Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Destructing your Annual Training Plan - Part I

“The best laid plans of mice and men go often askew”
- Robert Burns

It’s that time of year again. The end of the old season and the beginning of the new means that coaches and self coached athletes throughout the country are buying their notebooks, double clicking their excel spreadsheets and picking up the training manual du jour for the 2010 season.

Of course the training manual du jour of the 2010 season will likely be the same one used in the past recollectable seasons, Joe Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible. Joe is a magnanimous guy and as such is offering additional information in a new blog series on ‘constructing your annual training plan’ for 2010, the part inspiration for the somewhat pithy title of this piece.

No disrespect to Joe or his training philosophies at all are implied by this article. 95% of everything I know and do as a coach is related to concepts either espoused or invented (!) by Joe. However, you may find some interest in the 5% of things that I do a little differently to many of the coaches out there.


The other polar opposite inspiration for this post comes from a comment made by my good buddy Chuckie V in the comment section of one of his recent stellar blog pieces, where he says (in response to a question about Chrissie Wellington):

"Chrissie is a product of Brett (Sutton) and I work pretty closely with him. He doesn't "believe in" periodization or have much to do with planning. He simply finds the right template for the athlete and puts them to work. Over time, I've migrated to this line of thinking more and more.

So many coaches tout the merits of having a good plan (after all that's how they survive, by providing plans) but our body doesn't respond to plans (only our minds do, though not always favorably). Sometimes you just have to learn to listen to your body's needs and what your goal races require; these two considerations don't always sync up however!

An athlete can ruin a whole career on planning; it's best to get to work."


I find myself and my own coaching method smack bang in the middle of these 2 perspectives. I am a planner by nature and yet I have come to realize that no rigid annual plan ever works out even close to 100% for my athletes. Furthermore, as Chuckie suggests, attempting to adhere too rigidly to a plan can severely compromise an athlete’s performance potential. And yet the absence of any plan can also compromise an athlete’s potential.

Races happen on a schedule therefore some attempt must be made to gel the athlete’s ‘body clock’ with the race calendar. The difference in the two approaches of overplanning vs underplanning can be likened to rocking up to the train station without even glancing at the timetable then arriving to find that the next train doesn’t come for an hour vs planning your jaunt to the train station rigidly around the time table and arriving 5 mins early, seeing the train and deciding to wait for the next one because that’s what your schedule says to do. Some responsiveness and reactivity is needed in order to get where you are going as fast as possible.
So I find my approach to be one of controlled chaos or organized anarchy. While I really can’t in all good conscience draw up the blow by blow details of any athlete’s annual training plan, I can quite accurately describe ‘the method’. This is going to be the subject of this blog post and likely a couple of others to come. I want to describe some elements of the practical application of ‘the method’ so that you may choose to use them in the destruction of your old concept of the ATP and the construction of your new one.

Step 1: Determine Competition Dates and Phases.

In my world, phases of preparation are largely about when you concede basic development. In an Ironman sense, for a novice to intermediate athlete there comes a point 8-12 weeks out from the race in which, irrespective of how high the athlete’s aerobic threshold endurance, we must put that on the back-burner and succumb to the reality of the athlete’s true race pace. It is certainly my goal at the beginning of any season to extend the athlete’s aerobic threshold endurance to the extent of their race duration, however, for Ironman, this is a loftier goal than many athletes are willing to concede and so, for lower volume Ironman athletes (less than ~500hrs/year) or athletes with a young training age, I frequently arrive 12 weeks out from the race with the athlete yet to ‘prove’ their ability to hold AeT endurance for a good chunk (more than 2/3) race duration. At this point it’s time for a reality check and a recognition of what true race pace is likely to be.

Similarly, for a short course athlete, even for those athletes in who aerobic threshold endurance is relatively weak, there comes a point at which the athlete must start training for the specific speed and demands of their event. Therefore, 12 weeks out, truly specific training (training over close to race duration at close to race pace) begins irrespective of where the athlete is at and to a large extent, irrespective of their strengths and weaknesses. It is the nature of this specific training that is largely determined by how diligent the athlete was in rectifying these weaknesses in the basic preparation phase of the season.

In addition, there comes a point 2-4 weeks from the race date at which work has a net negative effect on performance due to the fact that the athlete will generate fatigue that he/she cannot shed by race day. Therefore a peak/taper phase should be implemented.

So, in summary, step 1 is a simplified ‘traditional’ approach:
• Identify race date
• Count back 2-4 weeks and begin the peak/taper phase
• Count back an additional 6-8 weeks and begin the specific preparation
• Count back an additional 12-32 weeks and begin basic preparation.

For short course athletes, a further option is to insert a short precompetitive phase devoted to VO2 enhancement. However, for the vast majority of sub elite folks, the basic development that you give up while VO2 training makes its emphasis a bad deal in a long term development sense.

The wide time span in the last summary point brings us to the next task:

Step 2: Determine whether you will have 1, 2 or 3 peaks this season and how long the peaks will last.

It is a simple but oft forgotten fact that for every peak performance the athlete gives up valuable training time in the form of taper and recovery. In relative performance terms, an athlete can expect ~7.5% less relative performance improvement over the course of a year for every additional peak (assuming a 1-2 week taper and 2-4 week transition/prep period after each). In other words, if the athlete could potentially improve their performance 10% with one annual peak, they will likely improve only 9.25% if 2 true peaks are attempted, this is down to 8.5% for 3 peaks etc etc.

Additionally, while in theory, a relative peak can be held for a competitive season of 6 months (as displayed by the performance of ‘career triathletes’ on the ITU circuit) maintenance and improvement are 2 different things. It is only when the athlete reaches the limits of their own personal performance that such a strategy is appropriate. With the small differences separating Olympic medals, one could argue that in an Olympic year this strategy is not even appropriate for these folk!!

Generally speaking, the intelligent developing athlete should plan one true peak with a full taper and active recovery period each year. This is not to say that they shouldn’t race B and C events during the year, in fact, I recommend a mid-year B event for most of my athletes in order to mentally break up the season. However, the important thing is that if the highest levels of improvement are to be attained, these B and C events should be performed relatively untapered and should be sufficiently short that they don’t require extended recovery (much longer than a normal key workout). Additionally, in an ideal world, these races will be selected to support the training aims of that mesocycle.

In summary, plan 1 true peak period of only 2-4 weeks and be careful with the effort level of your B and C events!

Step 3: Take a CONSERVATIVE guess at your starting point (load)

Plain and simple, this is where a lot of athletes go wrong. For year to year improvement to occur, an athlete needs to let A LOT of fitness slide in between training seasons. Consequently, the starting load of the following season should be very low in comparison to last year’s peak. This is a tough pill to swallow when we’re talking a 50-70% reduction in tolerance to training load in the space of 6-8 weeks but believe me, IT IS NECESSARY. In fact, for a lot of good age group & neo-pro athletes it is the difference between remaining ‘good’ in the following season or becoming GREAT!

Some suggestions related to peak volume in the preceding season.

These numbers are assuming a couple of things:
1. We’re talking about sustained volume, not one off camp weeks.
2. We’re assuming the bulk of training is easy-steady aerobic training
3. We’re assuming that peak volume occurred within the past 3 months

And, most important of all…
4. We’re assuming the athlete took a month off serious training at the end of the season!!

Step 4: Come up with a balanced (general) weekly program that represents mixed training methods at an appropriate load.

Even at the beginning of the year, providing the athlete is healthy (getting rid of any niggles is a high priority of the transition period), some training content from all intensity zones should be included:
- A BULK of easy-steady aerobic training
- One slightly longer session each week in each sport (~1.5x average)
- Gentle whole body strength/circuit training 2x/wk
- An up-tempo effort on at least one of the aerobic days (5-8% of weekly total)
- One solid effort at least every other week (<5% of weekly total) – a timed 1500 run or CP5
- A small amount of regular fast training – reps, strides, jumps, sprints in each sport(<3%) of weekly total

So, for a novice triathlete (training for anything from a super-sprint to a long course triathlon) with a peak weekly load of ~40hrs/mo in the previous season, an initial basic week may look something like….

Step 5: Get out the door and train! Every day!

The above 5 steps represent the limit of my preliminary planning.

The direction you will take from here depends on:
- Progressively moving towards the specific needs of your event
- Revealing your current strengths and weaknesses (a moving target)
- Figuring out how your body responds to training (another moving target)

There is only one way to answer the last two questions – Get out there!

Tune in next time for more on ‘the method’ and above all else…

Train Smart.



Chuckie V said...

Another keeper here, and thanks for the mention!

I would never shun planning, of course. But I think it's less important than is "getting 'er done". I've worked out a good situation with those I guide. I call it the "Let me do the do the training!" approach. It seems to work and I honestly believe it's the role of any great coach to simplify.

That said, I also try to teach the athletes to coach to listen to the signals their body is sending; when to push harder; when to bail on a workout; what to look for en route; etc. We'll have a plan for each day (indeed, each training bout) and of course throughout the year, but when things don't go according to plan, they know what to do or at least have a better idea of what to do.

A simple set of options allows them to listen to their body's response(s) and make a decision based on what they're told by it/them. Of course we're often "forced to" push training back a day but sometimes, however, it's necessary to "suck it up" and learn to train through struggle. We don't always know what race day will bring but from my experience (both in competition and in spectating) it's quite often a struggle! And what better way to prepare for that than to struggle in training at times?

But such a struggle must still be of BENEFIT, and not just to the mind. The body must learn what it means to feel bad and yet still get the job done. Power, heart-rate and a well-trained inner-awareness all help make the decision of when to stay or when to go, so a potentially bad outcome can be averted (i.e., sickness, injury, motivational woe, etc)

I tell the athlete: build a virtual dashboard to learn more about yourself and your performance monitoring. This on-the-fly "dashboard" can include electronic data like that from GPS, power, heart-rate, speed/pace, cadence, caloric expenditure, etc. Moreover, the workout goal (the plan) is also programmed into this instrument panel. Most off all though, this dashboard should be led by motivation level and a complete inner-awareness (breathing rate, form/technique, muscular fatigue, stomach stability, enjoyment level, comfort level, and so on) so that the best possible decision making can take place. After all, it's good to have a plan for when things don't go according to plan!


Alan Couzens said...

Hey CV,

Well put.

Love the "it's good to have a plan when things don't go according to plan".

Completely agree with the approach that you're advocating here. It's only a paradigm nudge but it's an important one.

Pick up any training book and you have 10 chapters devoted to "the plan" and 1 with a bit of lip service as to "what to do when the plan doesn't work out". In reality, the way that the plan is working out should play a big part in what the next part of the plan looks like. I think we both have a common take on this.

Great stuff in the comment and the blog you wrote today. You're always a good influence to keep my Germanic tendencies in check.