Monday, September 3, 2007

Real World Periodization II: Phases & The Annual Training Plan

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science), CSCS, PES.

I had an interesting chat with Gordo, the other day, about the difference between what a ‘long-term plan’ means to a swim coach vs. a recreational tri coach. I had the fortunate experience of working for a couple of years under Aussie swim coach Col Jones. Jones Swimming is a household name in the age group swim scene in Australia, with multiple state titles and a score of athletes who have gone on to compete well at both the national and international level. The reason lies in the incredibly structured developmental program that they have in place.

When a child signs up for swim lessons at Jones, they begin, knowingly or not, an 8-10 year process that creates some of the best swimmers on the Aussie scene. From the moment they take their first push and glide from the wall, they are being watched, not only by their instructor, but also by the squad supervisor, who determines if and when the child is ready to move up to the next level. In the beginning, this decision is based on simple technical criteria, e.g.:
- Straight arm recovery
- ‘Chop off the ear’
- Water on the eyebrows
- ‘Boil the water’ with the feet.

The technical criteria becomes progressively more advanced and demanding through the learn to swim phase (~ages 4-8) and eventually transitions to more performance & attendance based criteria as the child makes the transition to junior squads (ages 8-12), for example:
- Complete 10x100 FS @ 2:15
- Complete 10x100 IM @ 2:45
- Attend 5 of the available 7 sessions each week.

And, if they show promise, eventually to the results based criteria of the high performance squads e.g.
- Make state finals
- Qualify for Nationals.

The point is, Jones, and other successful swim programs that I have had the opportunity to observe &/or be a part of, recognize that the acquisition of technical competence, basic endurance, basic strength, threshold endurance and specific race speed is a process that takes 8-10 years. The swimmer does essentially the same training day in, day out in the squad that is appropriate for their current developmental level for as long as it takes to move up to the next one. This could be 10 weeks or 6 months. Sure, some kids get bored along the way and are able to convince their parents that this swimming thing is not for them, or that they should transfer to a different coach (who generally promises that if Sally was in my program, she’ll be making State within a year). Either way, the program doesn’t change to accommodate their whims. The squads roll on, with or without them. And, with only a few exceptions, those who persist and stay a part of this program for the 8-10 years are rewarded with a very high level of performance.

I make the point above that long term improvements in endurance take long term periods of focused development and that, while it is normal to get bored along the way, the solution is not to switch sports or switch coaches or switch training methods. The solution is always – stay the course.

In Tudor Bompa’s landmark book, Theory and Methodology of Training, he speaks of the staircase of athletic development and how the step height and step length are both functions of the biomotor ability that the athlete is seeking to improve.

For example, endurance vs. strength.

Or, put another way, to paraphrase Bompa, while flexibility can be overloaded and improved from day to day, and strength from week to week, improvements (and graduations in the training stress) for endurance should be considered month to month.

Because Bompa’s primary area of focus was strength and power training, much of the rest of the book was framed in that light, e.g. macrocycles were designated as 4-6 week periods of a given training emphasis, while microcycles (or loading blocks) were designated as periods of ~1 week. This may be entirely appropriate when we are talking about optimal duration of training blocks for an experienced strength athlete, however, in my opinion and experience as a coach of endurance sports, it significantly misses the mark when we are talking about developing the core biomotor abilities of the sub-elite endurance athlete.

So, in Friel-speak, when we are looking at the key training cycles, e.g. Base 1, Base 2, Base 3, etc…, for a novice to sub-elite athlete, it is my opinion that these blocks are better used as 4-8 MONTH periods of development, rather than 4-8 weeks.

It may be interesting to look at what phase of athletic development you are currently at in your long term development as an athlete.

Base 1
“Training to train”

Typical Performance Level:
12-17hr Ironman (although, it is worthwhile noting that athletes at this level can be quite quick at short distance racing, some of my “Base 1” athletes are 5 hours or better for a half but unable to break 12 for a full).

- Technique
- Basic Endurance
- Body Composition
- Basic Strength
- Basic Flexibility/Injury Prevention

Typically this athlete will come in 30-50lbs overweight, and despite what they may have “benched” or “squatted” back in high school, will be surprised when we get them in the weights room & they struggle to get a good # of reps with 2 plates on the bar. This level of athlete will benefit most from a prolonged training block focusing on improving their basic biomotor abilites, which also happen to be their specific race limiters.

Good improvements can be expected if the athlete devotes 4-8 months training at this level. It is not unusual to see someone drop 50lbs in this time frame and strength improvements for this level athlete can generally be expected to be 50-70%, putting them close to Joe Friel’s strength/bodyweight goals by the end of the year.

The year may culminate in a “just finish” Ironman or a big hiking trip or bike tour. Either way, this “training to train” year sets the athlete up well for Base 2.

Base 2:
“Training to perform”

Typical Performance Level:
10-12hr Ironman

- Steady State Endurance
- Steady State Speed

Our serious athlete, who has completed several Ironman events and is ready for a “breakthrough performance”, often after multiple races where they underperformed relative to their shorter race distance performances. Despite the athlete’s insistence that they need more speed work, this athlete can most benefit from a long period of training with a focus on maximizing the amount of steady state training within their basic training week. Again, this basic adaptation requires a long time (multiple months) to optimize. It is a reality that most untrained/poorly trained individuals will struggle to hold their AeT pace/power for much more than a half-ironman effort, the ability to hold this effort for the duration of an Ironman race is not something that should be taken for granted. For the average 10-12hr IMer, extending your aerobic threshold endurance to equal or exceed your predicted race duration is the adaptation that offers the greatest “bang for your buck”.

Base 3:
“Training to race”

Performance Level:
9-10 hour Ironman

- Muscular Endurance
(the amount of the race that they can devote to Zone 3-4 efforts)
- Tactics
(where to best place these efforts to ensure the greatest return).

When the Ironman athlete gets to the point that steady state endurance is no longer a limiter, it may make sense to insert periods of effort above average race effort that are tactically advantageous in accordance with the athlete’s strengths, e.g. for an athlete who is a strong climber, it may be beneficial to move into a Zone 3 effort on a key climb in the race where they will be able to generate more speed for the additional watts than if they were to expend the same amount of energy on the flats. Similarly, depending on the race, it may prove useful to expend their ‘reserve energy’ during the swim, in an effort to bridge up to a group of swimmers that is more in line with their cycling ability (to minimize the extra effort associated with passing slower cyclists). However, it is important to note that by the time you are ready to tactically race an Ironman, you’re already at a pretty elite level and, as Gordo is fond of saying, you have spent many years getting ‘fit’ before worrying about getting ‘fast’.

So, that’s my take on the appropriate duration of mesocycles or “focus periods” for the endurance athlete. Now, what about the appropriate duration of overload steps (or microcycles)? As previously mentioned, as a biomotor ability, endurance has relatively long, shallow steps in the developmental staircase. From practical experience, I have found that the optimal length of these steps is anything from 4-8 weeks of one consistent training stimulus before further overload is applied. This ties in nicely with the “basic week” concept. In other words, I give my athletes a fixed training stimulus (a basic week) that they are to repeat 4-8 times before we re-evaluate what adaptations/improvement has occurred and, if applicable, add a slight overload (generally no more than 10%) of whatever stimulus is appropriate for their current developmental level. For our Base 1 athlete this may be a 10% increase in pure volume or a 10% increase in total work completed in a strength session. Either way, the increase is quite modest and conservative and patient by most other coaches’ standards. It does, however, represent the appropriate time frame for the athlete to get some real, measurable improvement that is specific to their own personal limiters.

The progressive transition through these developmental levels is, at best case, a 3 year process, and that assumes consistent, appropriate training on a week-in, week-out basis. Just as the kids who made it through the Jones’ program were the one’s with the parents who recognized the difference between a child’s whims and genuine discontent, if you are to truly succeed in this sport, when you are considering giving up or changing approaches or looking for the next best short cut, it may serve you to be your own best parent and remind yourself how important it is, both in sport and in life, when in doubt, to stay the course.


Triracerboy said...

Another good post. Keep them coming.

Paul Fleuren said...

Wow Alan

I love your posts. keep them coming.

As a coach one of the biggest limiters I find with my athletes, especially in the 10-12hr range, is mental arousal. They just can't contain themselves in order to train the right way. This becomes a big limiter for me as a coach. when I set down sessions they should be doing they end up doing sessions they should be doing in other phases of their training.

Make sense????????????

Paul F

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks for your comments guys. Much appreciated.

Paul, I agree 100%. For your average guy looking to lose his beer gut in the health club, a boring program is a good reason to change. For the serious endurance athlete, however, boredom doesn't cut it.

Chris Whyte said...

Nice article. I enjoyed reading it.

I do have a disagreement with your assessment of Base 3 though. Two things:

1. I think there's a common misconception that the elites on the bike use dynamic race tactics. Certainly some do but I've found through power file analysis and discussions with elite athletes themselves that the best ones tend to stick to a strategic plan which typically yields an incredibly steady performance. IOW, I don't see much variability between zones at all. Kona appears to be the exception though as you will often see athletes ride 80 - 85% of FTP up to the Queen K before settling in.

2. My observation is that most people actually climb >80% of FTP which by definition would be >=Zone 3 effort, correct? What I see is that the smart elites are actually more conservative than the typical AGer. The typical AGer is often climbing >=FTP but the typical well-paced elite is climbing somewhere around ~80 - 85% of FTP. So I'm a little confused about your definition of a zone 3 effort in this case. Make sense?

Alan Couzens said...

Great points Lakerfan.

I'm certainly learning as I go and, with the amount of power files that you've seen, I certainly give your comments a lot of weight.

Couple of thoughts:

The most "tactical" race on the bike in most races is the top end AG race. The ability to use legal drafting makes jumps from wheel to wheel more advantageous, particularly for mediocre swimmers.

I would call 80-85%FTP on the climbs a Z3 effort. I agree that many folks (esp those without power) over do this. I also suggest that many athletes, particularly at 11hrs+ don't have the reserve to do this and should cap at the top of Z2.

Thanks for your comments. Always food for thought.