Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Forest for the Trees

“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”
- Blaise Pascal

One of the interesting aspects of being a full-time triathlon coach is the number of different ways of looking at training that you are exposed to. Coaches that I have consulted with, long term athletes that I train and sports scientists all have different ways of looking at the training for their athletes. Many are on a completely different wavelength.

I have had opportunity to see firsthand the interaction between coaches and scientists at institutions such as the Australian Institute of Sport and The Olympic Training Center here in the U.S. In both cases, I have seen, to some degree a lack of ‘buy in’ from the coaches to any advice given by the scientists. In a very real way, both are speaking different ‘languages’, largely because they are working on 2 very different levels of understanding the training process.

If I had to come up with one key trait that defines the very best coaches in the world from the herd, it would be the ability to rapidly shift on a daily basis between a big picture understanding of the athlete’s development with the day to day design of training sessions that fit in with the long term goals, the athletes life constraints and the athletes day to day physiology.

Many ‘old school’ coaches specialize in the latter, they have an uncanny knack for ‘eyeballing’ their athletes and seeing what they need on any one day and coming up with the training for the day accordingly. In some ways, these coaches have a hard time seeing the ‘forest for the trees’, i.e. how each of these days are going to build together to achieve the goals of the season, the year or the athlete’s long term developmental aims. Athletes and coaches who follow this method may ‘arrive’ at a high level of performance but will have a hard time identifying the ‘trends’ that got them there and, thus, may have a hard time getting back there or getting others there. Intuition and memory are poor substitutes for long term planning, record keeping and analyses.

On the flipside, there are the more technical coaches who understand all of the principles of the tools of long term planning, who understand the nuances of the latest technology – TSS scores, Performance Management Charts etc etc but fail to optimally integrate these big picture tools to affect the day-to-day training prescription. In some way, these coaches and athletes fail to see the ‘trees for the forest’.

I had a really interesting discussion with one of my athletes, a Kona qualifier, who also happens to be a pretty darn good coach, Shawn Burke. Shawn made the point that, while the Performance Manager Chart generated by WKO+ is a neat chart to ‘keep an eye on’, esp with regards to preventing overtraining, its usefulness as a planning tool leaves much to be desired. Like the spider-monkeys of the rainforest, moving from the forest canopy to the forest floor (day to day application) is a perilous, difficult journey :-)

One of the most dangerous ‘trap doors’ of athletes/coaches who become too focused on the TSS approach to training is thinking that training load is the be all end all, irrespective of how that load is accrued. In many ways, this coaching methodology is no better than coaches who coach purely based on intuition. The objectivity of TSS is a ruse, as one coach may accrue 500TSS points in a week with 80% of their training as interval workouts, while the other may do it with base training. In order to use this tool effectively, the coach/athlete must, in the traditional mathematic sense, ‘show their working’. Failure to do so will result in the same problems as the ‘intuition coaches’ – yeah, it took us a chronic training load of 120 TSS/d to get a Kona slot but how did we do that again? What training intensity did we use? What main sets did we use? Etc etc.

So, in that spirit, I’d like to show how I move from big picture analytical and forecasting tools to the day to day individualized programming for the athletes I work with using the metaphor of the different levels of the rainforest.

Level 1: ‘The Canopy’

First step, below is a PMC (Performance Management Chart) curve for an athlete that I work with, a Kona qualifier, who exhibits one of the highest chronic training loads (Joe Friel would call this fitness) of any of my athletes.

From this chart we can see that in the athlete’s current build (after a 5 week “off season” his CTL has reached in excess of 120 TSS/d. This is interesting from a pure curiosity perspective but, in and of itself, of limited use to us in prescribing the athletes training for the next month, day or year. In order to get to that point, we need to ask some more questions/make some more crucial decisions. For example, what combination of volume and intensity made up this overall Training Stress?

Level 2: ‘The Understory’

Volume/Intensity Curve

This curve provides a little more information than the PMC chart as to ‘how’ the training stress is distributed. It is clear that, in the Ironman game the training load is primarily manipulated by altering volume while maintaining intensity. This is a critical training principle that I have chatted about in the past. While volume is the “big player” in the Ironman game, intensity must never be sacrificed.

The ~75% intensity number of this curve falls into a narrow range of 70-80% that I have seen among all of the top age groupers and elites that I have data on. These numbers tie in well with what I would expect based on the minimal training intensity required to elicit a training stimulus (see my ‘how easy is too easy’ blog)

Level 3: ‘The Shrub Layer’

Taking it to another level, there are many ways to create an average training intensity of 75%. For example:

a) 100% Z2 = ~75% average intensity (e.g. a Maffetone program during the aerobic phase)

b) 60% @ Z1 + 40% @ Z4= ~ 75% average intensity (e.g. a specific preparatory program for a very well conditioned short course athlete)

c) 40% @ Z1 + 25% @ Z2 + 15% @ Z3 + 10% @ Z4 + 5% @ Z5 = ~75% average (e.g. a ‘balanced’ ironman program during a build period)

For each athlete at each point in the season there is a ‘right’ combination that addresses their personal limiters and the specific requirements of the event, and, perhaps most importantly best fits within the athlete’s life.

In this example, you can see from the chart below that the athletes typical weekly breakdown during this Build was ~20% Zone 1, 45% Zone 2, 28% Zone 3, and approximately 8% at or in excess of Zone 4.

In this particular case, the athlete has a relatively high proportion of Zone 3 work in their program. This was planned and deliberate due to this being identified as a relative ‘weakness’ during the physiological testing that we performed in the early season for this athlete.

Level 4: “The Floor”

And, thus, we come down to Brass Tacks – pulling the information from the above charts to construct a ‘basic week’ that is:

a) appropriate for the athlete’s current fitness level
b) sufficiently intense to stimulate adaptation/cause fatigue
c) appropriate to the athlete’s current strengths and weaknesses.

Step 1: Create loading and unloading cycles for the next block of training.

In this case the athlete’s current Chronic Training Load (CTL) is in and around 120 TSS/d. Thus, to maintain current fitness, the athlete needs to accrue approximately 120 TSS points per day. For the uninitiated, here’s a ready reckoner to convert approximate TSS points to real world sessions:

30 TSS points = 1 hour of easy/recovery training
50 TSS points = 1 hour of steady training
70 TSS points = 1 hour of moderately-hard training
100 TSS points = 1 hour of hard/threshold training.

OK, so back to it. 120TSS points per day (840 per week) will maintain what the athlete’s got.

To freshen up, based on my experience and current data, for a race or will require 1-3 weeks at or below a TSS of 30 points below your normal training level, in this case 90/day (630 for the week) This will create a training stress balance of +5 to +15. Obviously, less fit folks will be able to afford less time at a low training level and so taper times should be reduced.

Now, to load up, to create fatigue and a stimulus for more fitness will require 2-3 weeks 10-20 TSS/d points above your normal training load. This will add 2-3 points to your chronic fitness number each week. Any more than this and (based on my experience) you are asking for trouble. After these 2 weeks you return to your maintenance fitness level for a week, regroup and summon your reserves for the next offensive.

So, in this case a loading week for an athlete with a CTL of 120 TSS/d would be 130-140 TSS/d or ~980 TSS for the week.

Step 2: Distribute the appropriate training stress in accordance with the phase of the year and the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is important to constantly keep in mind that TSS is a training tool rather than a training model (as is any coach who uses the acquisition of TSS points as their training model :-)

A summary of my personal training model was given in last weeks blog. In TSS vernacular, this can be summarized as follows:

1. Increase easy-steady training volume until ‘optimal volume’ (or the time constraints of the athlete’s basic week) is reached @ 10-20 TSS points/15-30 minutes of training per day every 3-4 week block (followed by a recovery week @ 2-3hrs/10-20TSS/d less than the prior weeks).

2. Increase the steady-state component of the basic week by using your 10-20 TSS point budget on an extra 30-60 minute main set on 3-4 days of your basic week up to 50% of your weekly volume

3. Spend your TSS budget on appropriate main sets that address the athlete’s personal weaknesses across the intensity spectrum.

In this case, during this athlete’s specific prep period, based on his strengths and weaknesses (noted above), we will initially divide his 980 TSS training load as:

Zone 1 – 20% (196 points)
Zone 2 – 45% (440 points)
Zone 3 - 30% (294 points)
Zone 4 - 5% (49 points)

Or, using my ‘ready reckoner’ from above:

Zone 1 – 6.5hrs
Zone 2 – 8.8hrs
Zone 3 – 4.2hrs
Zone 4 – 0.5hrs

Once this relationship is established, it is easy to manipulate subsequent blocks of training in accordance with observed strengths and weaknesses while keeping the over-riding aim of not ditching fitness (chronic load) until the time is right at the fore-front.

E.g. Dude’s Zone 3 power still sucks in the context of his other critical power numbers, so we choose to ‘spend’ our 20TSS points from the next loading block on adding an extra 15 minutes of Zone 3 to one of our main sets. On the flipside, if we start to see his power #’s for the long rides start to drop, we can add an extra half hour of aerobic work to the week. In this way, the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses are continually improved without compromising the general goal of improving the athletes tolerance to work, which in the end of things will ultimately limit his/her long term development.

In the end, TSS (and TRIMPS for that matter) provide a convenient way of giving the coach regular ‘aerial views’ of his athlete’s long term development. This can help greatly in determining overall progress and ‘gaps’ in the forest. In the end, though, it is still a matter of rolling up the sleeves, getting down on the ground and planting seeds in the right places. Whether by intuition or with aerial assistance, this will remain the most important task of the astute coach.


ll said...

Hey AC!

Sorry to post such a newbie question... but are TSS points universally applicable or are those # you presented only for that particular athlete you are using as exemple.
I've never been tracking the values (TSS/CTL/ATL..) mainly b/c I don't know how to apply those for running/swimming. For the bike it's easy since I know how to connect my pm-data cable to my pc :) hope my question makes any sese to you at all!

thanks! keep this quality work of yours up

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jaakko,

The short answer is, yes they are universally applicable because they are basically assigning points based on a % of the athletes individual FTP.

The long answer is that they may not be 100% universal if we take into account the individual abilities of an athlete to hold a given % of FTP. E.g. an athlete with a great substrate profile may hold 80% FTP for 10 hours for 640TSS. Another athlete may be just as physically wrecked after 5 hours at 80% FTP (320 TSS). So, no, IMHO it's not perfect as a universal tool and is best used in tracking improvements for individual athletes.

joannacarritt said...

alan, can you guide me to referenece that'll explain what TSS points are and how they are calculated?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Joanna,

I won't bore you with the mathematics of the algorithm, but an excellent explanation of the concept (written by Andy Coggan) can be found here: