The majority of runners break their training cycles into seven-day blocks. However, as Matt Fitzgerald explains, there may be a more effective way to plan your training 'weeks'.
If you’re like most runners, you train in seven-day cycles that align with the standard Monday-to-Sunday calendar week. For example, you might rest on Monday and Friday, hit the track on Tuesday, run easy on Wednesday and Saturday, do a tempo run on Friday, and run long on Sunday. There are, of course, practical reasons for this convention. If you work on weekdays, then your long runs more or less have to fall on the weekend. And if your running club meets at the track every Tuesday, you either conform or run alone.
Okay, fine. But are seven-day cycles optimal for building fitness?
While it’s clear they work well enough for many runners, lately I’ve been steering more and more of the runners I coach to an alternative that I find more reliable: three-day microcycles. In these mini “weeks,” days one and two feature lighter training (or rest), while day three is harder, containing either a faster or a longer run. That’s all there is to it.
With three-day microcycles, you always get a full 72-hours between harder runs, reducing the risks of overreaching and injury
Three-day microcycles offer a couple of advantages over traditional seven-day cycles. One is that they ensure runners always have enough time to recover from harder runs. When you try to cram a speed workout, a tempo run, and a long run into a seven-day week, you end up having to do one of these sessions just 48 hours after the last harder run, when you might not be fully recovered. But with three-day microcycles, you always get a full 72-hours between harder runs, reducing the risks of overreaching and injury. A second advantage of these cycles is that they lend a nice, steady rhythm to training, where fatigue and readiness are highly predictable. You’re tired when you expect to be tired and fresh when you expect to be fresh, no surprises.
Naturally, there has to be some variation in the content of each microcycle if your training as a whole is to be properly balanced. I typically stack together three of these mini weeks to form a nine-day extended “week,” where each cycle ends with a different type of harder run (either a high intensity workout, a moderate intensity session, or a long run). Here are examples of nine-day weeks appropriate for beginner, intermediate, and advanced runners:
Each of these structures can be tweaked to fit the specific needs of the individual.
For example, with advanced runners I often extend the “week” further, to 10 days, where day one features an easy run and day 10 is a rest day. I might also make the second day of each three-day microcycle a little less 'easy' than the first, for example by tacking a 5- to 10-minute “fast finish” or a set or short sprints onto the end of an otherwise easy run. Additionally, I may include some faster running, such as marathon-pace efforts, in the long runs.
If there’s a downside to three-day microcycles, it’s that they don’t allow runners to do the same type of run on the same day every week. On any given Tuesday, for example, there’s only a one-in-three chance that you’ll have a hard run on your schedule, causing you to miss out on some of those group track workouts. This might be a deal-breaker for some, and that’s okay. Like I said, seven-day cycles work well enough.
Another concern that some runners have when contemplating switching to three-day microcycles is the issue of doing long runs on weekdays. This situation is easily avoided, however, by doing long runs only on weekends when a designated hard day falls on either Saturday or Sunday, which will happen two weeks out of every three. When combined with adequate mileage across the week, completing two long runs every three weeks will give you plenty of endurance for a race of any distance.
To get a better sense of what three-day microcycles look like in the context of a full training plan, check out the masters training plans I created for 80/20 Endurance. Though targeted toward runners over forty, these plans (and others like them) are suitable for any runner who feels a bit constrained by seven-day cycles. And if you’re the DIY type, you can easily convert just about any existing plan to a basis of three-day microcycle simply by inserting extra easy days where necessary to ensure that harder runs always fall 72 hours apart.
Treat the process as an experiment, remaining open to fine-tuning the plan based on outcomes—and don’t forget to have fun with it!