Friday, November 30, 2007

Making the most of your Preparatory Period:

An hour a day keeps the Doctor away, three hours a day keeps Joe Bonness away :-)

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

Of all the phases of periodization, the General Preparatory period means many different things to many different coaches. For some, this period is merely an extension of the transition phase, a sort of “wait out the winter” phase without losing too much summer fitness. For others, generally those with experience coaching elites, it is recognized that the athlete’s ultimate performance ceiling is ultimately determined by the working potential that is built during the General Preparatory phase of training.

In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes that coaches and athletes make is running from one specific prep/competition phase into another, or worse still, hitting a hard 12 week specific prep phase, followed by a couple of races during the summer and then taking the winter off. It is worth repeating the point that the intensity and frequency of key sessions that you are able to tolerate in your specific preparation for a given event, is entirely determined by the working potential that you have built during the “off season”. As Lance Armstrong was fond of saying, THERE IS NO OFF-SEASON.

So, what does this mean in practical terms for the working athlete looking to fulfill his/her potential while taking into account the constraints of work, family etc. ? One word: Consistency. The primary objective of the General Prep phase should be to build and habituate a basic week that you can hit at least 8 weeks out of 10. I have found that the simpler this week is, the more likely the athlete is to hit it.

One Hour a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

For my novice athletes, I set a simple goal of 1hr of cardiovascular activity every morning before going to work. By placing this “big rock” in the jar (i.e. the day) first, we greatly increase the chance of it getting done. Also, there is some positive reinforcement to be had from being able to check the exercise goal off the To-Do list before starting a stressful work day. In short, this is a fantastic life habit to create. In my humble opinion, the 1hr a day of exercise coupled with a healthy diet are the bare minimal requirements for achieving and maintaining a good physique and (more importantly) good health. In my previous life as a personal trainer, it became very apparent that the willpower required to hit the caloric target that would enable my clients to lose fat while maintaining your typical sedentary, work-stress filled lifestyle is not maintainable long-term. An hour a day keeps the doctor away and it provides a great base level of fitness on which you can later add some key long sessions to specifically prepare for your first Ironman.

Two Hours a Day Keeps Half the Field Away

For the athlete looking to become more competitive, in the second or third year of training, the preparatory phase can graduate to a 2hr a day goal. I still encourage my athletes to get the bulk of the 2 hours done at the start of the day in one session. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, studies on fat oxidation have shown a big shift at the 90min-2hr mark. Therefore, athletes willing to make this commitment to a 2hr morning workout at least 5 days a week can see big shifts in body composition and substrate fitness in a relatively short time. Both of these changes have big implications on your Ironman performance. For most folks, with a busy, dare I say unorganized, life. 14hrs a week represents the top end of what they an hit on a week to week basis. Don’t get me wrong, 40x14hr weeks in a year will lead to a solid performance level – top end of your age group sort of thing. However, generally speaking, after 2 or 3 years of being a decent age-grouper most folks are getting a little frustrated at plateauing times and coming in 30th, 40th, 100th in your age group in the big races. It has been said that no one remember second place. If that is true, they sure as heck don’t remember 39th! Often, this frustration can lead to athletes looking to train more time-efficiently, in other words, crank up the training intensity on a ‘less is more’ approach. There are a bunch of frustrated 500yr hour athletes out there, going from coach to coach, year after year, looking for the ‘secret’ to push them up to the next level. The 'secret' is that the folks who are winning your age group, either currently, or at some time in their lives have made a commitment to put in consistent 20+hr weeks. Much of my job as a coach of athletes looking for that 'breakthrough performance’ is to put on my 'life coach hat'; identify priorities, carve out time in your schedule for the important stuff and learn to say no.

Make no mistake about it, if you are exercising more than 1 hour a day, you are doing it for reasons other than fitness. Cooper (the aerobic exercise training guru) pointed this out years ago and it holds true today. If you are in the sport of triathlon as a competitive athlete (as opposed to a fitness athlete) then put yourself in a position that enables you to compete!

Three hours a day keeps Joe Bonness away :-)

No guarantee on this one. Joe is a fantastic athlete, but the point holds true. There are people out there who lead very fulfilling balanced lives that are able to fit in 3hrs of training a day. It follows that until you match their training commitment, you won’t beat them! 3 hours a day? That’s crazy! Tell that to the tens of thousands of high school swimmers getting up at 4am every morning to hit the pool for a 2hr session, followed by a full school day and after school practice. Doesn’t this level of training affect their academic performance? Studies indicate the contrary. Doesn’t this make them tired through the day? Yep, so when they hit the sack at night, they don’t lie there in a perpetual state of insomnia thinking about all of the stresses of work/school….they sleep. If you truly want to lead a ‘balanced’ life, surely a part of that is balancing out some of the ever-increasing mental stress of your family and work life with some physical stress relief!

So, that’s it for the spiel. What does this mean in practice for the experienced athlete committed to a breakthrough season? Simple. Make 2-a-days a habit: Take a 30-45 minute jog when you get up in the morning, commute via bike to work and then commute home detouring by the pool/gym. At this point in the season, the intensity of the exercise is secondary to just getting it done. This means if you feel good, throw in a bit of steady-state training. If you feel like crud then make it an easy spin. As long as your heart rate is within 10 beats of your AeT, you’re golden. If you reach a point that your heart rate won’t go up, take a few days off – make that one of the 10 recovery weeks per year that you allot yourself. Have to go out of town for a weekly conference? Don’t stress yourself out trying to keep up with the routine in an environment you can’t control, schedule this week in advance as one of your recovery weeks. Simple, right? Easy, wrong! It’s very challenging in the beginning to train your support network to adjust to your new basic week. You have to get to bed earlier (no late night TV), you have to be more productive in the time you have at work, to get the essentials done, while ignoring the non-essentials – no wasted time on email etc. You need to train your boss to value your results at work rather than desk-time. You need to have open and frank discussions with your wife about your goals and the importance that triathlon holds in your life. For many folks, these are the greatest limiters to your athletic performance, not your VO2max, muscular endurance or speed skills. Rather, your life skills.

I guess I should end this with a couple of caveats:
#1 You don't go from being a 7hr/wk athlete to a 20hr/week athlete in a month. Recognize that the commitment to fulfilling your potential in endurance sports is a long-term game. If you maintain your current (aerobic) intensity, a 10%/month increase is challenging but achievable for most folks. This basically means that a 10hr athlete could progress to a 20hr athlete over the course of a year if they included no specific preparation/serious racing over that year. For most folks a 2-3 year 100% increase is more tolerable and gives you sufficient time to make changes in the rest of your life that will support your athletic goal.

#2 Every jump in your training volume must be matched with a jump in your recovery strategy. In my experience, you won't be able to sustain 20hrs/wk of training on less than 8-9hrs of sleep a night (bare minimum). Similarly, your commitment to nutrition quality and timing becomes exponentially more important with increased training volume.

#3 As a coach, it's not my job to determine your priorities. However, it is my job to point out to you when your life priorities and your athletic goals don't mesh. There will be times in your life that athletics will not be (& should not be) high on your priority list. E.g. starting a family, devoting 2-3 years to moving up the corporate ladder (to provide more free-time/financial independence in the future). In this case it is important to manage expectations. It is a lot easier to maintain your current level of racing performance (on similar or even diminished volume) than it is to have a 'breakthrough performance'. Keeping your training going at a fitness or maintenance level during these years is essential to your health, stress management & your long-term athletic goals. However, just as increasing intensity and volume at the same time is a recipe for disaster, increasing your commitment to 2 areas of your life at the same time is a sure-fire recipe for burn-out. Always keep the big picture in mind.

I hope I have conveyed, the importance of the General Preparatory period, on so many levels, as the foundation for your late season performance. Stay tuned for future articles on how your week will change as you move into the specific preparatory period. But for now….

Get it done.


hak said...

Well written! I need to heed this advice. Common sense, but, as you said, challenging to implement.

Unknown said...

Thanks for helping the working athlete realize the real limitations of reaching success in our sport. I am a big fan of yours as you are able to seamlessly transition from highly scientific principles to good old fashioned common sense.
Please keep up the great work!!!

TJ said...

Great stuff.
Thanks for the reminder of what I should be doing.

Unknown said...

This is an extremely well written piece. I really enjoy your blog a lot. Good guidance tempered with the realities of life that have to play a factor. Excellent! Thanks.


manny82 said...

Hello there

I love reading your articals!
I was wondering what would your protocal for lactate testing look like for a bike test and a runn test, if you could help that would be great.
thank you manny

GFOQ said...

Alan, excellent article, which I found on xtri. I applied many of your techniques mentioned and have achieved incredible results. I enjoy your straightaway advice and I applaud your opinion regarding a 2-3 year gradual increase in ones training progression to ensure maximal satisfaction when achieving ones athletic goals. I would rather see someone progress into Ironman status, than to rush into completing one of life's ultimate achievements, only to fall short of their real potential (physically and emotionally). Sure plenty of athletes can get it done with pure talent, but a LOT more can't. Aspirations can be very powerful. Many times we need to be grounded before we realize the goal is the journey.
later, cd

gs said...

fantastic article and so well and clear written. Thank you.