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By Alan Couzens, MSc (Sports Science) - reprint
“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 next season.
Of course the training manual du jour of the coming 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 over-planning vs under-planning 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…
Republication - the original can be found here
By Alan Couzens, MSc (Sports Science)
Those of you familiar with the training philosophies of Joe Friel (the guy decoupling big time in the shot above will have no doubt come across the concept of ‘decoupling’, i.e. a shift in the power: heart rate relationship as a workout goes on.
An example of this, from one of the athletes I work with, in the form of a rise in heart rate and a drop in power as the session progresses is shown below.
Clearly, as time went on the gap between the athlete’s power and heart rate widened, to the point that by the end of the session, the difference in power:HR compared to the start is 26%. Or in other words, it is taking this athlete an extra 30 beats/min to generate the same power!!
Detailed info on the calculation of decoupling can be found here, but the general gist is; we take the power/heart rate for the first half of the session and divide it by the power/heart rate for the second half. E.g. if that athlete did 105 watts at 100bpm in the first half (power/HR = 1.05) and 100 watts at 100bpm in the second, i.e. he lost 5 watts (power/HR = 1.00), then his decoupling would be 5watts/100watts = 5%.
When you think about it, this is a pretty perplexing phenomena. We assume physiologically that a given effort requires a given amount of energy, which requires a given amount of oxygen, which in turn requires a given amount of heart beats, at least for a particular individual! So what are the causes and implications of a need for more heart beats at the same workload?
To illustrate, let’s start with a typical exercise physiology scenario:
Say that I start pedaling a bike at 260W, a level of power that on average requires approximately 3.5 L/min of Oxygen. As I start the exercise & my muscles figure out “we’re gonna need more O2 captain”, my body goes to work transporting O2 to the working muscles.
Let’s assume that I have 12g of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood (an average amount). Assuming 100% saturation, this 12g/deciliter carries 16ml of O2, so 160ml of O2 per liter of blood. But I need 3.5 L of O2, so it’s going to take me about 22 liters of blood per minute to keep up with the demand (3500/160). Assuming I have a cardiac stroke volume of 150ml, it will take my body 150 beats per minute to pump these 22 liters (to the exercise physiology geeks, yes I’m ignoring the a-VO2 difference for the purpose of simplicity).
Pretty simple, eh? A given workload requires a given O2, which requires a given amount of heart beats. So, if the workload stays constant but the heart rate changes over time, what’s going on? At what step in the chain is the breakdown occurring?
The obvious one and the most commonly cited cause of increased heart rate for a given power is a change in stroke volume due to dehydration. If my cardiac stroke volume all of a sudden goes from 150ml down to 140ml my heart would need to beat 10 beats faster in order to get the same amount of blood per minute to the muscles. So, for my 260W, I would now be putting out 160bpm instead of 150bpm. The most common cause of this drop in stroke volume is a drop in blood volume via dehydration. For this reason, cardiovascular drift frequently occurs under hot conditions where some of the body’s fluids must be devoted to cooling rather than maintaining the integrity of the blood volume.
However, can an increase in heart rate for a given power reveal more?
Joe suggests that not only is decoupling of power and heart rate a sign of heat stress, he also uses it as an indicator of aerobic fitness. Is there a possible mechanism by which this metric could be used as a sign of not just heat tolerance, but also aerobic endurance?
Thomas and Chapman (2006) may be able to help answer the question of the validity of decoupling as a training metric. By observing VO2 during prolonged downhill walking on a steep grade, they saw a progressive rise in VO2 uptake with no change in body temperature or stroke volume. OK, you say, “the sweat thing made sense but what’s going on here?”
The break in the chain under these conditions occurs not in Oxygen transport, but Oxygen demand, i.e. at the top of the chain. During the eccentric exercise, as muscle damage occurs, the legs are forced to recruit larger, less economical muscle fibers. These fibers require a greater amount of O2 to exert a given level of power and the heart rate goes up for a given power output when the more economical fibers begin to fatigue.
In fact, type II fibers require ~twice the O2 for a given power output. Therefore, small fiber shifts result in relatively large differences in heart rate for a given power output (Coyle, 1992)
As we know, muscle damage isn’t the only cause of muscle fatigue. When a muscle fiber runs out of fuel (glycogen) it’s out of the game. Thus, decoupling can serve as an indicator of how our targeted muscle fibers are doing, both in terms of muscle damage and fuel stores.
As the targeted muscle fibers become stronger and more fatigue resistant, the time before the muscle fatigues to the point that it needs to call on it’s ‘big brother’ fibers increases. Therefore, as an athlete’s muscle fibers become more trained, decoupling over a training session decreases. In fact, the researchers above found that the effect disappeared when athletes were trained in downhill walking for a period of weeks. Or, in other words, as fitness for a given task increases, decoupling decreases.
Additionally, if we accept that HR:Power can indicate muscle damage and fuel depletion, we can also then use this metric to help determine if an athlete is adequately recovered for a key workout. If we know that typically an athlete takes 140bpm to run 7:00/mi (after warm up) we can use this number as a ‘check-in’ before key sessions. If the athlete takes 147bpm for the same pace (a difference of 5%) it may suggest that recovery is incomplete and the session should be postponed. Chuckie V wrote a great post on the practical implementation of this concept here.
Incidentally, a swing in the opposite direction can also indicate incomplete recovery via other mechanisms. In fact, over-reaching studies have typically found either decreased power/pace of ~5% for a given effort (e.g. Coutts et al. 2007, Jeukendrup et al., 1992), OR a decreased heart rate of 5% for a given power/pace (e.g. Hedelin et al, 2000). Therefore, ensuring athletes are within +/-5% of ‘normal’ power and HR is a good policy.
While it’s true that heart rate is subject to more confounding variables than other measures, it is not, as some coaches would suggest ‘useless’ as a training metric. The confounding variables can quite easily be accounted for by a good coach with effective communication and athlete knowledge. When used with a given athlete over a period of time, observing power:heart rate relationships offers the coach a fairly objective indicator of both the athlete’s base fitness and their readiness to work (two things that athletes notoriously over-estimate when left to their own devices). For this reason, in my opinion, decoupling is a key concept of science-based coaching.
At a glance
by Alan Couzens, MS (Sport Science)
Letzte Woche haben wir uns angesehen, wie man anhand der Leistungsdaten einer Trainings- oder Wettkampfdatei die Trainingsbelastung quantifizieren kann und wie man diese Information nutzen kann um das Training zu planen. Diese Woche sehen wir uns an wie man die Intensität bewertet und wie man die Struktur eines Trainings oder Wettkampfs analysiert.
In addition to having an approximate load in mind for a given workout or race, most workouts will also have a key focused physiological or tactical objective with respect to a particular power band or zone.
After deriving your FTP (link), you will want to identify target training zones as a % of FTP. Some brief recommendations on how to delineate these zones:
Each of these zones has a distinct and separate physiological objective & each should be represented in varying proportions within your training plan. While the questions of how much of each zone to include for different types of athletes with different goals are also beyond the scope of this article, there is value to the athlete new to power training in simply identifying a target zone or energy system to focus on for each ride and observing the effect of different proportions of each on performance.
Power analysis software enables you to very quickly identify how much time you are spending in each zone or powerband on both the ‘big picture’ and individual session level. Most good power analysis software will enable you to produce a chart like the following that highlights the amount of time spent in each power band or zone.
This chart offers the athlete/coach a very quick assessment of the specific intensities/energy systems that were targeted within the workout (or phase of training). For example, if a “threshold” workout calls for 6×5 minutes @ 300-320W, we should see on the power histogram, 30 total minutes in the 300-320W column. This number provides a very quick ‘next level’ assessment as to the execution of a workout. In addition to knowing that the athlete hit the target load, we now know whether he hit that load in a manner that is specific to the physiological quality being targeted OR to the specifics of the event.
When it comes to a race file, this simple chart offers a lot of valuable information about the specific demands of a given race. If a road race requires 30min of work at 300-340W within the course of a 6 hour race at an average power of 200W to make the critical selections, it is clearly not enough to train for the ability to handle the load of maintaining 200W for 6hrs. The power histogram offers a very quick shot of the various components that go on within a race.
On a related note, in addition to highlighting required tactical abilities, this chart can highlight poor tactical decisions of an athlete. For example, if we have determined from key sessions that an athlete has 30 minutes worth of 300-340W ‘in his bank’ to spend within a race and he goes out and overdraws an additional 10 minutes and ‘blows himself up’, the error is made quite evident in this simple chart.
Taking the assessment of planned versus actual intensity to the next level, the power file offers the coach and athlete the ability to not only quantify how much of the various intensities occurred within a workout or race, but specifically when and how they occurred.
For example, if we take the above scenario of 30 minutes of total work in the 300-340W range within the course of a 6 hour race, it is important for us to know:
a) Did this high intensity work occur in one continuous bout or several sporadic bouts of various durations?
b) Did the bulk of this work occur at the beginning, middle or end of the race?
The structure of the key specific training sessions will be different depending upon the answers to these questions.
If the 30 minutes of high intensity is likely to occur in one chunk on a decisive initial climb, specific training may move from short climbs at the required intensity off long rest to progressively longer, more continuous climbs at the target intensity to a progressive climb close to race duration, immediately followed by a long bout of aerobic work at the target duration.
On the other hand, if this work is distributed throughout the race in bits and pieces, we may follow a similar structure to this and simply lengthen the total duration and/or progressively increase the intensity of the ‘on’ or ‘off’ portions of the workout.
Being able to specifically answer these questions and train accordingly IS the advantage of training and racing with a power meter.
Good power software makes this analysis of how and where various power ranges were employed within a race very easy to assess. The user can place gridlines on the power file to very quickly assess where and for what duration the athlete was in various zones. An example of this from a pro cyclist racing in a stage race is shown below.
This represents a great example of an event where all zones are covered. An athlete looking to stay with the peloton in this event must be prepared for 2x ~40min climbs in their threshold zone, immediately preceded by a near max 15min effort in their VO2 zone and all this within the context of a 6+hr ride with a normalized power of about 84% of FTP! A daunting objective, but the athlete is in a much better place to train for these demands with the sort of information provided by this type of file analysis.
In summary, your power meter has the capacity to provide you with an incredible level of specific detail about the true demands of your race. By using the above concepts to analyze this and then by applying this information to create specific objectives for your training sessions in a never-ending feedback loop, the power meter affords you the potential to take the focus of your training and racing to an entirely new level.
At a glance
At a glance
Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
At a glance
At a glance
|At a glance
At a glance: What is a power meter good for? Organizing your training, pacing, and specificity
In the last article we looked at how a power meter can help you track your progress, and reminded ourselves that a power meter is not a substitute for a good training plan. Now we will look in more detail at how to organize your training and how to target it to your specific needs.
Tracking progress requires good information on the training you have done. And power meters can do just that: as well as measuring performance output in the form of frequent field test data, power meters do fantastic job of monitoring training input with minimal stress to the user.
Every pedal stroke is automatically recorded by your power meter. What was that trainer workout that the club coach had the group do last Tuesday? No need to write down all of the specifics in your training log… 10minutes in zone 1 at a cadence of 80-90rpm, 10minutes in zone 2 at a cadence of… etc etc. Just plug your bike computer into your PC, download the training file, and it’s all there. Recorded (for better or worse) for eternity. If you’re anything like the swim squads that I coached before all of the gadgets came on board, it’s probably fair to say that, as an athlete, you prefer the ‘doing’ to the ‘recording’. Your logbook will be significantly more complete after you introduce a power meter!
You might say: I already use a heart rate monitor and download my workouts. What additional advantages would a power meter provide?
The advantages of using a power meter to measure training input rather than a heart rate monitor are twofold:
i) A power meter monitors the real time force applied with every pedal stroke
A heart rate monitor is an imprecise way of measuring the specific nature of a workout. For example, a 15s high power sprint may be too short to raise your heart rate despite requiring a large muscular response. A heart rate monitor does a poor job of recording this type of short duration, high intensity training. Similarly, a heart rate monitor will not record the force demands of a workout. This is important in a sport like cycling where different cadence sets are used for different effect.
ii) A power meter measures training stress and isn’t affected by the variables of heat stress or caffeine stress or life stress in the way that heart rate is.
The degree to which training heart rate can change in response to non-training factors such as heat and excitement make heart rate a distant second to power as a true indicator of the intensity of training input. A kilojoule of work is a kilojoule of work whether done in rain, hail or shine, before or after a coffee.
If there is any ‘instant advantage’ that comes with the use of a power meter, this is it. It’s not until you start using a power meter that you’ll realize just how few people pace optimally. Sure, there are some races where variability is inherent to the competition, for example a cycling road race, where taking strategic ‘breaks’ is one of the big determinants in who wins and who goes home crying. However, for sports like non-draft triathlon, solo endurance bike races, time trials, or hill climbs, keeping your effort even is a key element of success. Heart rate alone is not sensitive enough to pick up the small but cumulatively significant variations in power output that ultimately limit performance.
Even in a sport like road cycling, where greater variability of effort is expected, a power meter is an incredibly valuable tool in placing these ‘special efforts’ throughout your race. There is no better tool than a power meter to teach road cyclists to be economical – both in terms of utilizing drafting to save watts and to decide when to ‘burn the matches’ that they have at their disposal for maximum success.
Aside from keeping race efforts as even as possible, a power meter teaches athletes how to best distribute their efforts over the course. Wind resistance increases by the square of speed. Thus cyclists should worker harder on climbs when speed, and thus wind resistance, is low, and should dial effort back on descents, when speed and wind resistance are high. By keeping an eye on power and speed, smart riders can devote the greatest part of their power output to bike speed and minimize the amount of watts they ‘throw into the wind’, getting more speed for the same effort.
The race doesn’t care about how relatively hard you’re working with respect to your own limits. No, the race is harsher than that. There are specific fitness requirements within each race to ‘make the selections’ and be there in the run up to the finishing tape. These specific fitness requirements can be quantified (and trained for). Want to ‘be there’ on a Tour De France climb? You’d better include some sustained climbs at or above 6.0 watts per kg in your plan. Want to hang onto the lead group for the first 40km of the bike in Kona? You’d better have some extended sets on the flat varying your output from 4.0-4.7 watts per kg in your arsenal.
Whatever the event, with a power meter, you can identify and train for the specific muscular demands of that event.
Until next time, train smart,