Monday, August 18, 2008

Lessons from the Meatheads

After last week’s blog, that emphasized the magnitude of the time commitment necessary to reach the top of a sport like triathlon, I thought that it might be a good time to throw out a reminder that, while in the long term, all athletes who are successful in the triathlon world will wind up doing a lot of miles, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the goal of those miles is to make us more fit, not simply more tired. In a volume focused sport like triathlon, it is very easy to lose sight of this simple fact.

One of the things that distinguishes triathlon from other sports is the uncontrolled nature of the environment in which it takes place. This is both a positive and a negative. Being able to experience all kinds of environment; lakes, mountains, beaches, forests, in the context of a sport is one of the most enjoyable aspects of triathlon. In fact, one may argue that it is the aspect of triathlon that makes the immense volume that I alluded to last week tolerable. However, for the athlete who is not coming from a competitive sporting background, it can be very easy to confuse this ‘touring the countryside’ with athletic training. My buddy JD wrote a blog about this distinction a while back and it is a principle that I keep coming back to with my own training and with the athletes that I work with.

It is important as an athlete to remember that the only way that you are going to witness an improvement in your average race speeds is with a concomitant increase in your average training speeds.

This principle is something that is very easy to enact and monitor on a daily basis in a sport in which the environment is controlled: The lap pool of swimming, the track for running or, the velodrome for cycling. Perhaps the extreme example of control in a sport occurs in the training environment of our cousins on the other side of the force-velocity pond – the strength and power athletes.

We can learn a lot from the years and years of logbook entries from athletes in whom the training environment and protocol is absolutely and completely controlled. After all, the only way that we can make conclusions on the effectiveness of any training manipulation is if we completely control all of the extraneous variables. How often as triathletes will we:

a) Increase our training miles while not paying attention to a drop in training speed
b) Add speedwork to our weekly running plan and notice a drop in energy/speed for our other aerobic runs.
c) Add a myriad of swimming drills to our program without ever assessing if we are able to improve our stroke length while maintaining our stroke rate, or are our drills just making us look more ‘pretty’.

Yes, as much as we make fun of the ‘meatheads’ in the gym, in the grand scheme of things, these folks are training much more intelligently and systematically than most triathletes (or triathlon coaches) could ever dream of.

I mean, do you ever hear the following conversation take place in the weight room:
Gymrat 1: So, what’s on the schedule today?
Gymrat 2: Oh, I’m just going to bust out an easy 500 reps.
Gymrat 1: What weight?
Gymrat 2: Oh, I don’t care. Today’s just a long easy day.

Quality is ALWAYS part of the equation.

This is not to say that every session is hard. Those of you familiar with weight training, will know that the bulk of training typically takes place at 70-80% of 1 RM, only a moderate load. However, the load is always fixed.

On the flipside, I will often hear athletes say, “I don’t get it coach. I’ve been doing the same amount of training as Johnny over there. I’ve been running my 40 miles a week, the same as him but he’s running 3:30 off the bike. What gives?” Of course, the element that the athlete is missing is that Johnny is running his 40 miles at sub 7:30 pace, while my disillusioned buddy has to slow down to 8:30 pace to accommodate the same mileage.

In fact, the years and years of trial and error experimentation in a controlled setting has yielded a number of training principles on the response of the human body that carry across well to endurance training.

One of the foremost authorities in distilling and applying these principles in the world of strength and conditioning is the strength training guru, Charles Poliquin:

Here are a couple of Poliquin’s principles that you may find particularly applicable to you as an endurance athlete:

1. The ‘critical drop-off point’

The basic premise of the critical drop off point is that a coach should never increase the quantity of a given stimulus at the expense of quality. It is pointless to do sets in which the resistance is lowered so much that (a) sufficient tension is not put on the muscle to elicit performance gains, i.e, the load is below the training threshold (b) the targeted muscle fibers are no longer being recruited/trained. These additional “garbage sets (miles)” would impede recovery by putting excessive strain on the nervous system, energy stores and neuro-endocrine response. The cumulative effect could be overtraining.

In practical terms, when pace or power is diminished by 5-7% from the goal, shut it down. This ties in well with Friel’s comments on decoupling, Coggan’s perspectives on the number of reps to perform during interval training and (kicking it old school ) with Lydiards comments that if an athlete cannot return at the pace in which he went out that the distance is too great.

2. To prevent overtraining cut back first on volume rather than intensity.

The body is very well equipped to not overtrain by intensity – it will simply decrease the neural drive and not allow the body to undertake a load that is too heavy for its current reserves. It is not well equipped to deal with excessive volume. Therefore, when tired, it is better to decrease the volume until the athlete is able to equal or better his/her usual training load. This can be a hard thing for the addicted triathlete to do and provides good impetus to be proactive in recovery.

3. Vary load by only 10-12% within a given training session.

A typical scenario for the AG athlete: Jimmy goes out for a steady 6hr endurance ride @ 170-190 W. He’s not feeling great in the early stages so he decides to prolong his warm up and rides for 90 minutes at an AP of 155W. All of a sudden he meets up with his buddy, Fred who has an FTP about 20W higher than Jimmy and decides he could do with some company. He gets on Fred’s wheel and has to hold 200+W just to stay there. Fred makes a turn for the hills and Jimmy hangs on for dear life, ultimately doing 5x2 minute climbs at a little over his FTP of 240W with 5 min recovery between climbs.

All told, a session that had a desired range (after warm up) of 20W, winds up with a range of almost 100W! The problem with this is that there is not enough stimulus at any one training intensity to elicit a training effect. But, there is sufficient overall training stress to fatigue the athlete. Bottom line, know the purpose of the session and stick to that intensity band.

I really could go on all day about the lessons that we can learn from strength coaches and athletes but I have a 2hr aerobic ride at 170-190 Watts with my heart rate under 150bpm to do. :-) 

Train for fun & IMPROVEMENT.



joannacarritt said...

you seem to have a gift for writing something whihc seems immediatly relevant to me each week! I'm currently mid 'big week'...very near the end of my season (which started in april and has included 4 races - marathon, ultra-dist triathlon, IM, 1/2 IM. U wont be much surprised to hear that i'm currently struggling to hit pace/power in my sessions. Clearly fatigued - I've considerded cutting back the vol, instead i've adjusted the intensities of my sessions -10% or so- to compensate, considering that the volume is key in BWT.

'A' race is 3 weeks off, i have 2 days left in this Big volume block.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on BWT approach in general, and specifically in the scenario described.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jo,

If their is any exception to holding quality in your sessions it would be in the case of a shock cycle or "big week", during which, one of the key objectives is to accrue some cumulative fatigue so that, after an unloading cycle, you can 'bounce back' stronger than ever.

However, this does not mean that the quality of training should be thrown by the wayside. We know that you want to get tired, but the question is "how tired?". Or, put more specifically, where does that fine line of training occur where the whole you dig for yourself is going to take you long enough to get out of that you wind up detraining with a net loss in fitness?

A number of studies (Phillips et al, 1985; Lohnes et al. 1994) have found that this magic number is ~10%. So, it sounds like you're pretty much there. Periods of training with performance decrements in excess of 10% are likely to lead to overtraining.

Rest up.


joannacarritt said...

thanks for such a quick response - it's pretty much as i'd interpreted the concept behind occasional overload. as you say - it IS a fine line...and during the overload period, it's more difficult than usual to be objective.

i'd made up my mind to sack this evenings' swim session in favour of my bed already. I'm blaming the Olympic Games for that though - showing triathlon at 3am Uk time!