Many of us race too often to race well. Sage Canaday explains why, and how you can structure your training to maximize your trail and ultra race results
Understanding how to periodize your training allows you to be in peak fitness for your goal races, without burning out, as Sage Canaday (right) and his girlfriend and co-coach Sandy Nypaver teach athletes. Photo courtesy of Sage Canaday
In college, I ran cross-country and track for a coach who had us race as infrequently as possible. “You can’t have it all, all the time,” he would tell us, and the races that mattered were in November and May. Just as pulling carrots from the ground to see how they’re growing is counterproductive, attempting to PR each month of the year means that that PR would remain slower than it could.
A few years later, as I cut my teeth in trail and ultra running, I was astounded at how often people raced distances in excess of a marathon—once a month or more seems commonplace during the peak racing season, even among pros. There are a lot of reasons for that—fun, camaraderie and, increasingly, prize money—but there is no way, I thought, that anyone is racing their best when they race that frequently.
Sage Canaday, 29, of Boulder, Colorado—who was faster than me in college cross-country and remains faster than me on the trails—agrees. “I believe you can be at about 90 percent of your maximum potential and fitness for the majority of the year,” says Canaday, whose 2014 season included wins at the Speedgoat 50K and The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco. “However, if you really want to target a certain race and go for that 100-percent effort and performance, you’re going to have to make sacrifices in your training and racing schedule.”
Periodization: the basics
Periodization is the process of building your running systems one at a time until they accumulate into a peak race performance. Canaday, who with his girlfriend, Sany Nypaver, coaches athletes at SageRunning.com and is the author of the upcoming ebook The Sage Running Secret: A Guide to Speedy Ultras, compares it to making a pizza.
“Periodization comes down to looking at chunks of time in your training schedule and deciding what sequence and type of different workout stimulus you want to induce … with an end result in mind,” he says. “We are following a recipe—your training plan—and then carefully adding in certain amounts of ingredients—your different types of workouts—all in the correct proportion and at the right time.”
In training, as with baking, Canaday says timing is just as important as proportions.
“Do too much of any type of workout or do a workout at the wrong time, or both, and you could end up coming out ‘flat’ and your pizza isn’t going to taste very good,” he says. “If you overtrain and work out at too high of an intensity, you might burn out—much like overbaking a pizza.”
In other words, to really nail a race, you not only have to set aside a few months to train, but you have to structure those months in a way that accumulates fitness, addresses your weaknesses and builds on your strengths, and does so with an eye toward the specific course on which you’ll be racing.