What makes a training cycle?
If you've ever run a race, you've probably completed a training cycle. A training cycle is a period of time where an athlete prepares his or her body for a specific endeavor. An ideal training cycle is PROGRESSIVE (each week builds on the previous week) and SPECIFIC (to the athlete's individual fitness and goals).
In the running world, most athletes use training cycles that range from 8 to 20 weeks in length. There are many factors that influence this. Some are fairly obvious. For example, it takes longer to prepare for a marathon than it does for a 5k. Others are more individual and intricate: some athletes physically can't sustain a certain level of effort for more than 8-10 weeks, while others need more time to reach peak fitness.
While every race has its own unique training cycle, all training cycles are based on the same key elements. Here's a basic breakdown of how a training cycle is constructed.
Base mileage: This is the foundation for your running. It essentially represents your "off-season" fitness, and supports the demands of a training cycle. During the training cycle, you add both mileage and intensity from your base. One key: base mileage should NOT cause fatigue or injury!
For an elite runner, base mileage is usually high -- over 60-70 miler per week! For us "hobby joggers," it's much lower -- think 10-15 miles per week for someone who races local 5k's, or 30-40 miles per week for an experienced marathoner.
Building mileage: During a training cycle, you add mileage and intensity progressively. Ideally, you should be adding no more than 10-20% to your overall mileage each week. So, if you run 20 miler on Week 1 of training, you should run about 22-24 miles on Week 2.
Recovery week: Every 3-5 weeks, you'll likely take a recovery week. This week is characterized by lower mileage and less intensity. It gives your body a week to relax a bit, recover and repair sore muscles, and prepare for harder training.
Peak mileage: Often referred to as "peak week" by competitive marathoners -- this is the highest and most intense mileage you'll run in a training cycle. For marathoners, this milestone is usually ~3-4 weeks before race day; for shorter distances, it usually occurs ~2-3 weeks before race day.
Again, it's highly individual based on your fitness, experience, and goal race. An elite marathoner may peak at 125 miles per week, while a recreational runner prepping for a 10k may peak at 25 miler per week.
Taper: The taper is a progressive reduction of exercise leading up to a race. Like a recovery week, it gives your body time to repair and replenish before racing. The length of a taper is generally proportional to the distance you're running -- ranging from 3 weeks for most marathons, to 7-10 days for a 5k's.