The different training cycles explained
Training 9 minutes

The different training cycles explained

July 20, 2020

You build a training plan in blocks. These blocks are your micro-, meso- and macrocycles. Understanding how training plans are build allows you to be more invested in them and more likely to stick to them. It also allows you to modify them when life throws you a curveball.

Let's dive into the terminology and some examples.


Microcycles are the smallest of the three cycles. A microcycle can be anything from a couple of days up to 1-2 weeks. The way I define a microcycle is the smallest "repeated" period in my training plan.

Microcycle: smallest repeated period of training.

My microcycles are one week, and in this week are usually:

  • 2 workouts or medium long runs,
  • 1 long run,
  • 4+ easy runs.

This pattern is repeated every week. Some runners use a 10-day microcycle for example, in which they may repeat a similar pattern.


Mesocycles are a grouping of several microcycles focused on one area. Examples are (part of a) base training phase, speed development, endurance building etc. Like with microcycles I define my mesocycles as the smallest unit of repeated work. In this case the repeated work is actually microcycles that are focused on the same skill, usually in chunks four weeks. Some may define mesocycles of up to 6 weeks or longer, but depending on the situation and requirements they can be shorter too.

Mesocycle: smallest unit of repeated microcyles focusing on one area.

My current base plan will last a few months (why?) and consist of multiple mesocycles. Each mesocycle is three weeks of regular training and one down week, all focused on the goal of building my base mileage. My training follows the same repeated pattern of three weeks regular and one week down, thus satisfying my definition of smallest unit of repeated microcycles.

By knowing the purpose of a mesocycle you can determine how to deal with unexpected life events. What are the important parts of the mesocycle that you shouldn't miss? Which parts are "expendable" given the circumstances?


The macrocycle is usually defined as one training season. It is a set of mesocycles with differing areas of focus. This is also commonly referred to as periodization. Different areas of training are layered on top of each other working toward peak fitness for a command performance, your most important race of the season. A typical marathoner, in a typical year (which this is definitely not), may have a spring and fall marathon as goal races.

Macrocycle: one training season leading up to a goal race.

Thus a training season for a marathoner may be 22-28 weeks depending on whether you include rest after the marathon in your season and how far apart your marathons are. Working towards my marathon in the fall of 2019, for example, I had the following macrocycle planned:

  •  2 weeks of recovery after my previous marathon.
    • This phase normally lasts anywhere from 2 weeks up to 4 weeks for marathons.
  • 11 weeks of base training to rebuild fitness, increase mileage and increase long run distance.
    • This phase usually consists of 4-8 weeks but can be longer.
  • 2 weeks of hill training.
    • A great intermediary phase to prepare you for race specific training. Usually 4-6 weeks.
  • 3 weeks of a speed plan. Gradual introduction to faster workouts.
    • A phase to work on getting you faster. Usually 4-6 weeks. This speed is carried into your race specific phase.
  • 11 weeks of race specific work.
    • Focus on workouts specific to the chosen racing distance, leading up to the goal race. Can contain one or more prep races as well. Ends with 1-3 weeks of tapering or peaking.

The base phase had three mesocycles. The first is four weeks focused just on easy and long runs. In the next four weeks some endurance building and leg speed workouts are introduced. In the last three weeks these workouts are continued and long runs are extended.

The race specific phase had four mesocycles. It started with four weeks of marathon specific training with plenty of easy runs of an hour or longer and marathon specific workouts and long runs. The next four weeks increased training load and contained a prep race. The next week contained peak training load. The final two weeks reduced training load to peak for the marathon.

Dissecting a training plan

There are several marathon training plans on the web. Usually around 16 weeks of work. They contain pretty much all the layers I described above but are contained under the one umbrella marathon training plan term. If you look closely at the types of runs scheduled during the weeks you can start to dissect a training plan.

Is the same day a workout or long run day every week? Then you are looking at a plan with microcycles of one week.

Where are the down weeks? Every third week or fourth week? That is the first hint for spotting a mesocycle. But as seen above, not all mesocycles have to be that long. Look at the workouts and see what their focus is. Usually these plans start with a base phase of a few weeks. If you have already done a different base phase, you can skip this part of the training plan and jump in later. Then look for the next area of focus and so forth.

So next time you plan towards a goal race, think of these cycles in how to build your season. Don't blindly grab training plans and perform them one after another, see what they contain and how they can flow from one into the next.

Koen van Urk