Thursday, June 11, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.

While in the midst of preparing a couple of lengthy articles on anatomical considerations in bike fit (and the midst of a bit of personal overreaching :-), I thought I would post a short but (if I do say so myself) profound article on a key concept that I have come to realize and implement with my athletes over the previous year.

The concept is simply stated as: The optimal load for a given athlete is one which allows that athlete to take at least 2 steps forward (in fitness) before taking one back (in recovery).

A short wiki search revealed that the origin of the term – 2 steps forward, one step back, is found in a very apropos metaphor of a frog trapped in a well. For every 2 jumps forward, he slides down the slippery wall and loses some ground, but even so, with determination, net progress is made and there is a happy ending to the tale as Kermit makes the final leap out of the well.

The concept is equally applicable to athletics, as, just like a slippery well, taking time to fall back and lose some training load as the body converts the previous load into fitness is inevitable & necessary.

Additionally, the concept is applicable on all levels of the training cycle.
The most obvious 2:1 application to the training cycle is at the mesocyclic level, i.e. the coach/athlete should select a training load that allows the athlete to put forth at least 2 good weeks of training before a week of lower volume is needed. In a former post, I outlined just how much fitness is lost during long periods of rest/reduced training. The serious athlete should be very careful to limit the frequency of back to back recovery weeks to no more than 2-3 per year (at the end of each season). 2 weeks of de-training in the middle of the season will result in an ~30% fitness loss. A loss that will take 6 weeks of training to merely get back! I have personally experienced this in my 09 prep. After a challenging camp in April (31 hrs of training in a week), my CTL and my aerobic time trial numbers peaked up nicely. However, after being forced to take 2 weeks of recovery after that camp with some lingering lethargy, even now, 9 weeks post, I am yet to return to my camp fitness. A more moderate 20-25hrs, while still challenging, would probably have enabled me to limit recovery to one week and thus enable me to continue building on this fitness.

Perhaps more significant to the world of age group athletics, this principle is even more important in a microcycle/weekly context. The serious athlete should never do a mid-season training session that requires more than 2 days/48hrs recovery. For a typical AG athlete in the middle of the season, 50% of the fitness benefits of a given key workout is lost within 24hrs. However, this still represents a 1-3% net fitness improvement so it’s a good deal. However, if the athlete goes just a little too hard, necessitating 48hrs of recovery almost ALL of the fitness benefits are lost. For this reason, no workout should come close to the demands of a race no matter how much goading your training buddies are capable of. Save racing for races! (And save racing until you’re fit enough to keep race recovery to a minimum).

On the macrocycle level, that athlete should never have 2 months of training lower than their average training volume. IOW, the athlete should take a short rest after each season and before experiencing long-term burn-out. After a demanding season, it will typically take an athlete 4-6 weeks to completely shed the accumulated fatigue. At this point, the athlete is still holding onto ~40% of their accumulated fitness from the season. However, if the athlete extends the transitional period to 2 months instead of 1, only 20% of fitness remains. In a long term developmental sense, it is this small year to year carry over in fitness that builds champions. On a related note, the athlete should do all that is necessary to minimize the risk of a long-term injury. Any athlete who is forced to take a multi-month (3mth+) break is ostensibly ‘starting from scratch’.

The great Emil Zatopek once likened the training process to pulling on a spring. Pull just the right amount and POW, the spring will retract beyond it’s starting point. Pull a little too much and you break the spring. Take care of your springs and…

Train Smart.



ll said...


I think you'd better listen to your smart words to avoid going to the wrong side of things yourself!

AB@OZ said...

Thanks Alan for another insightful post,without boring you with details I can directly relate the recovery examples/ratios you've given in this article.
Your articles are always useful information for the self coached throng. Please keep the good stuff coming. Hey, & good luck with releasing that inner Kenyan.


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jaakko,

Nothing wrong with a bit of over-reaching once and a while.

As a wiser man than I once said,
"Getting tired is the point" :-)

Hope all is going well and you're enjoying sunny Cali.



Alan Couzens said...

Hey AB,

He's still trapped in there but being crushed by my inner couch potato right now. Hopefully he'll squirm his way out pretty shortly :-)