Linear or Non-Linear Undulating Periodization – Which is Best?

By Rick Morris

Periodization isn’t a newborn training technique. Periodization isn’t even middle aged, it is the great, great grandpa of training techniques. Some sort of simple and perhaps unintentional periodized training has probably been taking place since Lucy,  the famous hominid that roamed the earth some 4 million years ago, first started chasing game or running away from predators.

One of the first planned periodization schemes in history was that of the 6th century BC Greek strongman, Milo of Croton. It is said that Milo engaged in a periodized strength training program by lifting a bull over his head every day. He started this periodization scheme when the bull was just a baby and continued until the bull was 4 years old. Every day as the weight of the bull grew so did his strength!

Milo’s periodization scheme was a very simple one but was very effective none the less. Today there are many types of periodization schemes, some of which can be very complex. While there are many different possible types of periodization schemes they are all built upon one of two basic types of periodization plans – linear or non-linear (undulating) plans.

Both linear and undulating periodization plans include a variety of workout types. The difference lies in the sequence of the workouts. In a linear periodization plan the types of workouts in your training cycle are mostly segregated into individual periods of phases. The most common example of a linear periodization plan is one in which your first phase is composed of predominately easy paced runs of progressively longer distances to build up a base of endurance. In your second phase you would add in some faster paced tempo and lactate threshold workouts to build strength and stamina while decreasing overall mileage. Your third phase would focus mostly on high intensity running to build speed with your fourth and final stage would focus on recovery and sharpening with a reduction in both mileage and intensity.

This linear type of periodization has been used successfully for years by many thousands of athletes, but is it the best type of periodization? I don’t think there are any absolutes in running and it follows that there is no “best” technique. The most effective periodization technique will vary from athlete to athlete depending upon their goal and their specific needs, but for many runners a non linear or undulating periodization scheme may be the superior method.

An undulating periodization includes a variety of workout types on a weekly or, in some cases, even a daily basis. The popular multi pace training technique is the most common of many types of non linear periodization. In multi pace training you are performing a mix of endurance, stamina, speed, strength and technique workouts throughout your training cycle. The specific mix of your workouts is adjusted according to your goal race, your strengths, your weaknesses, and where you are in your cycle. This undulating type of periodization scheme holds many advantages for today’s runners including superior injury resistance, increased overall fitness and the ability to quickly train for a variety of race distances.

Which type of periodization scheme is best for you? In the chart below I have outlined the advantages and disadvantages of both types of plans. As you will see, it is my opinion that an undulating periodization scheme is best for most of today’s athletes, but there is still a place for the classic linear scheme for some runners.

Linear Periodization

Runner TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
BeginnerSimple, easy to follow plan. Allows for gradual increases in effortFitness increases will be slower. Increases in mileage without strength improvements could cause overuse injuries.
RecreationalEasy to follow planOverall fitness may be lower. Less injury resistance.
High School Competitor or Seasonal CompetitiorGood for rebuilding a base of fitness after an extended time off. Progress is easily monitored. Provides an easy way to peak for a race or short series of races.Less well rounded athlete. Less injury resistance. Hard to maintain high levels of fitness in all phases of running.
Year Round CompetitorLogical and easy to follow plan. Easy to recognize fitness peak. Easy to provide sufficient recovery.Takes more time to switch between various race distances and goals. Lowered level of injury resistance.


Non-Linear or Undulating Periodization


Runner TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
BeginnerImproved overall fitness. Reduced chance of overuse injuries. Variety helps increase motivation and enjoyment.Requires a high degree of initial effort. More complex plan.
RecreationalHigher degree of fitness. More injury resistance. More variety.Higher degree of complexity. More high intensity and difficult workouts.
High School Competitor or Seasonal CompetitorThe variety may be more enjoyable to young athletes. Less chance of injury. Greater overall fitness.The plan is harder to implement and monitor. Harder to recognize and properly time a fitness peak.
Year Round CompetitorImproved overall fitness. Able to maintain a good balance of all critical running systems. Easy to adjust to different race distances and goals.Harder to recognize and maintain training peaks. Greater chance of over training.