invented in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. It was given more scientific backing by the work of Tudor Bompa in the 1970s and 80s and is still in widespread use by coaches and athletes aiming to achieve their best performances at a particular time. The table below outlines the various phases or periods of training which you should think about as the first stage of your planning.

Period Aims to improve Duration/ Rough dates for April peak Typical sessions
General Preparation General physical conditioning through increasing training volume to develop aerobic capacity; resistance to neuro-muscular fatigue; leg-strength; technical skills; tactical skills. Also aims to improve understanding of your nutritional and hydration needs in training and competition. Further increases in aerobic capacity; develop speed and Increase pace at VO2 max; develop pace-judgement especially at target race pace; perfect running technique and tactics As long as needed – less if already pretty well-conditioned - October-mid- February. Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to start this phase. Long runs at an easy pace; threshold runs; hill sessions; fartlek; cross-country and other low-key races; core stability; weights sessions. Build in cross-training if injury-prone – e.g. long bike-rides and vary routes and terrains for runs.
Special preparation Further increases in aerobic capacity; develop speed and Increase pace at VO2 max; develop pace-judgement especially at target race pace; perfect running technique and tactics 6-8 weeks is enough – mid-February to early April, including Lanzarote week. Long runs continue, but need to swap some of the threshold and fartlek sessions for more focussed speed-training at target race pace (at less than race distance), and some at faster than race pace – e.g. marathon-paced runs; 5k, 3k pace work. Reduce frequency of strength (weights or hills) sessions to 2 x per week. Races used for practicing tactics and developing pace-judgement.
Competition Consolidation - or “banking” - of the work of previous training; reduced volume of training allows the creation of an energy and physical capacity reserve to use in competition; tactical, practical and mental preparation 2 weeks (if peaking for single race); 6 weeks or so (if peaking for a series of races) (including taper) Much reduced volume of training, but at high intensity to keep you sharp. Final massages, chiropody, mental rehearsal (visualising success; rehearsing dealing with difficulties), tactical preparation (develop race strategy), kit and race arrangements checks.
Transition To allow body and mind to recover and regenerate and to review what has been achieved. Muscular fatigue likely to dissipate in about a week in well-trained runners, but Central Nervous System fatigue takes longer to go. 2-4 weeks of active rest and recreational, non-competitive activities. Keep active, but only run when you feel like it and non-competitively. Massages are useful. Helping others who are less fast towards their fitness goals can be especially satisfying at this time.

Macrocycles for the General Preparation period

Your main aim over the winter then is to build endurance, aerobic capacity and strength, without breaking down with injury or tipping into over-training. Training causes damage to the body, both physical and mental. Recovery is when your body rebuilds itself but stronger to enable it to cope with the next increase in training load. So recovery must be planned in too. You should do this at 2 levels: at the macro level and at the micro level.

First, divide this training period into macrocycles; sub-divisions of the different training periods lasting from 3-6 weeks, culminating in a cut-back week to allow the body to consolidate its fitness gains. Increase the workload week by week gradually within each macro-cycle (measured by number of runs, weekly mileage and length of longest run), then cut back to 75% or less of the peak achieved thus far for the final week. Each macrocycle should reach a higher peak of training load, like successively larger waves crashing onto a shore.

I think of the cutback week as the time to bank your training earnings. I think it’s useful and motivating to use the cutback week as a mini-taper and take part in a race to monitor your progress over the long winter period. So once you’ve planned your macrocycles, start putting some races into your plan, checking out the Serpie event planner for ideas for suitable events. But be prepared to be a bit flexible: the length of your macrocycle should be determined by you and how your body is responding to the increase in training volume. People respond to training differently, so don’t worry about what others are doing – make your plan personal to you. Experience tells me that a 3 or 4 week macrocycle is as long as I can cope with: that is 2 or 3 weeks of increasing volume of training, before I need to scale back again, but you might need 5 or 6 weeks per macrocycle.


Within each macrocycle you can now start to plan your first microcycles (training blocks of about a week, but could be 5-10 days). Most of your training over the winter will be building endurance and your aerobic capacity and recovering from that. This is the training which enables you to go longer with less fatigue, brings down your resting heart-rate and the speed of your recovery from hard sessions, and develops mental toughness. Most of your running therefore should be at 65%-75% effort (or % of max heart rate) and you should be able to chat to your friends while doing it. But you need to mix in other types of training at the same time, partly to relieve the tedium of running always at the same pace, and partly to develop your cruising speed, strength and running technique.

Winter microcycles

Given everything I’ve said so far, the table below shows how you might structure your winter training week, making maximum use of Serpentine training sessions. More experienced runners with a higher endurance base should undertake more of these sessions – e.g. extra recovery runs. These sessions are optional for those with a lower endurance base and can be substituted with aerobic cross-training (biking, elliptical cross-trainer, swimming) for the injury-prone. But all will need to do the highest-priority sessions: the long run, the tempo run and the semi-long run. I haven’t specified the lengths of runs because they will depend on your target event and your current level of fitness. But in general, the longer your target event, the more mileage you should be clocking up.


Sunday Long, slow run at 65%-75% effort or under-distance race in a cutback week. Vary routes and terrain and even company. Gradually increase distance by a few miles each microcycle. You should find your pace at any given heart rate or perceived effort level increases as the winter draws on
Monday Weights session (upper body and mid-section)+ (30-50 mins recovery run)
Tuesday Technical drills + threshold session or tempo run – e.g. 2-3 x 1.5 miles @ 85% effort/max HR with 2-3 mins recovery on a footpath

(am) Core stability work
(pm) semi-long run of about 2/3 Sunday’s distance at 75% effort – club runs are good for these. Conversation is more sporadic at this pace.

Thursday (30-50 mins recovery run) + core stability work

(am) weights session (leg-strength)
(pm) Steady run of 30-60 mins at 70-80% effort or easy run + 6-8 x 100m strides with walk/jog recovery if racing on Sunday.

Saturday (am) core stability work + hills or fartlek session or cross-country race.

I’ve suggested including core stability work and weights training: both of the these types of training will make you a more efficient (i.e. faster), less injury-prone runner, but only if your technique is correct. I strongly advise seeking specialist advice for these exercises.


Whatever you manage in week one of your winter training (logged of course in your training diary), you should be looking to make progress as the days get shorter. Long runs should get longer of course. Tempo runs might get faster, or you might aim to spend longer in the 85% zone by lengthening the repetitions or reducing the recoveries. In hills sessions, you might aim to do more repeats or do them on a longer or steeper hill. Use your imagination to change the parameters of a training session to increase the degree of challenge to your body and keep you interested and motivated.

Expect the unexpected

Don’t be over-rigid with your plan and be a little bit opportunistic. Learn to monitor yourself for signs that you haven’t recovered from your previous session sufficiently to attack another tough one (e.g. through a raised resting heart rate, or extra-sore or stiff leg muscles). So do an easy run instead or some cross-training even if it means swapping the days around in your plan. And if you have to miss a day altogether – even a whole week because say you had a cold or for some other reason, don’t panic: it’s not the training you do on a given day or week that makes a difference to your performance, it’s the accumulated effect of months, even years of fairly consistent effort. It’s part of distance running lore that it takes something of the order of 7-10 years of consistent effort to reach your athletic peak, so one day – even one week - won’t change very much.

I hope what I’ve said here is enough to enable you to start to design a winter training programme that will be personal to you, your athletic history, your physical and mental propensities, your goals and your lifestyle. A personalised programme is the one that is most likely to work. And come the New Year, when you start to wonder whether you will ever be able to train without tights, gloves and hat ever again, you can to start to plan the next phase of your training: specific preparation for your chosen event when the daffodils are blooming again in the spring.


Karen Hancock
Sept 2007