Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Making the Grade

“It takes a long time to get good”
- Scott Molina

It is no secret that success in endurance sports is a long journey, a journey that, like many of the bike rides that it encompasses, begins on an easy flat road, before moving into rolling hills and eventually culminating with a mountain like the Tourmalet (above). Yes, for the athlete who is committed to fulfilling their potential, the old adage is true:

“You cannot create the you of tomorrow with the actions of yesterday”

This is the very essence of the principle of progressive overload: Always doing a little more, inching up the volume and (to a lesser extent) the intensity over a very long time frame.

But, like all journeys, the intelligent traveller will invest in a map before setting out. Something that the explorers of yesterday learned in a hurry was that it is a whole lot easier to cross a mountain range by finding and crossing the passes rather than the peaks. The easiest way to cross the mountain range and to get to your end destination is not to pick the highest immediate peak and resolve to summit it (this is a sure-fire recipe for eventually tripping on a piece of loose gravel and falling down the mountain). No, the best way to get to where you want to be is to find the path with the most moderate altitude gain and the most shallow grade.

If you are anything like me, when going on a new mountain ride, the first question I will ask my riding buddy (or my map) is, what sort of grades am I looking at here? If I start to hear high double digits, my quads start cramping in anticipation :-)

Similarly, for the athlete committed to the long term journey of becoming the best triathlete they can be, they may wish to know:

a) What is the most direct route ?
b) What sort of grades am I looking to encounter?

The good news is that, based on the successful athletes that I am working with, the net grade increases are pretty tame. The climb to the top is more like a Mt. Lemmon steady grade, with great scenery the whole way, than a Tourmalet suffer-fest.

The bad news is that, even the most direct route is a looooong way. Istvan Balyi, the guru of long term development, said long ago that it takes 10,000hrs to become a world class athlete. While, I’m yet to have the privilege of taking an athlete to the summit of world class competition, based on the elite athletes that I have worked with, this trend holds.

So, that news is the worst of it, you’re in for a long trip. Now back to the good news, the climb is only a 1% grade!! That’s it! If you take the most direct route, the climb is total cake. Now, I know many of you will wind up taking the road less travelled and seek out the hard stuff, the 15-20% grades. Some of you will make it back to the moderate path, others will blow out a knee or crash on the descent. While, in the long run, both routes have the opportunity to get you to the same place, one is a whole lot more risky than the other.

The chart below shows the training volume and intensity for one high performing elite athlete over the past 6 years. While, not always taking the most direct route, the long term trend is obvious: a gain of ~10hrs/wk of volume over the course of the past 70mths (or ~6 years), an increase in training volume of 8 minutes/month, a net grade of ~1%!!

A similar trend can be seen in the following data on an elite German long course triathlete: As you can see, annual volume increased from 900-1600hrs over the course of 6 years. This represents an increase of ~115hrs/yr, 10hrs/mth – a grade of ~1%

This magic # of 10-30% volume increase each year has been advocated by a number of periodization experts including Matveyev and Bompa.
Additionally, the trend of adding 2-4 hrs of training to the basic week each year doesn’t just apply to the elite athlete. Another age-grouper (and Kona qualifier) that I have been working with increased his annual training volume from an average of 14hrs/wk in 2006 to 18hrs/wk this year (a net grade of 0.6%!!). Definitely not a Tourmalet inclination, but a long term sustainable one that doesn’t require the athlete to start ‘snakeing’ across the road in order to complete the climb. Let me elaborate...

Many times, when an athlete attempts a more rapid increase in volume, it will be, by necessity, accompanied by a corresponding decrease in quality. The obsession that many athletes have with overall miles or hours without any concern for the speed at which those miles are completed is a fundamental training error. The only way that you will move to the next level is by aerobically training muscle fibers that are currently ‘anaerobic’ or ‘gas guzzlers’. If you’re going too slow to recruit these fibers you are, as my buddy JD would say, ‘touring’ not ‘training’.

So, as an athlete setting out on a very long journey, you have some decisions of very practical significance to make: A moderate path with lower short term peaks and a more moderate grade or a more risky route that may or may not get you to your destination time-efficiently and in one piece.

The most moderate approach is to devise a basic week of general preparation at or slightly above (no more than 10-30% above) the previous year's volume that you know you can complete on at least 40 of the 52 coming weeks of the next year. This week can be tweaked occasionally in the case of camps or race preparation periods, but overall remains the same for a year or more.

For example, an athlete who achieved 500hrs of training (~10hrs/wk) in the preceding year may design a basic week of 11-13hrs (11hrs minimum acceptable for a normal training week, 13hrs target) for the following year. Even accounting for 'down' weeks of business travel, race recovery, family obligations and the like, a moderate plan like this will ensure a minimal 10% increase in training volume each training year.

The other mitigating factor that comes into play is the ‘quality’ of the road that you select. Sometimes the most direct route won’t be on the highest quality roads. I know that living in Boulder, if I want to head up into the mountains from where I am, my most direct route has me on my cross bike with some very low quality (but fun) surfaces. If I put too many quality constraints on the roads of my journey, all of a sudden my journey takes longer. Admittedly, I’m going a lot faster during the journey, with periods that I am absolutely flying on the high quality roads, but in the long term, they are not the most direct route to my destination.

We all know that progressive overload is one of the core tenets of an effective training program, but I think that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that ‘progressive’ training and ‘hard’ training are fundamentally antonymous.

Stay the course.



Jason said...

as you mention, there is a large variation in the week-to-week volume in the graph that you provided. Do you think one could tolerate a "steeper incline" if the weekly volume was more consistent?

Alan Couzens said...

Really good point, Jason.

There is a great book written by a New Zealand swim coach who implemented Lydiard's principles in the swimming world. In it, he describes the transition of some swimmers from a 30km program to a 100km program within 6 months by moderating the intensity and being progressive with the volume. This represents a ~230% increase in 26 weeks, coming up on the magic # of 10%/wk.

He does point out though, that this rate of improvement is not 'the norm' & based on his experience, the build-up period usually lasts ~2 years.

Most folks aren't going to have the patience to really optimize this aerobic phase. As you know, spending 1-2 years with the heart rate under 150 is challenging :-)