Linear vs. Non-Linear Periodization in Running

BY Matt Fitzgerald

Coach Matt Fitzgerald compares linear and non-linear methods of periodization and determines which method might be best.

The most influential theorist in the history of run training was Arthur Lydiard. A New Zealand-born coach who reached his prime in the late 1950s, Lydiard developed the first major periodized training system for runners. Periodization refers to the practice of sequencing training stimuli in such a way as to produce a single peak race performance at the end of that sequence, or cycle. Before Lydiard came along, runners periodized their training primarily by increasing their overall workload as their fitness and their capacity to absorb training gradually increased. But Lydiard was the first to divide the training cycle into distinct phases and establish a proper order for the different types of training emphasized within them.

Lydiard-style Periodization

You are probably familiar with this order, because Lydiard-style periodization is still practiced by most competitive runners today. The Lydiard training cycle begins with a base phase, in which runners perform an increasing volume of mostly moderate-pace running. This phase is followed by a four-week strength phase, in which aerobic running is supplemented with hill training and other strength work. Next comes a short “anaerobic” phase in which short, fast intervals are prioritized. The final phase is a racing phase, in which the volume and intensity of training are reduced to promote freshness and fitness is sharpened through tune-up races culminating in a final, peak race.

Lydiard-style periodization is known as linear periodization because the various major training stimuli (aerobic, anaerobic, strength, speed, etc.) are largely segregated from each other in the training process and arranged in a line in which each gives way to the next. This approach is distinct from nonlinear periodization, in which the various major training stimuli are mixed together throughout the entire cycle and only the emphasis changes from period to period.

Most of the newer periodization systems—those introduced since 1980—are nonlinear. One example is the so-called multi-pace training method developed by David Martin and Peter Coe. In their book, Better Training for Distance Runners, Martin and Coe wrote, “One sensible method for injury-free performance progress over the course of a macrocycle involves harmonious interdevelopment of strength, speed, stamina, and endurance all during the year, never eliminating any of these from the overall training plan… We tend to disagree with coaches who prescribe large volumes of solely longer-distance running over an initial period of weeks, followed by a similarly concentrated bolus of solely higher-intensity speed sessions over succeeding weeks.”

There are three major criticisms of linear periodization systems, two of which are specifically alluded to in the above quotation. Many coaches and athletes with experience of such systems believe that the sudden introduction of high-intensity running after a strictly low-intensity base phase carries a high risk of injury.  A second criticism of linear periodization systems is that the various important aspects of running fitness are not developed “harmoniously”.  Why devote several weeks to developing strength only to let this attribute slide again by replacing strength workouts with speed work?  Finally, linear periodization systems are also criticized for requiring months of buildup for a rather brief opportunity to race at the very end.

Nonlinear Periodization

Nonlinear periodization attempts to address all of these shortcomings by mixing together the various major training stimuli throughout the training cycle.  The presence of strength and speed training at all times keeps the muscles and joints well adapted to the stress of hard running, thus minimizing injury risk.  It also gives runners more flexibility to race when it suits them.  Because their running fitness is always “well-rounded”, they can peak for races fairly quickly by increasing the training load and emphasizing race-pace training.  There is no need to wait for layer upon layer of fitness components to be added one by one.

Linear periodization still has its defenders, though. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, they say, and indeed it is hard to argue against the tremendous success that runners all around the world have achieved through Lydiard-style training. Perhaps the greatest virtues of Lydiard’s system are that it limits the risk of overtraining and that it enables runners to peak right when they want to. By contrast, in nonlinear periodization, because high-intensity training never ceases, there is greater risk of overtraining, and because there is not much distinction between training phases, it can be difficult to time a peak accurately.

I discovered these risks the hard way earlier this year while training for the Boston Marathon using a program based on Pete Pfitzinger’s nonlinear periodization method.  My plan had me doing higher-intensity running (although not always very much of it and not always very fast) three times per week for more than 20 weeks. It started off great, but I peaked when I was barely halfway through the plan and then turned stale.

I’m still trying to decide what to do differently in training for my next marathon. One option is to switch over to a Lydiardian plan, something I have never really tried. The other option is to modify the Pfitzinger approach, specifically by reducing the amount of high-intensity work I do until closer to race day. It is very likely that either approach would give me better results than I got from the overambitious nonlinear approach I took last time. But the question is, which approach would give me the very best results?

This question leads me to the point of this article, which is: that different training approaches work best for different athletes. I don’t believe that either linear periodization systems such as Lydiard’s or nonlinear systems such as Martin and Coe’s multi-pace method are clearly better for every athlete. You may need to experiment a little to find out which one works best for you. Start by trying the approach that is most appealing to you, and if that doesn’t work out, move in the direction of the other. So, if I take my own advice I will probably go Lydiard next time!

Trainingpeaks Author Matt Fitzgerald
About Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt’s 80/20 running plans here and his 80/20 triathlon plans here.

Visit Matt Fitzgerald's Coach Profile