Monday, June 1, 2009

Checking the Box

“Although Seb was quite nimble, due to his slim physique, his running showed a significant lack of endurance. To remedy this, some distance training and participation in cross-country was indicated…… As Seb progressed, a positive effort was made to improve the balance between his speed and endurance but neither one at the expense of the other”
- Peter Coe (Coach and father of running legend, Sebatian Coe)

There are a number of decisions that we must make as coaches and self-coached athletes including
• How Much? (Volume)
• How Hard? (Intensity)
• And, not unimportantly, what type of training should make up this volume/intensity mix.

There is much debate on which training form/intensity is ‘ideal’, ranging from the low intensity advocates , the medium intensity ‘sweet spot’ group and the high intensity/threshold proponents.

Additionally, orthodox proponents of the periodization faith recommend that the form of training emphasised should change through the training cycle in accordance with the competition calendar.

Regular readers of this blog will hopefully have come to the conclusion that I am not a proponent of emphasizing any one intensity zone. Rather, I believe that long term athletic development is contingent on a very balanced training approach, with a vigilant, conscious effort being made to never over-emphasize one physiological quality or zone at the expense of another. I am not alone in this stance. Rob DeCastella’s coach, Pat Clohessy was one of the pioneers of this multi-speed approach. Likewise, Peter Coe used a similar approach to train his son, Sebastian, in an event that was over 2hrs less than Deek’s.

Additionally, on the whole, I do not believe in arbitrarily changing the training mix just because the calendar ticks over into the next month. While for advanced athletes, there are advantages to sharpening training, most athletes will be better served spending their precious time and training energy focusing on addressing their specific limiters unless and until they are ‘fixed’.

I have seen far too many athletes come through our lab with either a very strong top end/very weak base or vice versa to conclude that any one training intensity is right for all. There is no ‘right’ intensity, only a right prescription for a given athlete at a given time.

So, this is all fine and dandy if we have the means to undergo rigorous lab testing each mesocycle but if we don’t have access to this, how do we go about determining how ‘balanced’ an athlete is at any given time in the field?

I like to look at each athletes power-duration and pace-duration curves as a good starting point. In a previous post I looked at what an ideal pace-duration curve looks like and how it slightly differs for Ironman athletes. My ideal ‘ironman’ curve is presented below.

I have had a number of real ‘aha’ moments during my coaching journey. One key revelation came when I came to the realization that there is only a slight difference in threshold abilities of the very best ultra-distance athletes and the very best distance athletes. IOW, it is important to every athlete’s long term development that appropriate attention is given to functional threshold development.

The differences between a distance curve and an ultra curve are slight and are primarily related to the ‘tail’ of the curve, i.e. for very long durations, I expect an Iron-trained athlete to better be able to hold a higher % of their threshold pace or power (see below). However, just because these differences are small, this does not diminish the fact that they are crucial to the athlete’s target event.

This expectation is not particularly revolutionary. Of course, we would expect that an Ironman athlete will be faster over distances that come closer to race duration providing they are appropriately trained. This small print is included in many of the training systems out there, usually in the form of, ‘the athlete with the highest functional threshold pace/power will also be faster over all greater distances – providing they are appropriately trained. The difference between my system and the others is that I demand my athletes PROVE they are appropriately trained before moving up to the next level.

It should be noted that while the 'tail end' demands of athletes training for shorter distance events are less challenging than for long distance events, at least in my world, they are still DEMANDS. IOW, even a short course athlete must prove the ability to execute a medium-long run at an appropriate intensity before moving up, irrespective of what they can do for a 5K test.

Let me provide an example for an Ironman athlete taken from the curve above. Rather than scheduling an FTP test every 4 weeks and moving all training paces up in accordance with this one point on the curve, I expect my athletes to complete all appropriate points on the curve before moving up. This does not mean that an athlete must complete a race pace session over full race duration before moving up. If this were the case, the athlete would constantly be tapering for and recovering from his test sets and never have time to train :-) But it does mean that the athlete will complete an appropriate % of the target race duration at the appropriate pace without it destroying their week before we raise the top end goals. Some examples of macrocycle goals from one of my top AG Ironman athlete’s run training (FTP pace = 6:30):

• 50mi week in <6:40
• 20mi Long Run (day after long ride) in <2:30
• 20mi Quality Long Run w/last 10 @ 7:00
• 2x3mi tempo in 19:30 w/5min recovery
• 10x800 in 2:50 w/3min recovery
• 10x200 in 40s w/50s recovery

Depending on the type of training emphasized, a ‘top end’ fit athlete may achieve the last 3 goals and a 6:25 FTP test within the first mesocycle. But if the athlete can not hold an appropriate % of that FTP for near race durations, what is the point of moving up? Indeed, what is the point of even testing again until the athlete can do so? If an athlete is ‘unbalanced’ with respect to their event, it may take 2 or more seasons, to bring the curve back ‘in balance’. I am fine with that. Because not allowing time for your bottom end to catch up to your top end fitness is a dangerous slippery slope to failing development that has been proven time and time again. Think back to the negative effects on US distance running when threshold and interval training was emphasized to the exclusion of the LSD miles that made up a high proportion of the training regimens of America’s most successful distance runners (to date!!!)

So, let’s get down to brass tacks. What does this look like in terms of a mesocycle? Put simply, the athlete winds up repeating the sessions that they are most weak in several times within the mesocycle(or macrocycle) until they have ‘checked the box’. For example, in the first week of the cycle, the 2 key sessions may be devoted to a functional threshold bike and a repetition run workout. If the ‘box is checked’, these workouts shift to maintenance emphasis in the following microcycle while another goal is targeted. For argument’s sake let’s say a tempo bike. If the box is not checked on the tempo bike, for example the athlete is scheduled for 3x25min @ LT watts and flunks the last, the next key workout will again be devoted to tempo with a more manageable duration. So the athlete may wind up with 3,4,5,6 weeks of tempo emphasis within a macrocycle. In this way, the athlete’s key sessions are devoted to their personal weaknesses (with respect to their event) and long term balanced development in ensured.

I’m sure that if you were to ask 5 athletes that I work with to give a concise description of what my training plan is like, you would get 5 different answers. To some, I’m probably seen as a mileage junkie, while to others, the chief of the intensity police :-) The secret is, I don’t have a universal training philosophy other than to mirror the athlete’s needs. The only universality that exists in elite coaching is a universal ability of the best coaches in the world to ‘size up’ an athlete, determine their personal strengths and weaknesses and apply this information to selecting an appropriate training means and an appropriate event.

Train smart.



Marcos Apene do Amaral said...

Just a perfect and simple job description for an Endurance Coach! Thanks for all the time invested on one of the best resources we have on the web to look for practical clues on how to coach addequately! If possible, may I ask you to write some stuff for a brazilian website?!
Thanks and regards, Marcos.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Marcos!

I'm always on the look out for new topics that interest. I'd be more than happy to write something for your website.

Fire some ideas at me and I'll put something together.

Best regards,


Josh said...

As one of your 5 athletes, can I go with c)all the above, mileage junkie and chief of intensity police?

Marcos Apene do Amaral said...

First, let me say another important point I was reflecting during the day when facing the "problem"/issues on planning my next training cycle.
This box checking is even more important on the long term development of an athlete, that is what realy counts for a commited athlete, specially the "late begginers", myself included, as most succesful age-groupers. Otherwise you'll find gaps on performance that indicates lack of consistency, coaching commitment and goal setting. Planning without looking on what you really have (the box checked), is overestimating fitness results and leads to poor and dificult performance development! What also happens to the most age-groupers.
Keep us updated on your toughts, Marcos.
p.s-sorry, again, for the poor English! hope you understand!

Paul Fleuren said...

Hi Alan,

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on metabolic breakdown being the primary limiter for most IM athletes, in particular the FOP's and up.

I have written quite a bit about it and would I be able to email it to you to look over??

Paul F
P.S sorry to hijack

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Paul,

Definitely. I'd be keen to read it.



Alan Couzens said...


The bad news is, someone with your profile gets the double whammy.

On the plus side, if I'm hitting you with volume and intensity, you must be a pretty balanced athlete ;-)


AB@OZ said...

Hi Alan,
its good to follow you piling up the hours, thanks for sharing. A question re the pace/duration graph shown in article, while I realize its just a example should we expect to see FTP run pace at closer to an hour, or is that only relevant to cycling FTP. Or is the example shown more typical from an iron distance athlete?
On an unrelated question, I live in a low elevation environment, basically 150-250m above sea level. Is there any advantage to breathing only through the nose during long slow training to try & replicate altitude? Also I understand this is a good indicator of AeT, (ie. when you can no longer sustain effort while breathing only through the nose). So is there any advantage to reducing your O2 intake, or should we be trying to suck in as much as possible?
Thanks in advance

Alan Couzens said...

Hey AB,

Thanks for your comment/question.

I consider run FTP to be the maximal pace that the athlete can sustain for 60mins.

Interesting question on consciously limiting VE by breathing through the nose. My gut tells me that the decrease in VO2 would be greater than at altitude, so you'd wind up simply not training hard enough. AeT typically occurs @ ~40% below VO2max, whereas training at altitude reduces VO2max by ~5-8%.

Hope this helps.