Monday, October 6, 2008

Complex Training: The principle of variety and multilateral development

“It is easier to do many things than to do one thing, continuously for a long time”
- Marcus Fabius Quintilian

We open today’s blog with a pic of my country man and one of the greatest marathoners of all time – Mr. Robert DeCastella. Deek, as he is fondly referred to back home, was, at his time, arguably the greatest marathoner in the world and a multiple world record holder.

Deek and his coach, Pat Clohessy, were a part of the ‘new order’ of marathoning that really began with Buddy Edelen. These coaches were characterized by their pot pourri approach to training in which, rather than exclusively adhering to the successive, phasic periodization approach of Lydiard or the meticulously controlled interval method of Gerschler, these coaches recognized the merits of both and implemented both concurrently throughout the training year.

Deek describes the method as follows:

“Complex training involves the same basic routine all through the year, year in year out, with only slight modifications for racing. Other methods break the year into sections (hence the name ‘interval’ or ‘block’ training), each aimed at developing specific aspects of running. When racing, I put more emphasis on track sessions, while during heavy training, I put more emphasis on long runs”

In practical terms, Deek’s key sessions included every week were:
* A hilly long aerobic “strength” run
* A long steady aerobic “rhythm” run
* A shorter, faster tempo run
* A track or hill repeat workout
* A leg speed workout
* Easy recovery runs

This was Deek’s weekly menu day in, day out, year in, year out. It was standardized to the point that he would run the same courses for the workouts each and every week to get a feel for form and improvement.

Almost year-round ‘speedwork’ coupled with high mileage training would characterize the methods of all of the ‘big names’ of the 70’s and 80’s – Deek, Salazar, Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter etc. etc.

Physiologically, this is not surprising. If one were to pick up a copy of any of the big selling recreational training books of the 90’s and beyond, you could be forgiven for thinking that you can expect to devote 4 weeks of maximal strength training to take yourself from Mr. Puniverse to a 600lb leg press or 8 weeks of ‘build training’ in which you take you Anaerobic Threshold from 60-90% of your VO2max. The reality, of course, is that most physiological adaptations, perhaps with the exception of central VO2max, are very long term adaptations. What do I mean by long term? Things like maximal strength, anaerobic threshold, (and especially) fat oxidation are at the very least, multi-month, and in the case of fat oxidation, multi-year adaptations (see the chart from Jansen, 1987, below).

Additionally, particularly the last 2 follow that annoying rule of physiology that the adaptations that take the longest to train are also the quickest to de-train. In short, all of these qualities demand vigilant, year-round attention. The easiest way to do so, is to incorporate all of the training methods to some extent within the athlete’s basic week throughout the training year.

To further the point, studies on training monotony (e.g. Foster, 2001) have shown that too much similarity between training sessions within a week of training is a strong correlate of over-reaching and over-training. IOW, not only does providing a mix of training serve to address all physiological systems, the variety alone helps with recovery and improves the total workload that you will ultimately be able to tolerate.

In triathlon training, a good mix for a recreational athlete would be:
* A long aerobic swim (possibly with gear or open water)
* A technical/drill swim mixed with basic speed
* A descending aerobic swim with some threshold
* A long steady bike
* A medium strength (big gear) bike descending to mod-hard or AT
* A shorter high cadence recovery bike w/some aerobic maintenance
* A long hilly run
* A descending flat run
* A couple of recovery runs with strides and drills.
* A traditional strength workout
* A functional strength circuit + yoga

Now, that is a lot to fit in a week. To fit all of this within the time and energy constraints of a typical athlete will require that some sessions be very short and easy. To this end, as Deek points out, there is a change in emphasis put on different sessions in accordance with the time of year and the race schedule, e.g. harder and longer long runs during the base period, harder and more interval reps in the speed period. This said, some level of all types of training is included throughout the year. Let me elaborate more on how I use this principle within my own coaching practice.

Within most weeks of my athletes training year, some sessions will be ‘hard’, i.e. above your normal average load, some will be ‘maintenance’ sessions that equal your average load and some will be ‘recovery’ sessions that are lower than your average training load, giving you a ‘freshening’ affect.

This is not to say that hard sessions are always fast. If you’re used to a weekly 90 minute long run, a 2hr long run could be your ‘hard’ session for the week. As Deek points out, the decision of which sessions are going to be your hard sessions for any week is a function of the time of year and your own specific weaknesses. In my ‘forest for the trees’ blog and my ‘spending your allowance wisely’ blog, I give some guidelines as to how to use TSS points on the macro level to plan your training. I suggest that a loading week should be 10-20TSS/d above your CTL (your normal training load). As the monotony studies cited above point out, the best way to distribute this load isn’t to add 15TSS/d to each day, but rather, in line with the hard-easy principle to have 2-3 days that are 30-50 TSS/d above the norm, while the others are normal/maintenance or recovery days. For instance, if your normal CTL is 120 TSS/d, a big day may be 160TSS. In the early season, this may be a 3hr steady-mod long run. In the competitive phase this may be a 2hr descending run with the last 40mins just under threshold. Either way, this represents a ‘hard’ session.

I’ve presented a number of arguments for the incorporation of variety within the athlete’s basic week, including remaining true to the time course of training adaptations and avoiding training monotony and overtraining. However, perhaps the best argument is made by the Roman rhetorician quoted in the opening of today’s blog. As a former personal trainer, I have seen first hand the difference in effort put forth and the difference in session enjoyment between highly structured & monotonous ‘traditional’ strength sessions and sessions that incorporated multiple exercise modalities (bands, balls, slideboards etc.). When it comes down to it, not only is variety an effective training principle - it is just plain fun!

Train smart.



Matt said...

How would one reconcile Deek's day-to-day, week-in-and-week-out, year-round training schedule with the MAF approach to running, which suggests/requires that one not exceed certain HR, ever, especially at the beginning of a "season"?

Thanks for your work.

Alan Couzens said...

Good qu. Matt.

I like Bill Seetenham's take on this. He advise that 6/10-8/10 sessions adhere to the aerobic cap.

The cap is more important during the long sessions that you are consciously trying to affect fat burning.

I don't however, buy that 100% of the volume must be below this cap in order to affect fat burning.



Alan Couzens said...


Another point on that is that, too some extent, the basic week offers some level of 'natural selection' as to appropriate intensity.

We know from our lab work that there is a dramatic shutdown of fat oxidation in all athletes above VT1 (~MAF). If too much of an athlete's week is above this point, there chances of backing it up next week isn't good.

By necessity, any athlete employing the constraint of week in, week out consistency will wind up doing the vast majority of their week below their MAF cap.



jamiej said...

Matt and I are on the same page here. I was going to post on the EC forum with a title of "MAF training, an excercise in futility or just frustration?" I'm on my 3rd week of MAF training and capping my HR at 145. It is PAINFULLY SLOW. I'm an avg. runner. Mary PB 3:12, IM PB 3:30. To keep my HR under 145 I'm doing about 9 min/mile and sometimes slower than that. I'm averaging 50 miles/wk and I'm wondering if training like this 100% of the time is only going to make me slower in the end. So, looks like its ok to just do this 60-80% of the miles/week? Sound right?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey James,

Futility or frustration? I would say somewhere in between.

Ordinarily I would say that if your pace is disproportionately low at the low end of the HR curve that endurance could be limiting. If this is the case, a focus on the MAF/low intensity stuff for the majority of sessions makes sense.

However, looking at your IM vs. Mary time, something doesn't add up. This is one of the reasons that the arbitrary MAF HR doesn't work for all. If I were you, I would take an honest assessment of your run weaknesses across the spectrum and distribute the load accordingly. If the mary-IM trend holds, I would suggest that the low end isn't limiting and that a focus on faster running would be prudent.

Hope this helps.



jamiej said...

Thanks AC.
Music to my ears! The one nice thing about the run pace is that I can do loads of miles/week and I don't feel really banged up like I normally do.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey James,

Getting "banged up" is kind of the point. The trick is getting the right kind of "banged up" in the right amounts so that you can wake up tomorrow and go get more "banged up" :-)



Gordo Byrn said...


Another good article -- something that I have found as I age (and with my athletes) is that the key workouts need not be slotted into seven days. Sometimes a 10, or 14, day block works better than seven days.


Alan Couzens said...

Good point, G.

Reminds me a lot of Frank Horwill's stuff (Frank and Peter Coe worked together on Seb's programs). The big difference between a Seb program and what he recommended for the recreational athlete was the 1 or 2 recovery days between each key workout, pushing the cycle out to a 14-21day cycle. All of the key ingredients were still in place, he just gave the novice longer to recover.



Anonymous said...

Great article as usual. By far the best approach for the serious (possibly fast) athlete that has a life outside sport (job, kid). Certainly keeps the interest there. I've put my plan together over years using a "standard week" that I think I first picked up on a gblog, that then became a "standard fortnight". My year round complex training approach came from Peter Coe. I control the intensity throughout the year by apllying a general towards specific approach. As I run a full XC season as well as tri I'm not exactly waiting around 12 months for the excitment of some more race specific training. I don't exactly drag tyres but I'm not afraid to throw in some fresh (yet specific to triathlon)ideas that my friends consider wacky. The last two years has been fixed gear and also turbo sessions combined with weight work. I'm based in France and coach for a club. Methods are VERY traditional here as most of the francophone literature is from a single school of thought.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks for the comment, Ross.

I'm a big fan of Peter Coe & Frank Horwill's tenet that "if speed is important never stray too far from it".

The same could be said of strength and endurance.

Give the tire pulls a try, they're a great replacement for hill repeats and they will add to your reputation for being a little 'whacky' :-)