Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Ultimate Success Formula for Triathletes

Part 2: Keeping up with the Trends
Alan Couzens, MS (Sport Science), CSCS, PES

That’s me above in my new “McLovin” Shirt, an early Valentines day gift from Baby J. As you can probably tell by my clothing selection, keeping up with the latest fashion trends has never been much of a concern of mine. I typically wear what I want, irrespective of what the rest of society is wearing ‘these days’. It’s always been that way. Back in college you would probably have given me a wide berth, with my razor shaved skull, combat boots, cut off army issue pants and the obligatory angry band T-Shirt (Tool, Pantera or Ministry for those interested). Dressing like this did a wonderful job of feeding my social paranoia/anxiety disorder, but that’s a topic for another blog (or a therapist’s couch :-)) sometime in the future.

No, today’s blog is not about keeping up with the latest clothing trends or social norms. The ‘trends’ that I am referring to in the title are your training trends. As I mentioned in the last blog, what you actually get done in a training year provides significant information as to what you should do in the following year. I also suggested that there are 3 ‘trends’ that you definitely want to see in your annual training log:

1. An increase in training volume over the course of the training year.
2. An increase in training intensity over the course of the training year.
3. An increase in performance standards/fitness over the course of the training year.

I also promised in the last blog to throw out an example from my own log and some simple methods of assessing

a) Whether you fulfilled the above criteria for a successful training year in 07
b) Your current level of improvement in fitness and load tolerance so that you can begin to plan/forecast your training in 08.

So, here we go….

Let’s begin by taking a look at my fitness improvement on the bike in 2007. First thing to determine is whether or not there was an improvement. For this metric, I have been tracking my power output at a given aerobic heart rate.

A good number of you will, by now, have access to regular power measurement of some description, be it a power meter on your own bike or a comptrainer. For those, without power, your best bet for biking is to eliminate the variables in the power equation over which you have limited control, i.e. wind. Pick a steady climb that is steep enough to slow you down enough that wind resistance becomes a minimal factor, i.e. less than 10mph and long enough that your HR will stabilize (i.e. 3+minutes) and repeat 5-10 hill repeats regularly (weekly, ideally on a relatively calm day) throughout the year to get an assessment of your performance in time for the climb at a given (small HR range).

The key with this metric and all of the metrics that we’ll discuss is obtaining enough data points throughout the year to assess whether the trend is significant. This is IMPORTANT. From my experience, even the most diligent and serious athletes will get lab tested 2-3 times per year. The reality is, 2-3 data points don’t make for a very reliable trend. Lab testing is a necessity for other reasons (setting training zones and assessing strengths/weaknesses), but as a measure of day to day or week to week progress, I will take a simple, less controlled field test repeated 50 times throughout the year over 2 or 3 meticulously controlled lab tests any day of the week.

OK, so back to the graph. X axis in the number of months since I started back training (after my big bike crash). Y axis is my power output at a heart rate of 140bpm. This is pretty close to my best IM heart rate to date and is smack bang in the middle of my steady zone on the bike.

So, in answer to the first question that establishes whether 2007 was a successful year, Did I get better? The answer is yes. Looking at the graph, I went from pushing (a pitiful) 124 watts at a heart rate of 140 in January, to a max of 201 watts at a heart rate of 140 during my specific prep period in August. Now, it should be said that these power measurements were obtained from a variety of sources (Polar PM, Velotron, Saris Spin Bike,SRM). However, I do have a LOT of data points from each of these means.

I guess a logical follow up question is “if I improved by 80 watts in 2007, what can I expect out of 08? 280watts at my IM heart rate?” Unfortunately, no, my performance trend is not linear but is best represented (for the math geeks out there) as a logarithmic curve, or for my more pessimistic readers, a curve of diminishing returns. If I stay on the trend curve, by my key race of next year (ironman Arizona) in November, I should be pushing 216W at a heart rate of 140. I am hopeful that, with a bout of higher intensity work during my specific prep period, I will once again be able to jump a little above the curve but, a realistic goal for Nov (providing I keep with the current training trend) would have my IM power output somewhere in the 220’s. While not much of a jump over the course of the year, a power output of 220 would put me at the pointy end of the AG field and would go a long way toward helping me achieve my greater goals.

Whenever, I look at a trend curve like this, it’s always fun to play it out to the nth degree. If I continue on the same performance (and training) trend for the next 5 years, what can I expect? The answer: 242W at 140bpm. I may not be challenging Stadler with those #’s but it’s certainly motivating to picture myself at that level of performance with a period of sensible, progressive, consistent training over, what is in the grand scheme of things, a relatively short period of time.

But, there is always a flip side. What will the likely cost be for me to get to this performance level based on my current training trends? First, let’s look at the bike training trends of 07 that resulted in my 80 watt gain over the course of 12 months. Specifically, let’s look at: Did I increase my training volume over the course of the year? Did I increase (or at the very least, maintain) my training intensity over the course of the year?

So, the nice slope of that trend line indicates, yes indeed, I am training more now than I was last January, which is a good thing, considering I was a month out of a wheelchair at that time, but irrespective of the reason, I’m on the up and up, I’ll take it.

Once again, I can’t look at a trendline without wondering what lies a little to the right of the graph, so it begs the question, if the trends continue, what level of biking volume will I be doing in the lead up to my key IM in order to keep pace with my improvement trend? Extrapolating from the curve, we come up with 49hrs/mth or approximately 12hrs of biking for each week of my specific prep phase next year for a 220W IM performance. Definitely seems doable from a distance. Most things do. Of course, this doesn’t include swimming or running. Factor those in and we’re probably in the ball park of a 20hrs/wk average over the course of 12 weeks. Factor in the fact that, either in the name of recovery, sickness, injury or just life, I’ll probably wind up playing catch up for 3 or 4 of those weeks, necessitating closer to a 25hr week, it becomes clear that this level of training load and consistency is no cake walk and the only way to prepare for August, September and October of next year, is to continue to keep up with the trends, today, tomorrow and the day after that.

Let’s throw intensity onto the chart and see how I did on that front.

First, the big question, did I manage to complete the golden trilogy of an effective training plan:
- Increased fitness
- Increased volume
- Increased intensity

Yep. Intensity increased from an average heart rate of 129bpm in January to 136bpm in December. This may not sound like a whole lot, but in real world terms is indicative of an increase in steady (Zone 2) training from 15% to 25% and an increase in sub threshold (Zn 3-4) training from 5% to 14%.

So, overall, not a bad year in the world of Big A. The best thing about starting over after a major accident is that you get to re-experience the joy of the novice, where improvement comes thick and fast. Of course, this joy is tempered somewhat when you think back to old PRs from ‘back in the day’. But, coming back to retrospective analyses like this really helps me to foster the faith that I will be back where I once was and then some. The numbers don’t lie.

Also, performing analyses like this can give the astute athlete some clues on strengths, weaknesses and how your body responds to different training methods. I won’t subject you to the same metrics from my 2007 run volume. Partly because this article is running long and partly because I’m embarassed to do so. Suffice to say that the rate of improvement of my run curve is substantially flatter than my bike curve. You may have noticed a slight drop in my bike volume over the past couple of months. This is a conscious decision to bring my bike:run ratio more into balance and the effects so far have been good. I have dropped 53s per mile from my 2mile aerobic run test. Lesson for 2008: Run more.

The other trend that is obvious from the charts is that, for me, higher fitness levels in 2007 were much better correlated with increased intensity than increased volume. Now, of course tolerance to intensity is strongly related to the base developed and that is why increasing intensity with no regard to volume is a bad idea. However, it is important to keep in mind that the function of base training is to enable you to tolerate more of the specific training that you need to improve your race specific fitness. Base is important but not an end in itself.

So, how will these observations alter my plans for 08. Answer – not dramatically. My #1 priority is to keep surfing my trend wave. Because, if the pattern holds, that is my best route to (long term) getting where I want to be. However, when energy permits and I am feeling good enough to play around on the lip of the wave, I will be doing this with increased run volume and a slight increase in intensity. For example, at the moment, my trend wave has me at about 12hrs/wk of training. However, for the past 4 months, I have stayed ahead of the wave and averaged 15+hrs/wk by progressively pushing up my run volume. While doing this, however, I am conscious that relative to my past performance (and a large number of data points), at 15hrs/wk I am pushing the long term limits. I am also aware that as a 'one-off', I could easily exceed 15hrs of training. Last year I hit a number of 20-25hr weeks. But the point is, for whatever reason, I was not able to keep up with this level of volume long term (this is an important question, perhaps THE important question, to ask yourself). Now, If I’m able to hang on to my 15hr weeks, the wave will eventually catch up, but there is a fine line between hanging on and 'wiping out' that I am (from previous experience) verrrry aware of.

The most important thing is for me to stay on my wave, irrespective of all the distractions, the other over ambitious surfers around me, the many rocks scattered throughout my course and the kids on their boogie boards fighting to get my attention. As another one of my favorite bands (Soundgarden) used to sing, “keep it off my wave. It’s my wave!”


Chuckie V said...

Nice Alan, as expected. I just hate having to wait a month between each of your blogs! Please keep them coming!

Aaron said...

Interesting, and very well-written. One caveat, which you've alluded to: extrapolation beyond the data provided in the analysis is not accurate. Brings back memories of my 9th grade algebra teacher, to wit: "You can interpolate with a high degree (near 100%) accuracy on a graph. Beyond the data collected your ability to extrapolate drops by more than 50%. You'd think "big business" projecting returns for this year based on last year, would grasp this simple fact.