Strength Training Periodization: Everything You Need to Know

Strength training periodization is the simple idea that your strength work should evolve over time. Sounds easy, right?

Strength Training Periodization

Recently when we discussed periodization training for runners, we learned the definition of this exercise science term:

Periodization is defined as the process of planning training in oder to produce high levels of performance at designated times.

This definition is from USA Track and Field, the governing body for the sport of Track & Field and road racing.

And it works for strength training periodization, too.

Just like our running, our strength training must evolve and progress over time to help us reach a peak performance (typically during our goal race at the end of a season).

But many runners only think about periodization when it comes to running. That means their training usually…

  • Gets more complex from the beginning to the end of the season
  • Workouts get progressively more difficult
  • Mileage builds over time

Periodization training makes sense when it comes to running. Most of us intuitively understand that a training plan progresses over time by changing the mileage, intensity of workouts, and recovery.

But what about for our weightlifting? How should our days in the gym change from the beginning of the season to the end?

In this post, I’m going to highlight how strength training periodization should work over the course of a season.

And it all starts by thinking long-term.

Strength Training Periodization: Long Term

New runners should not head to the track on their first day of running to perform a blistering set of 400-meter repetitions.

And this rule applies to weightlifting, too: if you’ve never done much strength work, let’s not start by practicing the clean and jerk…

If you’re new to strength training, periodization is a critical concept to apply to your lifting workouts. I’ve found that it’s ideal to begin your journey to the weight room by becoming proficient at bodyweight strength exercises first.

You might start with the Gauntlet Plank Workout:

Soon, you can add routines that incorporate exercise bands or medicine balls. The ITB Rehab Routine is a good example:

I consider the ITB Rehab Routine to be a fundamental series of exercises that every runner should perform regularly.

If you want more difficulty, a medicine ball workout is a good next step:

Once you’re comfortable with bodyweight exercises and light resistance, you’re ready to get in the gym for more substantial weightlifting.

The rest of this article will discuss short-term strength training periodization in the weight room – from the beginning of a season to the end of a season.

Pre-Season / Base Phase

The first phase of any periodized strength training program for runners must focus on three important skills:

  • General strength
  • Injury resilience
  • Habit formation / consistency

General strength is a basic ability to lift weights. It’s a fundamental proficiency with strength training movements without focusing on very heavy weight, explosivity, overall difficulty, or complex exercises (a power clean is an example of a complex movement that shouldn’t be present in the base phase of training).

Injury resilience places importance on one of lifting’s biggest benefits to runners: injury prevention. Weightlifting increases the toughness of your connective tissues, ligaments, tendons, bones, muscles, and joints. Now is the time to build that capacity.

Habit formation helps you build the consistent habit of going to the gym regularly. Runners don’t need to be gym rats, but we certainly need to get comfortable lifting weights several times per week.

Inconsistent strength training can increase your risk of injury so we want to avoid that!

Much like base training in your running program, the pre-season phase of a periodized strength program accomplishes many of the same goals like building a foundation for the harder work that will come later in the season.

Competition Phase (Middle of Season)

After a focus on general strength and injury prevention in the base phase, strength training periodization demands that you transition to more race-specific weightlifting. The goals evolve to focus more on

  • speed
  • overall athleticism
  • fast-twitch responsiveness (i.e., neuromuscular coordination)

This phase of strength training prioritizes explosivity and teaches your nervous system how to create force quickly. We accomplish this by lifting more quickly, adding weight, and introducing explosive lifts.

Soon you’ll be better able to access those deep neurons and fast twitch fibers needed for mid-race surges and a blazing fast finishing kick.

Explosive lifting has a side benefit of also improving the coordination of both your slow and fast twitch fibers while you’re running.

You’re now becoming more economical, improving your running form and making the use of form cues more effective.

The end result? You run more efficiently with an increased capacity for top end speed (i.e., you can sprint faster!).

Peaking / Taper Phase

Strength training periodization builds to this point: the phase of training that prepares you to perform.

The final phase of training at the end of your season prioritizes:

  • Power and force production
  • Running economy / efficiency
  • Strategic rest so you’re ready to race

Strength training will now include more Olympic lifts and plyometrics to help you utilize the stored elastic energy and reactive forces of your muscles and tendons.

Your total workload in the gym will peak (and decrease) so you’re strong and rested for your upcoming race. The peaking phase of training will also keep your Central Nervous System tuned up, primed for speed, and ready to deliver a new Personal Best.

Strength training periodization ends with this phase and the goal race. After a period of time to focus on rest and recovery, the process repeats itself.

Strength Training Periodization Mistakes to Avoid

If you’re planning your own strength training program, these periodization principles will help you design a very effective plan for the season.

The most common three mistakes that you should absolutely not make yourself include:

  1. Never changing the exercises or weight over time. Doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity!
  2. Lifting too much weight with not enough recovery too early in the season (keep things easy during base training!)
  3. Lifting for endurance rather than strength and power

That last point is so important that I recorded a short presentation to explore it in more detail:

More generally, here are some other rules to keep in mind when lifting weights:

  1. Lifting is supposed to help your running. Strength traininng should support your running, not detract from it. If your running workouts are compromised by weightlifting, reduce the intensity so you can maintain your running (after all, you’re a runner, not a weightlifter)
  2. Skip the bicep curls – and most other body-builder-oriented exercises like tricep extensions or calf raises. Focus on movements, not muscles.
  3. Lift on hard running days. Many runners schedule hard strength workouts on rest days or after an easy run, which turn easy days into moderate or hard days. Instead, lift after your long run or faster workout to stimulate additional adaptations.

For more mistakes and principles to follow, get our free strength course.

How You’ll Feel with Periodized Strength Training

Runners aren’t always comfortable getting in the gym to lift weights. We’re afraid of “bulking up” or showing off our weird shorts (if I can wear board shorts to the gym, so can you).

But if you commit, the results will speak for themselves.

I’ve asked a group of runners from the Strength Running community to share how they feel after incorporating a periodized weightlifting program. This is what they told me:

“I don’t just feel better; I feel transformed – like a brand new runner. I’ve never run like this – with strength and without aches and pains. I’m excited to run and discover what improvements I can make.” – Rebecca

“6-minute PR in today’s half marathon. Strength training is the secret sauce!” – Michele

“Wanted to say thanks. I can feel myself getting stronger as I progress. My wife is actually a Doctor of Physical Therapy and she is in agreement that the routine has been correctly structured and the strength exercises are optimal for my current level of post injury fitness.” – Drew

“Jason, I’m checking in about my experience with strength training. I just completed 6 weeks of it and I PR’d by 9 seconds (20:03) in my 5k yesterday. I’ve noticed minimal aches and pains and I definitely seem to recover faster. I’m thrilled with what I am seeing so far. It’s really helping me become both a better athlete and runner. Thanks so much for this awesome program!” – Allison

Runners who focus on periodized strength training that supports their running, prioritizes power and strength, and is specific to the needs of runners will reap the rewards.

They’ll have great injury resilience, improved running economy, and a faster finishing kick. They’ll feel better, run more powerfully, and (this is the most fun) post faster finish times.

If you’d like to see how strength training can help your running, start today.

You’ll get our best advice on:

  • Strength training periodization
  • Example exercises to do yourself
  • More mistakes to avoid so you stay on track
  • Case studies and examples of other runners
  • What you can expect by lifting weights

I’ll also send you a private presentation about lifting for speed. Get it here!

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