Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Structural Considerations in Planning the Microcycle (Basic Week)

“Planning training sessions appropriately within a week is like playing beautiful music. If the right keys are played at the right time, it creates a masterpiece. If the right keys are played at the wrong time, nothing but noise”

In this post, I’m going to complete the trilogy of training cycles by taking a look at some structural considerations in planning the fundamental microcycle - the Basic Week.

However, before I get started on today’s post, first a quick summary for those who missed the last couple of entries on the real world application of periodization principles to the macro and mesocycle:

a) There is minimal “real world” advantage (for working athletes) to cycling weekly volume within the mesocycle or month. Rather, a relatively constant basic week for a period of 3-5 months is indicated.

b) There are a couple of noteworthy exceptions within the season/macrocycle in which it makes sense to alter volume from the standard basic week. These would be (in order of importance)
- Tapering volume prior to racing
- Observing an off-season of 2-6 weeks after each season
- Inserting a short ‘preparatory period’ of building volume before really ‘hitting it’ each season.
- (For intermediates) Inserting high volume training camps in the early-mid season
- (For elites only) considering inserting a brief period of sharpening before key career peaks.

Understanding the sequencing of sessions within a microcycle rests largely on understanding and applying one key principle:

Every physiological quality has different rates of acquisition and decay.

The tricky part for the coach is to determine the ones you need for your race, determine the ones that you want to develop vs maintain and put them in the appropriate place in the season and the week. For example, see the chart below by Olbrecht (1998) that shows the different recovery times (hours) between sessions of differing content.

Utilizing the above information, we can deduce optimal frequencies for development and maintenance of the core sessions in an endurance athletes repertoire:

Unfortunately, we simply don’t have the energy (glycogen) to accomplish all of these objectives, so we must, intelligently, ‘pick and choose’.

In order to intelligently do this, we must be aware of the dynamics of aspects of fatigue, particularly glycogen depletion and replenishment and we must be aware of what forms of training are compatible vs. contradictory. We must also, on some level know what reserves the individual athlete is working with and how much a given session takes out of them, i.e. are they a Prius or a Corvette?

A couple of considerations that are particularly pertinent to constructing the microcycle:

1. Fast twitch fibers take significantly longer to replenish that slow twitch fibers (Casey et al. 1995),

For instance, a typical ‘key’ long steady state workout will deplete most slowtwitch fibers, but only 50% or less FT fibers. With this depletion pattern, the athlete could manage a key strength workout after 24hrs recovery. On the flipside, if the first key session is a mod-hard or threshold workout, it will deplete significantly more FT fibers and, due to the different synthesis rates in FT vs ST fibers (Casey et al. 1995), the athlete may not be ready for a solid strength workout until 48-72hrs after the first session.

2. Eccentric exercises require longer recovery times than predominantly concentric (low impact) activities (Costill et al. 1990).

For this reason, extra space should be given to the key runs and strength sessions each week.

3. Glycogen depletion is a whole body process and is not entirely specific to the muscle fibers used (Krssak et al. 2000).

The whole body glycogen store is a finite resource and you need to use it in the mode (swim, bike or run) combination that is most appropriate to your limiters.

So, keeping the above in mind, let’s go about solving one particular puzzle, the Ironman Athlete….

For the majority of Ironman athletes the key objectives are steady-state endurance, skill and strength. For intermediate-advanced athletes, muscular endurance creeps in as a key physiological objective.

To maximally develop steady state endurance we want 4-6 key endurance workouts per week (from the table above). Obviously, a long swim, a long bike and a long run are a starting point. Additional workout(s) in the athlete’s weakest discipline would make intuitive sense for the remaining 1-3 workouts.

Additional to this, the the novice athlete who is still looking to attain Friel’s strength benchmarks should complete 2 key strength workouts per week.

Skill work can be easily incorporated within some of the aerobic workouts.

The following chart provides one example of how these workouts may be placed for a typical Ironman athlete, taking into account the dynamics of glycogen depletion and repletion (shown below). Estimated CHO cost (kcal) for each workout is shown in italics.

This offers 4-6 aerobic workouts and 2 strength workouts in an appropriately placed 15-18hr week.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ by looking at typical glycogen depletion and repletion patterns within a well balanced week like the one above.The blue bar shows expected muscle glycogen stores at the start of each day for an average athlete (whole body glycogen stores of ~2000kcal), while the red shows the amount of glycogen remaining at the end of each day (after training). A blow by blow description is given below:

After a day of complete rest, the athlete goes in to Monday with full ST and FT glycogen stores. The athlete performs a tough long run and a moderately tough strength workout on Monday. Both of these are eccentric activities, the latter involving FT fibers. So, despite the time available for recovery within the day, it is likely that the athlete will be able to replenish only 25-33% of the glycogen expended during day 1.

With the above in mind, leaving a little room for error, we go into day 2 with gas tanks only a quarter full. Keeping in mind that we want to be fully recovered for our key sessions on Wed, and the fact that a best case scenario for glycogen recovery after a session that utilizes a good portion of ST and FOG fibers in eccentric activity is 48hrs (Costill et al, 1990), very little should be done on Tuesday. An optional easy skills swim could be placed here considering most of Monday’s activities were lower body. However, the role of the upper body in replenishing the whole body glycogen pool after exercise should not be discounted. If in doubt, leave it out.

After a day of focused recovery on Tuesday, the athlete (hopefully) goes into the hard Wednesday sessions with fully topped up glycogen stores. While there is a significant glycogen contribution from FT fibers on Wednesday, at least there is very little eccentric stress. Therefore, even after a good amount of depletion, recovery can be expected within 48hrs. Part of this recovery will occur between sessions on Wednesday, with the balance occurring on Thursday. Important note: The athlete will not be able to do a dedicated Mod-Hard bike set and still recover for the strength workout on Thursday (less than 48hrs recovery).Therefore, a compromise must be reached. For the novice, in favor of the strength workout, for the intermediate athlete, in favor of the muscular endurance set.

Whichever compromise one elects, the athlete arrives at the strength workout with glycogen 50-100% replenished. A moderate strength workout will have the athlete finishing the day with glycogen stores only 30-70% full necessitating another rest day, or at the very least, a very light day.

Depending on how tough the Wednesday and Thursday workouts were and on the athlete’s individual recovery profile, Friday can either be an off day or a very light day of swimming or biking. After this light day, the athlete will be going into the big day on Saturday with glycogen stores very close to full. For most athletes Saturday is the most important session of the week and if there is any doubt, it is best to stick with more passive recovery means (sleep, massage, yoga etc) rather than active recovery on Friday.

It is essential that the athlete go into this day with glycogen stores at least full or, hopefully super-full, bursting at the seams via super-compensation after the Wednesday workout. The athlete will exploit these stores to their full potential on the key session of the week. Providing this workout exceeds the athletes minimal training threshold, the longer this workout, the better, as, due to the nature of improved fat oxidation with exercise of increased duration, this workout offers the athlete the most contractions for their glycogen “buck” of any workout in the week.

The athlete is going to be notably tired on Sunday. The good news is that most of the efforts in the Saturday workout were in the realm of slow twitch fibers (which recover glycogen much faster than fast twitch fibers), and, with the exception of the short transition run, created minimal eccentric stress. Therefore, with 36 or more hours of total recovery from the end of the Big Day on Saturday to the start of the long run on Monday, very close to complete recovery can be achieved before beginning the cycle all over again.

A couple of unique situations in which it may prove prudent to alter the format of the week:

1. For the rare example of the athlete with limited endurance but unlimited time, I would consider using the athletes glycogen allowance in the Wednesday session towards longer, steady-state training rather than mod-hard. This is most applicable to the novice-intermediate athlete during a camp period, and more obviously, is the most specific workout an Ironman athlete can do, irrespective of level.

2. For the intermediate athlete, mod-hard sets may also be included on the Saturday session in place of steady state endurance to meet the frequency quota for mod-hard sessions in order to induce a training effect. Of course, this won’t make sense for any athlete who is endurance limited.

3. For the elite/pro triathlete, consideration may be given, particularly in the final preparation to the inclusion of 2-3 VO2 workouts per week in order to spike central adaptations. The very significant downside of this strategy is that Fast Twitch fibers require considerably longer to replenish glycogen between sessions and it becomes next to impossible to do enough work to maintain steady and threshold endurance while building VO2max. For the Ironman athlete, the relative importance of keeping your peripheral adaptations generally outweighs the gain to be had from maximizing your central. Additionally, the time course of adaptation is such that your base qualities (steady state endurance and ‘threshold’ endurance) can be continually improved with 10-20 cycles of progressively increasing demand to effect an increase of 20-25% (Coyle, 1991). The maximal improvement to VO2max, on the other hand (5-15%) is reached after 1-2 cycles with a VO2max emphasis. Therefore, while the rapid performance improvement from VO2 work can be tempting, until breakpoint volume is reached, any time spent maximizing VO2 is essentially time lost from improving the more malleable ‘basic’ qualities.

An important sidenote: Sharpening training, on the whole, falls under the same category as tapering in that the athlete is giving up fitness in exchange for performance. Any athlete serious about discovering their potential cannot afford to give up fitness voluntarily during their key developmental years. Therefore it is important to choose events that you want to really ‘peak’ for in your athletic lifetime very carefully. Again, if in doubt, leave it out.

Regardless of the specifics of the week, the hard-easy format remains an essential principle for all level of athlete. Relative quantities or qualities of the workout will change with the athlete’s improved energy ‘bank’ and substrate efficiency that comes with enhanced ‘base’ but this format will remain.

The efficacy of the hard-easy format is not news. Reindell, Gerschler, Zatopek, Lydiard, Bowerman, etc all used this principle. Recently, mathematical modeling has provided further validation, with models indicating up to a 10% performance benefit to using the hard-easy format vs. flat loading. Looking at the pattern of glycogen depletion, it’s not hard to see that a small change in the scheduling of workouts could result in the athlete going into their key workouts with diminished energy reserves and could significantly compromise their performance.

Clearly, the above provides only one hypothetical pattern of a basic week based on an average athletes fatigue and recovery response to different sessions. If an athlete has a marginally different recovery profile, this week would be entirely useless. For this reason, getting to intimately know an individual athlete’s fitness and fatigue rates is an essential task of the serious coach.

In this age of technology, several applications attempt to help the coach with this task, e.g. in the case of wko+, setting appropriate chronic and acute training load constants. However, this process is complicated enough without the realization that not only does every athlete have different rates of fitness and fatigue acquisition and decay (on a given day!!), but additionally, as Olbrecht’s chart illustrates, every physiological quality also exhibits different fatigue and fitness decay rates. Thus, the coach has two choices, lock themselves away in a math lab and spend 6 months coming up with a myriad of series and sequences, or turn to our good old friend, trial and error.

Make no mistake, the best coaches all have a firm understanding of the theoretical background of how athletes generally respond to different types of sessions but they excel in assessing the individual’s response to a training stimulus by using trial and error to see how long it takes them to get back to (or exceed) normal training performance in the key sessions. This is where coaching ‘art’ meets ‘science’.

Additionally, this readiness will change on a day to day basis and the ‘aware’ athlete has a huge advantage in getting the timing right for optimal improvement. This education (to both parties) should be a high priority in the coach-athlete relationship.

Putting some serious thought and experimentation into coming up with a week that gives the athlete the best possible chance to have the energy to hit the workouts that address their specific limiters as hard as possible should be a key task that is undertaken at the beginning of each training cycle. The gap between maintenance and supercompensation is a small one but identifying and maximizing this gap is one of the key differences between repeating the same performance as last year or breaking through to the next level.

As always, train smart.


*******Update 12/29/2008***********

More good reader questions this week. I felt one in particular was worth adding as an addendum to this piece on building your basic week. SB asks:

“If the most training that we can fit in while still allowing for replenishment of glycogen stores is 15-18hrs per week, then why are most pro’s training 30+ hours per week? Are they training at a lower intensity to accommodate this extra volume?”

The answer to this question lies in 2 key adaptations to endurance training:

1. Elite athletes are able to use a higher proportion of fat as a fuel (and therefore ‘spare’ more glycogen) at the intensities that stimulate aerobic improvements.

2. Elite athletes are able to store much more glycogen than recreational athletes within their liver and muscles, i.e. progressively, with training, their fuel tanks get bigger.

I had used an average glycogen store of 2000 kcal for our hypothetical athlete in the basic week piece. However, the latter adaptation, in particular, can greatly increase this number and result in substantially more fuel to work with for the elite athlete.

Hickner et al (1997) showed that endurance training increases the potential for glycogen storage to ~1.7 times that of a novice athlete. Based on our own lab results, in addition to this, well trained athletes are sparing an additional 20-30% CHO at a given workload compared to novice athletes (due to increased fat burning). These 2 adaptations combined represent an ~2 fold increase in endurance capacity at a given workload. Thus the 15-18hr weeks of your recreational athletes become 30-36hrs (of workloads of similar intensities) for an elite athlete.

It is important to note that this is a long term adaptation and therefore the athlete’s basic week should be built progressively in accordance with their ability to handle work of an appropriate intensity. Sacrificing intensity so that you can throw down weeks of similar volume to the elites makes about as much sense as starting your long runs at 6:00 pace. Just as you must earn the right to train progressively faster, you must also earn the right to train progressively more.

Train smart,



Wet Hair, Warm Heart said...

All this talk about glycogen depletion...can't an athlete keep their glycogen levels at a relatively stable level by "reloading" after exercise with appropriate nutrition on a continuous basis?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jennifer,

Answer would be yes for a novice athlete training less than ~14hrs per week with only easy-steady training.

However, when you start throwing relatively 'hard' days in there, in the form of big days of training or strength training, you need to also add corresponding easier days. This is when training gets a little more complex.

Philosophically, I guess it comes down to the question of whether you consider these hard days necessary for the Ironman athlete. Few would argue that big days are a necessity. Some would argue that strength training is not. If this is your stance, then the week gets considerably more simple.

Thanks for the question. Any questions that challenge me to simplify my stance are always welcome (as I have a tendency to go the other way :-)



Wet Hair, Warm Heart said...

Hi Alan,
I love the in-depth discussions on your blog! Keep them coming....and thanks for answering my question!


Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Jennifer.

I was thinking that I may have gone a little far on this one but per your advice, I'll keep pushing on. I'm yet to discover blogger's word limit :-)

Thanks again.


Matt said...

thanks for the discourse even someone like me can sorta grasp.

Couple of questions:

As a runner building towards (trail/mountain running) ultra distances, can I apply some of the "Basic Week" to my own program?

And how long would you say a base (after an "offseason") for an ultra runner should be?

Lastly, if I can sleep and train at 5500 to 7000 ft., is that a benefit to me if used wisely (perhaps as a "camp" about 2-3 months into the program?).

Happy New Year.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the comment.

As far as ultra-running goes, the same basic principles remain, i.e. the importance of hard-easy training, the importance of a preparatory 'build' into your season etc.

The difference (as I'm sure you know :-) is that ultra-running beats you up more than weight supported exercise. This 'beat up' also affects how quickly you recover your energy substrates. For this reason, runners aren't able to train with the same volume as cyclists or swimmers.

Couple of things to consider, esp considering the importance of the long run would be the use of a 2 peak as opposed to a 3 peak week (giving you more time to recover after the main long run) and the option of X-Training on your easy days.

Have a great 2009! Thanks for the continued support.



Alan Couzens said...

Hey Matt,

Sorry, forgot to answer the question re the length of the build.

This is a really individual thing and is proportionate to:

1. The length of the off-season (longer off-season requires longer prep)

2. The level of the athlete (higher volume athletes require longer prep)

3. The nature of the activity, the longer the recovery between sessions, the longer the prep.

From what I am aware, you are at the high end of all 3, so I would recommend a prep period somewhere in the vicinity of 6-10 weeks (with a pretty gentle ramp of 5-7% from week to week).