“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, let it grow, be like water”
- Bruce Lee
I was tempted, this week, to write an article on one of the remaining principles of training, the principle of specificity. But, I am forced to admit that I don’t buy into that principle to the extent that I once did. I, like Matt Fitzgerald and other coach/athletes who place a high importance on sensory acuity, have found now, on a couple of occasions, that my bike load does influence my running performance, that my strength training does influence my bike performance and vice versa. There are a couple of preliminary performance and dose-response modelling studies that also support this notion, but in a broader sense, the jury is still out. So, under the old adage that it is better to be presumed a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt, I’ll keep my mouth closed on that one…..for now :-)
Instead, I wanted to write a follow up piece on a principle that I DO believe in 100% - the principle of individuality. This piece was inspired by two things. First of all, I picked up a copy of Brad Hudson’s book “Run Faster”. This is, unequivocally, the best book that I have read on training theory in a very long time. Speaking from the vantage point of someone who is looking at 2 book shelves full of over 200 books on swim, bike and run training, hopefully that statement carries some weight. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy.
The second thing that inspired this piece was a discussion with one of the well-known coaches who espouses cookie-cutter programs as the cost-effective solution for the majority of triathletes looking for some guidance with their training program. I have a number of issues with this approach and the way that triathlon coaching seems to be going that I will address below, not the least of which is that it fails to acknowledge the physiological, psychological and socio-cultural realities of individuality as athletes and as human beings, that contribute to the fact that, when it comes to creating an effective, appropriate training program for the individual, one size does NOT fit all.
In fact, as you will see below, I would go so far to say than an athlete would be far better starting their journey with no schedule and a blank log book in hand than a generic schedule that is not tailored to them.
If you were to take a look at the 200+ books on my bookshelf, you would notice an interesting pattern. The older, more tattered books are much more practical in content (Triathletes Training Bible, Serious Training for Serious Athletes, Road Running for Serious Runners, etc.) . It used to be the case that if I didn’t see immediately practical schedules, routines, workouts when flipping through the pages of the new entries in the sports and fitness section, I deemed the book worthless and moved on. Now, I am much more likely to deem it worthless if it does contain schedules supposed to fit various age or ability groups because, after experimenting with various schedules & programs on myself and in earlier years, my athletes I have come to the conclusion that it is both preposterous & frustrating to think for a second that you can forecast with any degree of accuracy how quickly any individual will adapt to a given workload or even what physiological changes a given weekly schedule will create. It is a truth and certainly not a negative comment that, in a lot of ways, the very best coaches are ‘making it up as they go along’.
Bruce Lee is an athlete and an individual that I respect very deeply. His art of Jeet Kune Do was largely based on ‘formlessness’. An extension of Krishnamurti’s concept that ‘truth is a pathless land’, in a practical sense, formlessness simply means adapting a resolve to not hold to one form or one theory, but rather to have an open mind and use whatever works. While there are certain core concepts that have proven common to the great endurance athletes of the past, e.g. relatively high volume training, multi-pace training, some form of periodization, hard-easy training, etc. there is also room for a lot of grey. Some things have proven to work for some athletes, some for others.
However, this is not to say that there are 100 best ways to achieve your athletic potential. For every one athlete, there is one best way, specific to your own physiology, psychology and life circumstances. The real art, and perhaps joy, in training comes from discovering your Way
One of the more interesting things that I have done as an exercise physiology student is to look under the microscope and examine various muscle biopsy samples. It is very easy for the human mind, in a search for uniformity and schemata to forget just how physically different and unique that we all are. When your gaze is shifted from common faces to the foreign environment of a microscope slide, you are given a startling reminder of the fact that we are all completely unique. Even letting go of all the quantitative differences of muscle fiber type, # of cytochromes, mitochondria etc, it is clear, even to the layman that one guy’s muscle ‘looks’ very different to another’s. It is a logical extension then, that with different capacities, the ‘right’ way to train one person will be very different from another, even if the individuals are of similar fitness and training for similar events.
While most coaches will acknowledge these differences, the complexity of creating truly individual training programs tailored to each individual’s physiological peculiarities leads many to simply give up and adopt a ‘best fit’ approach, which works out fine if you’re one of the athletes who fits within the parameters of the best fit, but not so well if you’re one of the unlucky who lacks the adaptive potential or the optimal physiology to benefit from the fixed training plan. I will tell you from experience, that it is very easy to rationalize the success of a particular training method based on 1 or 2 athletes, of a squad of 20 or more being very successful on it. (I am honestly sorry to those 18/20 that didn’t make it. If only I knew then what I know now).
The good news is that you don’t have to perform daily blood analysis and muscle biopsies to determine the optimal training program for each athlete. A little flexibility, a little responsiveness is all that is required. Bruce Lee hit the nail on the head when he penned that quote 40 years ago. There is much to be admired about a single drop of water. From the day that it is deposited on an alpine slope and it begins thawing, it has only one mission, one way to use the potential energy that it has been given, and that is to find a path that leads it to the sea. However, like you on your athletic journey, the eventual path is undetermined at this point. The water droplet must be responsive. When times are good, the water will flow quickly. When times are tough, and the tributaries shallow, the water must slow down. When the water hits an obstacle and stops moving forward, it must quickly and subtly change course. If the hand of man comes in and attempts to hurry the water beyond it’s natural rate of flow it will spill over the sides and be removed (at least temporarily) from it’s forward path of progress.
This metaphor describes, quite succinctly, the way that I coach and train as an athlete. While the mission may be set in stone, the path & the rate of progress are not. The smart athlete rather than adhering to a particular schedule ‘no matter what’, will:
1. Pay attention to his/her body on a daily basis to determine if they are ready for a particular workout. If not, they will do an easier workout or rest without hesitation, irrespective of what the schedule says. In addition, they will make note of what they are able to absorb and plan the next training cycle accordingly.
2. Pay attention to the physiological adaptations that are occurring and once one plateaus, will move their focus to another, all with the aim of becoming an appropriately balanced athlete. I discuss the practicalities of this in my previous blog on complex training. In this way, a schedule forecasted forward more than 3 or 4 weeks is worthless because no one can guess the rates at which each physiological capacity will improve for each individual.
Ultimately, training responsively will prove to be the quickest route to your goals. It is true that nature does a poor job of anything when hurried. The water learned this a long time ago. Maybe, as athletes, we can too.