Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Destructing your Annual Training Plan - Part II

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”
- Bruce Lee

In my last post I outlined a light framework for creating a response-focused Annual Training Plan. The focus of the plan being simply to simplify - to cut planning down to its essentials to maximize the potential for individual responsiveness. For review, the points that I considered key prior to ‘getting out the door’ were:

1. Determine competition dates and phases
2. Determine number of peaks
3. Take a conservative guess at your starting load
4. Come up with a balanced weekly schedule of mixed methods at an appropriate load.
5. Get out the door and train! Repeat! Repeat!

In this follow-up article I will take a look at some of those factors that I look at to ‘get to know’ an athlete individually and to determine the response to (& future direction of) the program.

Once I start an athlete on a new ATP, the first question I am looking to answer in the early weeks is how long is it going to take this guy to get tired? This brings us to Step 6….

Step 6: Train until you get (a little) tired.

You’ll remember that in the last post we took a guess as to appropriate starting load for the coming season. How do we know if this was ‘right’?
Simply, the right training load will make you a little tired within 2-3 weeks (generally for a novice athlete, 2 weeks, for an advanced, 3 weeks), leading to a slight reduction in performance (5-10%)

If the load that we estimated was too light, the following will happen:

You’ll notice a slight drop in performance over 2-3 weeks (usually <5%) followed by a marginal improvement in performance following your recovery week but performance will not recover to ‘baseline’ standards.
If the load we estimated was too heavy, the following will happen:

You’ll notice a MARKED drop in performance (+>10%) over 2-3 weeks that doesn’t recover with 1 week of recovery. Again, performance does not recover to baseline standards.

If the load was ‘just right’ you’ll notice a slight drop in performance (5-10%) after 2-3 weeks followed by a performance boost above baseline standards after 1 week of recovery.

You’ll recall that I recommended we be quite cautious with the initial estimate. The reason for this is that it is far easier to ‘up the ante’ on a load that is too easy, than recover from a load that is too hard. You can see from the trend of the ‘too hard’ curve after one recovery week that if we overdo it, we can spend a month or more recovering from one cycle that is too ambitious!!

So, if the load turns out to be ‘too easy’, quite simply, increase the load as we normally would for the next cycle until you get a little tired.

The choice of what type of session to use as a benchmark of ‘performance’ is up to you. There are pros and cons to each method. Personally, I prefer short duration, aerobic heavy sessions, e.g. solid 1500 run for time. You’ll note that I recommended scheduling one of these sessions at least every other week in the athlete’s ‘balanced’ week.

These sessions are sufficiently aerobic that they respond to base training but sufficiently short that they can be regularly completed at a solid effort. Tests at a fixed HR can also be used, however, if so, consideration to & control of extraneous HR influences should occur (e.g. temperature, resting HR)

Step 7: Rest, recover, then increase the load appropriately for the next block.

Assuming we ‘got it right’, as we begin the next block of training we are looking to increase the training load by an amount that will result in a similar level of tiredness/performance drop to the first block.

A part of identifying appropriate load increases through the various cycles is coming up with some idea of load equivalents for the different types of training. To this end, I’ve found it useful to equate different volumes of the respective training intensities into training ‘units’ of somewhat equivalent training load. In this way we can say that if we have 1 training unit to ‘spend’ on increased load in the next block, we could choose to spend it on 20 minutes of steady training or 10 minutes of threshold training or an extra 2x800’s on the track. My equivalents for 1 training ‘unit’ are shown below:

So, now that we have a common ‘currency’ for training load, what does a typical athlete’s ‘paycheck’ look like from cycle to cycle? How many extra training units does an athlete have to spend from one block to the next?

Again, this is a trial and error process and one in which it is best to err on the side of caution until appropriate load jumps are established. However….

A couple of guidelines that I have found from my own experience:

- Athletes can handle larger load jumps in the early season when they are relatively ‘fresh’.
- The higher the starting load, in relation to last year’s peak volume, the smaller the load jumps (Note: advanced athletes should begin the season with a higher % of their peak volume than novice athletes).
- Counter-intuitively, the more advanced the athlete, the smaller the load increases, i.e. the closer the athlete gets to their maximal absorbable load the smaller each loading jump should be.

Specifically, here are some guidelines in terms of an increase in training units for different athletes at different points in the season. Please keep in mind that these are simply guidelines and the true ‘proof in the pudding’ will come from whether this load makes the athlete ‘appropriately tired’ as described in step 6. If in doubt, err on the side of a smaller load jump and If the athlete is not improving from block to block then change the load!

Step 8: Identify Strengths and weaknesses and where to devote the load increase

So now we know how much we want to increase the load, we’ll need some idea of what type of load we want to use to ‘up the ante’ for the next block. This comes down to 2 things:

1. Identifying where you are in your season (general vs specific preparation)
2. Identifying current strengths and weaknesses (by sport (first) and intensity band (second))
3. Identifying the race demands of your event

a) Identifying where you are in your season (General vs Specific Preparation)

The first consideration when determining where to add load relates to where you are in your season, or more specifically, how generally fit you are.

All load is not created equal. Some types of load, e.g. steady endurance work build you up, while others, e.g. intensive track work, tear you down. The more aerobic base work that the athlete has behind them the quicker they will recover from more intensive work. Therefore, in order to ‘earn’ the right to spend your new fitness how you choose, you need a foundation of general fitness behind you. I call this the Suze Orman rule.

Those of you familiar with Suze Orman’s financial advice TV show will be able to relate. Folks call in, tell Suze what they want to purchase along with what their current financial situation is and Suze either approves or denies their purchase. Unsurprisingly, the more financial foundation that folks have behind them, the more latitude Suze is likely to give with what she ‘approves’. I am the same way. If an athlete comes to me with a 100 mile/wk run base and tells me they want to work on their 5K speed, I am likely to approve it. On the flipside, if an athlete with only a year of running behind them tells me they want to do 3 track sessions a week to improve their VO2max – DENIED!

Specifically, I follow Jack Daniels recommendations on this topic, with upper % limits set for each type of training. These ‘upper limit’ percentages in relation to percentage of total weekly mileage for each type of training are shown below:

A concrete example, let’s say an experienced athlete is preparing for a competitive marathon at which they aim to run sub 3:00. Based on experience, I would expect the athlete to be able to complete a Marathon Pace run of at least 2/3 race duration at target pace by the end of the specific preparation – in other words, 17 miles in <2:00. However, in order to have ‘earned the right’ to attempt/absorb such an intensive session, I would expect the athlete to have built their easy-steady base mileage to ~100mi/wk i.e. so that the intensive session represents <15%.

Similarly, if I have an athlete who has a weakness in their running ‘top end’ and I know that I want to schedule 2 run track sessions of ~5K each per week in the specific prep portion of this athlete’s season, I know that in the general prep phase of the season I need to build the athletes base volume to a point that 10K of VO2 track work represents less than 8% of total weekly load, i.e. a base volume of ~80K/wk.

These general ‘preparatory’ objectives, can thus have substantial bearing on where I choose to ‘spend’ the athletes fitness even if they don’t immediately relate to the athletes weaknesses or the specific needs of the event.

b) Strengths and weaknesses:

In the above table you’ll see what I consider to be balanced standards across swim, bike and run for criterion measures of a similar time duration (numbers are in minutes for 400m swim and 1500m run and watts for CP5 bike). This sort of table can be a useful tool when determining what discipline is more deserving of additional training load from block to block. The numbers are based on VO2 equivalents across the disciplines for athletes of good (but not elite) economy.

For instance, if an athlete can generate 450W for a CP5 but struggles to break 6 minutes for a 400m swim (the situation for one of the athletes I’m currently working with) you can rest assured, he will be carrying a permanent smell of Chlorine with him for the next few months :-)

In the early season, emphasis periods may be used to address a ‘weak’ sport. In the first 2-4 months of the year, fitness can be maintained on 50% of the normal training load for a given sport. In other words, if your normal balanced load in the early season is 5hrs per sport, the athlete can maintain fitness for 2 of the 3 sports on 2.5hrs/wk, leaving the opportunity for a 10hr block for the weak sport. Therefore, providing maintenance load is kept to 50-75% of normal, emphasis periods afford the athlete an opportunity to play ‘catch up’ on the weak sport.

The other area of ‘balance’ that I am concerned with when deciding what areas to work on with a given athlete is that of their balance across pace and power durations. I have addressed this topic in a previous blog and offered some suggestions on expected ‘norms’ across the pace/power curve for Ironman athletes vs shorter duration specialists. (link)

c) Race Specific Demands of the Event

Finally, at least some time during the season should be devoted to sessions that closely mimic the demands of the event. I have found through practice (and from copying some of the worlds best coaches on the matter  that time trials of 2/3 race duration or broken sessions over race duration are key sessions to be included in an athletes preparation. Therefore, some time must be devoted to building up to and repeating a number of these workouts at the tail end of an athlete’s prep. For example, if an Ironman athlete finishes their specific prep period with a 20hr week with a ‘big day’ of 4hrs, some time needs to be ‘set aside’ to build this big day up to 7hrs + to prepare the athlete for demands of IM racing. Many athletes and coaches over-do this period. I will take a fit, fast, balanced athlete with a limited race prep period over a slow, unbalanced athlete who has 25 big days under his belt any day of the week!

In summary, the 3 steps mentioned in this piece are all quite fluid and demand a good amount of flexibility on the part of the coach/athlete in order to optimize. It is impossible to predict, at the start of the year, with any practically applicable certainty, the level of load/volume that is going to make an athlete appropriately tired 10 months down the track.

Likewise, it is impossible to determine how many blocks of training it will take to rectify an athletic weakness, or indeed if that will still be a weakness 6 months down the track. I have seen some funny things in my years of coaching – strengths become weaknesses and weaknesses strengths within relatively short periods of time. The intelligent athlete/coach must always remain fluid and adaptable to the utmost.
Re-read that Bruce Lee quote 3 more times and…….. :-)

Train Smart



Cusetri said...

when using testing parameters in the off-season, say every 3 weeks, is it possible to have too much improvement too soon, and if so what would you look for?

maybe re-wording that and saying, "more improvement than you would like to see."

or, is any improvement over the previous baseline a good sign, no matter how much?

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Mike,

If performance is 'too high' it would be a sign to me that recovery was too long.

If I was to extend to 2 recovery weeks (i.e. a taper), I'd note a big improvment in performance in week 1 and a continued improvement in week 2 (albeit at a slower rate)

For a fast recovering athlete they may get this type of recovery within 1 week of rest. In this case, we are missing out on valuable load. For this reason, with my advanced folk, I'll throw those benchmark sets in at all points through the week, sometimes 2 in 1 week so I can get a feel for this dynamic.

Hope this makes sense.



maryka said...

Given that the current world record for 1500m is 3:26, I'm wondering if the run time distance is a typo? Those times seem really fast for 1500m. For instance, I know a few cat 2/3 (e.g. good but not awesome) riders whose weight/CP5 comparison would put them at 3-3.5 min for the run which seems pretty impossible.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Maryka,

Fair point. I used the average economy number from our testing sample (i.e. ~200 ml/kg/km) for the 'norm' in this table. Considering our sample is 'male heavy' and 'runner heavy', probably led to the run numbers being a little too elite in a triathlete sense. I have amended to 210ml/kg/km which is closer to average if we equally weight female and 'bigger guy' data.

Thanks for the catch!



Unknown said...

Hey Alan,

Great Post. Question. In the middle of the summer I switched to a fat burning development program. Lots of steady work in my measured fat burning zone. first two weeks I did a couple of 400milers. In the middle of the 3rd 400 mile week I improved tremendously almost day to day. I didn't notice much more in the next week which was a recovery week. After than improvements were much slow. What do you make of the 3rd monster improvement week? I've noticed this same thing last winter during the start of my base period.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey W4S,

Very astute observation!

I see the same thing with my guys.

Just as there is a 'sweet spot' developmental age where the athlete is most responsive to training (post puberty), on the short term scale, there is also a 'sweet spot' where the body overcomes the muscle damage of a given training load and is most primed for growth. For most folks this is 3-5 weeks.

Studies on the process of mitochondrial biogenesis ('growth')have shown that it takes at least 2 weeks for the body to no longer show markers of damage and start showing markers of growth.

Great point!