Monday, October 13, 2008

Living the Basic Week 1: Big Rocks First

“Scheduling is how we manifest our intent on the world”
- Stephen Covey

Those of you familiar with Stephen Covey’s great read, “First Things First” will recognize the reference to placing your big rocks first. The story goes:

I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

After we made our guess, he said, “Okay, let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar… then another….then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked “is the jar full?”

Everybody looked at the rocks and said “yes”.

Then he said, “Ahhh”. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and asked once more “Is the jar full?”

By this time we were onto him. “Probably not,” we said.

“Good!” He replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more, he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?”

“No!” we all roared.

He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”

Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”

“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is if you hadn’t put the big rocks in first would you ever have gotten any of them in?”

This story works on so many levels and, while I am likely to go off on a bit of a rant as to how this can relate to determining session order within a microcycle, the real power of this analogy can be achieved on the most basic level with the following simple instruction:

Begin each day with a clear list of your most important action items for the day and don’t start item #2 until you have finished item #1.

This is not a particularly new idea. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie described this very item as the #1 distinguishing action of the most successful men in the world.

Along a similar vein, Friedrich Nietzsche commented:

“When one has a great deal to put into it, a day has a hundred pockets”

But, I’m a coach and so I am apt to interpret the metaphor through that lens. So, to that end, a warning: Many triathlon training programs can become exceedingly complex and often seem to incorporate change for changes sake. In my opinion, it is crucial that the athlete and coach are intimately aware of each athletes own ‘big rocks’ and that they create each weekly training schedule accordingly.

Personally, considering the importance of triathlon in my life and the fact that my current Ironman limiters are:
- Steady state endurance (bike and run)
- Basic strength
- Bike aerodynamics/flexibility general big rocks (athletic and non-athletic) for the week are, in order of size:

- 1 x 5-6hr easy-steady long ride (200-250TSS) alt w/1x3hr aerobic maint ride (150TSS) every 2-3 weeks
- 1 x 2-2.5hr steady-mod long run flat or hills (100-150TSS) alt w/90min maintenance run every 2-3 weeks
- 2x1hr of strength training each week
- 30 minutes of yoga EVERY day
- 2 days rest/recovery training (0-40TSS)
- Good nutrition each day.
- 9-10 hours of sleep each night
- 1hr of prep time before each athlete’s phone consultation each week.
- 2 x 2hrs of aerobic maintenance training w/2x20min threshold maint. (80TSS)
- 1 x 2hrs of aerobic maintenance training w/1hr of tempo/BG maint. (100TSS)
- 3-4hrs of writing each week

From a training perspective, this equates to a week of 15-18hrs or 560-740TSS (80-105ATL) for a loading week or 12hrs/515TSS (74ATL) for a recovery/maintenance week.

At a projected increase of 10-30mins of training (or 1-3 CTL) per wk, this week will represent a good loading week that addresses my limiters for the next 2-4 months. Until then, no need for change, just repeat the week. In 2-4 months time it may be prudent to re-test, reassess and identify some new ‘big rocks’ (or some bigger rocks of the same geology) to put in my jar.

Not constantly changing volume and sessions every week allows one to truly habituate the week to the point that motivation is not an effort. Simplicity breeds habit.

In addition, having an acceptable time 'range' for the week allows for high energy and low energy weeks and allows for a little wiggle room with respect to unforeseen work and family commitments.

My sand (the stuff that can potentially fill my jar before I get my big rocks in) is:
- Excessively checking my email
- TV
- Getting carried away with writing
- Being a people pleaser: On a number of fronts, refusing to say no in favor of the bigger yes.

I have to stay vigilant on this and make sure that every day I put my big rocks in the jar first, i.e. get my training done before I get on the computer, get my steady state training done before I do anything ‘hard’, 'walk my walk' (i.e. train) before I 'talk my talk' (i.e. write).

In practical terms, my personal ‘basic week’ weekly schedule for the next 2-3 months is:

As mentioned above, 15-18hrs of training (3 swim, 7.5-8.5 bike, 4.5-5 run) + strength and flexibility.

You will notice that I start the week on Saturday with my biggest rock and schedule across by priority from there.

This is the same template that I use for my weekly planner. All commitments are in ink. I treat every commitment as I would an appointment with a VIP. Everything else must fit in around these big rocks. Period. No exceptions.

For some of my other athletes, with different limiters, their athletic ‘big rocks’ may be different. For example, their mod-hard training session may move from priority #10 to priority #1.

You will notice that my loading days (the days with an ATL greater than my CTL) reflect my limiters, i.e. long aerobic workouts. For an athlete who has strong basic endurance but poor muscular endurance, i.e. high CP360 relative to CP90-180, these loading workouts may accrue load in a very different way, i.e. with the inclusion of some very long, solid tempo sets. This is precisely the profile of one of the athletes that I work with who we tested last week. Therefore, in the name of continued development, a change of training tack is due (look out Mr. Friedman :-).

For the reasons listed above, frequent testing is a must. It is less difficult than many would assume for an athlete (particulalrly a masters athlete) to become chronically imbalanced.

With the number of different training approaches out there this whole business can, at times, get pretty confusing. Irrespective of the format that you choose to use, there are some universal training steps that need to be followed:

1. Build general fitness/ability to tolerate load
2. Identify personal strengths and weaknesses
3. Construct weekly training sessions that relentlessly address your weaknesses while maintaining your strengths
4. Schedule these sessions within your week so that the important ones GET DONE!

Train Smart!



Matt Hart said...

great post!

TJ said...

I notice you have your longest run coming the day after your longest ride of the week. Seems like I remember Gordo advising against this. Any particular reason you have them back to back?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the kudos on the blog. Hope it wasn't fast induced :-)



Alan Couzens said...


I like to do my strength run after my ride. I don't think anything better simulates how your legs feel at the end of a hilly trail run on the Sunday after a ride.

The midweek medium-long run is typically flat and a little quicker. Eventually I'll build this to a solid distance but right now the strength run takes priority.



Paddy said...

Cracking blog

Two questions:
Functional strength circuit - does this refer to traditional circuit training or is this something more specific.

Descending/tempo run - what's the intensity?


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Paddy,


Strength Circuit: It's a little more specific with a focus on stabilizers and antagonists. Fire your email at me and I'll send you a copy.

Descending run intensity varies with time of year and the races being prepared for. At the moment I'm doing 3x4mi loops one easy (~70%MHR), one steady (~75%MHR), one moderately hard (~80%MHR).



AB@OZ said...

Hi Alan,
really enjoy your writing & this is my 1st comment/question. I'm new to peaks software & after seeing your dtss scores wanted to ask advice on scoring swim & strength sessions. I'm allotting 90 min squad swims 60-70 tss (depending on rpe) & 50 min core/strength sessions 20tss. Does this sound Ok as I'm accumulating ave 830 tss/week (ave 16 hours) I know run & bike tss is correct based on recently tested CP30 test & 10km run race. Sorry if this is long winded or blatantly seeking free advice.
Regards AB

Alan Couzens said...

Hey AB,

Thanks for the comment on the blog.

Swim - Sounds about right for a normal mixed swim set. On a particularly tough day (long aerobic sets close to threshold) you could potentially wind up with something closer to 90-100. I would say a 'normal' 90min aerobic session would be ~70.

Strength - A lot of potential variability here. Since TSS is an estimate of glycogen cost of the session, in a strength sense it is related to the size of the muscle groups used and how much rest you have between exercises.

For a superset program that focuses on compound movements, TSS could approximate 100/hr.

For a regular 3x10 w/60-90s routine with a mix of compound and isolated moves, I would say that 30-40 would be more accurate.

All the best,


Elliot Fullwood said...

Take 4000kCal in 8hrs? What happened to 1g/kg/hr? Isn't that why your stomach filled up (or do you weigh 125kg now ;) )?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Elliot,

Not quite 125kg yet. But if the off-season continues much longer, who knows? :-)

Ironman is fundamentally an exercise in endogenous CHO sparing. To be sure, you can get the most bang for your buck (80% of calories w/minimal risk of stomach distress on ~1g/kg/hr. However, to get that extra 20% requires substantially more intake ~1.5g/kg (see Jeukendreup and Jenjens 2000 study). At these CHO levels most athletes are definitely pushing the limits of gastric emptying. Training this is one of the key objectives of Race Sims in the specific prep period.

If I didn't do this I would agree with you, but I had a number of rides at similar HRs that I was taking in 500-600kcal/hr so I don't think that was the issue. Actually, by the time the stomach gave me issues I was probably at 400kcal/hr but was trying to get more via a flask that was giving me more air than calories. Changing that will be my first port of call in my next series of race sims.

Hopefully next time I will have the opportunity to prove in a race situation that I can take the 500+kcal/hr.

Best regards,


Elliot Fullwood said...

Great - thanks for the reply and the reference. I never thought that gastric emptying could be changed as I just thought there would be a relatively fixed density of receptors, but I suppose it makes sense that it varies from person to person and that we need to find our personal sweet spots. Interesting to consider this alongside your recent blogs comparing a low VO2 max but good fat burner with a high VO2 max bad fat burner. We could consider a third option of a high VO2 max bad fat burner who also had a good stomach absorption rate...


Alan Couzens said...

Good point, Elliot.

I guess I have always assumed that this is something that most folks can 'get used to' if they do it enough. Makes sense though that there may be genetic influences here as much as anywhere else.

Best regards,