The way I view training is that its ebb-and-flow should resemble and EKG readout. There should be persistent peaks (hard bouts of training), valleys (rest and recovery) and some mid-height blips (endurance sessions). What is to be avoided is putting a training schedule together that more resembles a flatline. This is how I think about things when creating an athlete’s training schedule – week-to-week, cycle-to-cycle.
The order in which I listed the characteristics is important to note. They flow from slower and more distance-based to faster and more explosive-based effort. Using the cycling example again, a 4-5-hour ride will fall squarely in the “endurance” bucket, while 10-15-second all out sprints will fall squarely in the “speed” bucket. Time trial-specific intervals would mainly be “strength”-related while short VO2max efforts would lean more toward “power”. And, there are plenty of examples of workouts which stimulate a blending of multiple areas of this continuum. For example, you could start with a long interval at SST (just below threshold) followed by a series of 60-second efforts at L5 (VO2max). The key is to understand what stimulus each type of workout is meant to elicit and how the stimuli ties in to the type of racing in which the athlete wants to excel.
The key is understanding the athlete’s goals. It’s incumbent upon the athlete to think ahead, to look at the race calendar and start to formulate how many races and what types of races he or she will do over the course of the racing season. And, which of those races will be labeled as “A” (100% ready to go); “B” (important but only a couple days backing off); and “C” (training races). This is how the coach comes to understand how to best structure the athlete’s training program – starting at the athlete’s first key race and counting backwards from there to today – and strike the proper balance between endurance, strength, power, speed and recovery.
On top of all this training, it’s important to understand each athlete’s propensities. With the track and field world championships happening now, let’s use running as an example. A 100m/200m sprinter is going to respond very quickly to power and speed work, much more quickly than a marathoner because he or she is genetically predisposed to that type of running. The sprinter is “built for speed.” Likewise, the marathoner is going to be a better responder to endurance and strength workouts.
While we can’t necessarily ensure athletes are being provided with the absolute best balance of training stimuli, what coaches can do is ensure an effective balance is provided. There is not a “one size fits all” for a given type of athlete, but there are intelligent guidelines to follow and from there tweak given each athletes response to the stimuli.
Based on where athletes are in their training regimens in relation to their key races will determine what sort of balance among the training stimuli needs to be struck. In simplest terms, the farther away athletes are from their key races the less race-specific the training should be; the closer athletes get to the key races the more race-specific the training should be. Being fully honest, as coaches we sometimes get the approach spot on; other times we’re off by a little bit; and yet others we’re off by a lot. The best coaches will identify and admit when their athletes’ plans are off-the-mark, quickly make adjustments and put the athletes on a more effective path to success.
Direct feedback from the athletes is of critical importance, as are race performances in the lead-up to the key racing. In one example with one of my athletes, she was telling me about fatigue in some of her workouts, but not all. She had completed a 70.3 triathlon a month prior (a B race) followed two week later by an Olympic distance race (a C race). She then had another 70.3 teed up three weeks after that – so 3 races in 5 weeks. The impact of races and key workouts manifest in three different ways – immediate, short-term and long-term effects. In dealing with the different effects of and among several multi-hour races, it was key to provide her with enough recovery yet also with enough stimuli so that fitness was either maintained or increased over these five weeks.
Given her feedback on fatigue was sporadic rather than persistent, and occurred on recovery days after key workouts rather than after every workout, and given her performance in key workouts was spot on, what we were looking at was an intersection of latent fatigue from the racing coupled with immediate effects of the key workouts. Yet, I wanted her to go into this second 70.3 (her third race) with a bit of a spring in her step. This was to be her final tune-up race before her key race in September, Ironman Wisconsin. Without tapering, we pulled back just a bit on our typical race-week intensity while keeping typical volume intact. Her freshness snapped back very quickly and she ended up setting not only a 22-minute PR on this particular course but also a 70.3 PR to boot. Now, with five weeks until IM WI, she’s in a fantastic place – physically, mentally and emotionally.
But, sometimes races don’t go as planned or as hoped, and it’s clear the disconnect is based on the preparation I provide to the athlete. Typically, it is based on too big an emphasis on the non-race-specific training. By taking the athlete’s feedback and laying it over the training schedule, I can quickly identify where we missed the mark, make adjustments to the go-forward plan and fairly quickly elicit the desired training responses. Remember, race-specific stimuli elicits responses in athletes very quickly. A sprinter needs only a few sessions to get “the snap back”. A time trialist needs only a few TT-specific sessions to get into “drone mode”. And so on. In other words, missing the mark by a little bit does not mean the season is ruined like so many athletes think.
Yet, sometimes, I find we’re ahead of the curve in an athlete’s trajectory. We’re getting to a peak in fitness too far ahead of the key races. In these cases, it’s critical to pull back from the training stimuli which are creating the accelerated responses. This can be accomplished by cutting down the number of key workouts by half (rather than cutting down the amount of hard work done per key workout, which is more in-line with tapering into the key race). As a replacement for the key workouts, sessions that are considered complementary but “opposite” should be included. For example, a criterium specialist would be prescribed more L1/L2 steady aerobic rides, maybe focusing on pedaling efficiency, in place of an L5/L6 session. Or, the Ironman athlete might replace a high-volume weekend with a fraction of the hours at higher intensity.
The biggest challenge to overcome here is lack of perspective. Self-coached athletes are challenged to take that step back and objectively look at their approach to identify the gaps in preparation. In many cases, they also lack the foundational knowledge and expertise to do so, regardless of how many “how to” books they read on training (many of which are questionable in their actual value). On the flip side, you have coaches who either who ignore the patterns because they function with a one-size-fits-all mentality or are too busy to provide athletes with the individual attention each deserves.
Balancing training is a simple concept, but one that is challenging to implement and get right. There are many variables that ebb-and-flow over time and which also need consistent attention over time. This is why I say training plans should be written in pencil, not pen, and come with a big eraser. Because despite how effective the first pass at the training plan is, it won’t be perfect and will require adjustments over time for any one of a multitude of reasons – sickness, injury, too much or not enough stimuli, and so on. It’s incumbent on each coach/athlete relationship to monitor progress and make the necessary adjustments along the way.