Monday, May 30, 2011

Standing up for complexity

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

“Our experience hitherto justifies us in trusting that nature is the realization of the simplest that is mathematically conceivable”*
- Albert Einstein

*Commonly misquoted as “Things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler”

Inspired by Chuckie V and Gordo, I’ve decided to get my personal blog back up and running. Frankly, as an outlet for thoughts & adventures of mine that may or may not be educational or applicable to the EC site but, at the very least, will be personal and real.

Kicking things off with a topic that’s been on my mind …

There seems to be a common theme running through the coaching blogs of late – simplicity. Let’s ditch the gadgets and get back to work. Let’s abandon periodization and just focus on work. Let’s dismiss those focused on advancing sport through science and go back to what has been the common thread in all successful coaching programs from Milo to Lydiard and beyond – Work!

Anyone who has been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to come in contact with a training plan designed by yours truly knows that, for the athlete, work is indeed a central element. In fact, consistent work is job 1 for the athlete and demands the majority of focus but what of the coach? What is the coach’s ‘job 1’?

An athlete comes to me with a goal: Coach, I want to qualify for Kona. Coach, I want to go pro. Coach, I want to win xyz race and their core expectation is that I will create a training plan that will enable them to achieve this. My core expectation is that they have the inherent passion and motivation to follow said plan without the need for a lot of pep talks or mind games from me. Perhaps this is unique to my athletes, I’m not sure, but my perspective is that, on the whole, motivation is not the missing link when it comes to Ironman athletes looking to take their game to the next level.

So, my job 1 is to create a plan that will enable that athlete to achieve that goal. What information do I need to do this? Plain and simple, I need to KNOW how that particular athlete responds to training, what type of training that athlete will benefit the most from and how much training that athlete can handle. I need to KNOW this on the deepest, most specific, most quantitative level for THAT athlete. I need to know, if I throw 20hrs of steady aerobic work at this guy right now is it going to make him stronger or is it going to dig a hole that’s going to take him weeks to climb out of? I need to know how much performance benefit is this athlete going to get from this week of training and how many of them do we need to get him to his goal (or get him to the point that he can handle a 25hr week). All of these questions demand an individual understanding of the athlete than only comes with attentive (recorded) observation over time.

Reproducing the plan that I used to get Johnny Kona to qualify isn’t going to cut it. Maybe Johnny Kona had a stronger constitution than THIS athlete and could handle more training. Maybe Johnny Kona came from a mega mileage background and needed to work on their top end. Maybe Johnny Kona got more performance bang from a training buck than this athlete and so had to do less work to achieve their goal. I guess if I didn’t care too much about the individual athlete, I could keep applying the Johnny Kona formula until the next Johnny Kona came along but since I DO care about each and every athlete I work with…

I need to know this particular athlete’s individual dose-response relationship to training in order to effectively predict the precise type & amount of training it will take them to achieve their goal. Short of this, what am I basing the plan on? A generic “Here’s how to qualify” program that I read in a popular training book? A distant memory of the sort of training it took me or a previous athlete to get to a goal? Don’t laugh. More coaches than we all care to admit base their ‘customized training plans’ on precisely that!

No, the only way to effectively & honestly predict the level & type of training that is going to be necessary for this athlete to achieve their goals is to empirically observe how that particular athlete responds to training over a period of time – and collect and analyze data over that period to identify reliable trends. Fortunately we live in an age where we have the tools to readily support this kind of analysis. All a coach need do is put the time in to understand them!

Without this perspective – an ongoing record of the training input vs the performance output, how can a coach confidently & honestly say to an athlete “my plan will get you to xyz goal”? Answer - They can’t! So, in place of hitting the books and putting in the necessary time to acquire the concrete knowledge needed to understand these relationships, you see a lot of self marketing and bravado, as much to bolster the coaches own confidence in themselves and their coaching abilities as to inspire confidence from their athletes.

In a way I can’t blame them. I am in a better position than most to confirm that collecting, analyzing and understanding training data is both time consuming and tedious and I’m not always sure that the value (at least for the time it takes) is immediately apparent to the athlete (whose ‘job 1’ is not to understand but to DO). If my central goal was to ‘live the tri life’ or make money from coaching or even to create one champion athlete, I may take a different route but, as mentioned, my central goal is to genuinely understand the training process to the extent that I can say to each and every athlete that comes to me with the greatest degree of integrity and confidence that following this plan will give you the absolute best chance of achieving your goal.

Be honest with yourself about what you’re expecting from a coach when you look for one – someone to get you out the door (if this is the case, a better solution may be to find a more inspiring sport!) or someone who truly has the knowledge, the background and the tools to understand the complexity of you as both a biological organism and a unique athlete. Don’t call me (I’m busy enough) but do choose wisely.

Train smart.



A said...

Welcome back to the blog. I missed you.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Matt,

Hope I can still think of some fresh ideas to write about :-)



Papillon said...

Yes, welcome back and excellent post! I started working with a coach a couple of years ago and though I already knew he was implementing what was best for me and my abilities based upon my feedback and results, this post only confirms my belief that he is very good at it. Last winter as I was waiting for my next training schedule, he said "believe it or not, you've been forefront in my mind", trying to figure out what was going to work best to get me to the next level! Athletes respond differently and it takes a lot of data analysis (sometimes we cannot always see this in our own training) to develop a plan that best suits that athlete.

Looking forward to new interesting posts!

Papillon said...

You couldn't have said this all any better! Sometimes I've gotten frustrated waiting for training schedules or guidance, but I realized this last winter my coach was having to take a lot of time to look at the last two years' worth of data and results to figure out what was going to work to get me to the next level. Until you have data, you are essentially looking into a crystal ball and trying things until you find out what works-and seeing what doesn't. For me that is any hill training. For the next person it may be something different.

Welcome back and looking forward to some interesting topics!

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Papillon.

I agree that having a wider perspective is probably the greatest reason for hiring a coach.

A coach can reference the way you are responding to the training plan with the way that others respond to better tailor and individualize the plan to you.

A coach actively observing 10 athletes over 1 year gets the equivalent of 10 years experience for a self coached athlete!

This potential for massive learning is one of the reasons I love being a coach!

Thanks for the kind comments,