Training Made Simple II: Planning for the Season Ahead

Last week, I introduced The Snickers Paradigm to highlight the importance developing the foundations of performance before going on to do the fancy things. This week I’ll introduce the basics of planning the season ahead, going into more detail as we move closer to the start of it.

Celtman: GB Triathlon Event of the Year 2012

Introduction

Last Christmas, the potential mother-in-law in waiting commented that I was a ‘feelings’ sort of person. I was insulted! I, someone who has worked hard to develop a critical mind, I who credit myself for using evidence based practice, I who uses reasoned thought to reach sound and non-impulsive conclusions was a ‘feelings’ person? Then, I reflected!

I love to wander round art galleries looking for an image that elicits an emotion, I go walking, getting moved close to tears by the simply beauty of nature. Doing so in a planned manner, such as taking a map, corrupts such pleasures. However, my Ph.D took far longer than it needed to. I’ve got myself in all sorts of pickles when having to work under intense pressure, resulting in periods when everything just went to pot! Why? Because I’m naturally someone who hates to plan, the type of person the potential mother-in-law in waiting had described. However, I’ve worked hard to overcome my natural tendencies and now love a good plan! Going through a planning process in the short-term may be painful, but the gains in the long-term are worth it.

You Need to Plan for a Biggie

Planning training? What does it mean? Planning is the process of thinking about and organising what you need to do to reach desired goal(s). Training is an organised activity designed to enhance performance. Therefore, in the context of sport, training should promote psychological and physical adaptations so that the athlete is prepared to perform at their best in a competitive environment. If training load is too high, then maladaptation is likely to occur. It’s as simple as that.

How do you plan your training?

Take a minute and think about how you ‘plan’ your training (or your athlete’s training). Do you think it’s the best way to do it? What would you like to change? What alternative methods are out there?
You may have come up with one of the following ways you plan your training:

  • I use a fully periodised programme
  • I train in an unstructured way, simply doing what I want, when I want
  • I train within a club or team and go the sessions they organise
  • I train iteratively, that is not planning too far in advance and adapting what I want do depending on how I feel and how my performance is progressing
  • I train hard when I’m fresh and rest when I’m tired
  • I have a ‘mental template’ and follow a rough structure based on what I think I should be doing
  • I have a training diary to record what I have done but don’t plan what I do
  • I use software such as TrainingPeaks, and follow one of their training packages
  • I follow a generic plan in a magazine or online
  • I do what my coach asks me to do
  • I got bored and I am now on Facebook!

Now ask yourself, which one do you think works the best? Why do you think that? What evidence do you have for thinking what you do? We’ll reflect on this again at the end.

Methods of Planning Training

Periodization

In my 1st term of university, top of the “to-buy” list was Tudor O Bompa’s Periodization Training: Theory and Methodology, a bible for the teaching of the principles of designing training programmes. I suspect Fred Flintstone used this book to design his ambulatory programme to propel his car. However, Bompa’s theories still underpin teaching on most sports coaching courses, at university, schools and colleges.

Periodization is a method to systematically plan how often, how long and how hard you train so that you peak in the right place, at the right time. It has its own language, for example, micro-cycles (single sessions and weeks) meso-cycles (including preparation, pre-competition, competition and recovery phases which typically last one month or more) and macro-cycles (can be a year or maybe even an Olympic cycle). Manipulation of volume (how ‘much’ you train in a given week or cycle) and intensity (how ‘hard’ you train at any given time) is a key focus of Periodization.

The theories underpinning Periodization make sense and they are sound. They form the basis of most training manuals, such as the excellent Joe Friel ‘Training Bible’ series. My guess is that many of us apply certain aspects of Periodization, but is it the best method? I wonder!

The key benefits of Periodization include:

  • It is a useful way to develop an understanding or to teach the theory of training
  • The underpinning principles of Periodization are reasonably sound.
  • It is most useful when designing a programme for athletes focussing on a few big events such as an Ironman, a contender for yellow in the Tour de France or for athletes that the Olympics is their primary focus.

However, there are a number of limitations to Periodization including:

  • It takes time to understand the theories, so most people use it ineffectively or not at all
  • There is limited evidence to demonstrate that Periodization, as it is taught, is the most effective way to plan and prescribe training in endurance sport.
  • If an athlete is also undertaking a strength and conditioning programme under the guidance of another coach, it adds another level of complexity.
  • Theories are difficult to apply to those supporting other athletes within a team; those who have season long goals such as moving up a category or those with busy lives away from sport.
  • Many athletes train within a club structure so what they do is dictated to them by who they train with. For example, for my own triathlon swim training, I attend club sessions because they help motivate me and because it saves me from swimming over slow blue rinse grannies swimming in the fast lane. Group sessions are rarely physiologically optimal. However, the psychological benefits of training in a group are worth it.
  • I have a family ffs!
  • It takes ages for a coach to design an annual plan using periodisation. If an injury, illness or unforeseen circumstance happens, then it often results in going back numerous stages. Most coaches do not have the time or inclination to do so.

Please feel free to add a comment at the bottom if you wish to add any benefits or limitations of Periodization.

Training with Power the Allen and Coggan Way

In 1996, SRM (Schoberer Rad Messtechnik) introduced the first commercially available power-cranks. They revolutionised understanding of cycling performance because they made it practical to measure ‘work done’ on a bike very accurately and reliably. It’s amazing how much data you can gain from power-meters and I love them. (I was overwhelmed when I met Uhl Schoberer! He was underwhelmed!) They make my life so much easier when a rider has one. It’s like having a portable laboratory on the bike.

Tony in the SRM Workshop

With lots of data come even more analyses though. Fortunately, Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan, in conjunction with the TrainingPeaks group, designed software to analyse power data. (Other training software is available, but I think TrainingPeaks is by far the best as it is so adaptable and can be as simple or complex as you need it to be).

Anyway, Allen and Coggan’s concepts are based around designing training to build up to optimal fitness, ensuring that the rider is sufficiently fresh to reach form in the right place, at the right time. i.e. optimal fitness and freshness = form

Hunter Allen

To achieve form, the rider needs to balance acute training load (ATL) with chronic training load (CTL) so that the rider adapts an appropriate rate and without overtraining occurring. TrainingPeaks software does all the calculations using NP, IF and TSS….Yarg! It’s getting complicated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for me and for many others. It adds to the fun of analysing and prescribing training! I’ve even got my own spreadsheets to allow me to export power files to Excel so that I can work the numbers out for myself. The danger is that it’s easy to lose sight of the primary aim of training, to optimise race performance. It’s not about simply hitting higher power numbers or sounding clever. As an example, the wee anecdote below is from an actual conversation I overheard between a top coach and a member of the support team in a professional racing outfit.

Sport Scientist: wow, did you see these numbers? The rider hit in excess of 1400W, 12 times in that race! Major PB’s here!
Coach: Yeah, great mate! But he didn’t even finish in the bunch. Result!

In addition, the majority of coaches/riders are not analytic types who have all day to play with numbers. They want methods to be simple, practical, relevant and effective. Oh, and a power-meter is needed too with systems costing as much as a decent bike. Then you still have to use alternative ways to evaluate running and swimming performance if you’re involved in triathlon!

Training the Kirkland Way

The conclusiona I’ve reached on planning and prescribing training is that there’s not a right or a wrong way to do it. In fact, I’d struggle to find any quality evidence to demonstrate that one method works more effectively than the other. What’s more important is that you reflect on what you’re currently doing and ask yourself if you could do better. To do so needs a plan!

I really do believe in simplicity. If you do too, it need not get much more complex that going through each stage of the process shown below. Of course things change, so it’s fine to skip back and forward between each stage if needs must or your priorities change. Just try not to be reactionary when making changes.


Stage 1A – Plan a Racing Schedule

How you plan your race schedule is dependent on your individual circumstances and what you want to get out of racing and your performance goals. Things to think about include:

  • What type of racing do you most enjoy? For me, regardless of athlete ability, this is the most important consideration. There’s no point doing something that you don’t enjoy doing as you’re unlikely to fully commit and be motivated towards achieving your goals. Chris Ball, the amazing downhill MTB coach, once said something along the lines of “most DH riders love to play on their bikes. That’s why they’re so skilled. I ask them to go out and do what they want to do most of the time and just give them a few key sessions each week to work on their weaknesses”. This method works as Chris consistently develops his riders into top class performers.
  • What are you good at? There’s no point prioritising a race if you’re unlikely to do well in it. For instance, would you focus on the Alp d’ Huez triathlon if you couldn’t climb hills for toffee? That’s not to say you shouldn’t do races that you’ll not do well in though. I’ve recently done 2 hill climbs and finished last in both! I also did a triathlon that included a run up a 3000ft mountain. I thoroughly enjoyed all these races, did my best and they were quality training. sessions. I just didn’t train specifically for them and wasn’t (too) bothered about results.
  • Your long-term goals? If you’re a junior, you shouldn’t worry unduly about the races you do. Just do as many as you can, reflecting and learning from the experiences in each. If you’re an elite and your goal is Rio 2016, then my guess is you’d want to plan a relatively undemanding year in 2013.
  • What can you afford? I feel I’d do amazingly well in the Noosa triathlon next year but it’s a wee bit far away and I could buy a power-meter for the cost of my flights and entry. In fact, at £50-70 (big bucks) per race these days, I’d struggle to afford one local race a month. Therefore, 1-2 big races in a year, plus local TT’s and club races will be the mainstay of my schedules.
  • Are you in a team or squad? You may simply be told what you’re doing.It would be great if these events involved the Olympics or World Cups but for most of us that is just a dream. Rather, make sure you communicate well with your team, try to ensure that they allow you some say in the planning process and that they let you know as far in advance what the plans are.
  • Doing a race series or aiming to move up a category? It’s what it says on the tin! A series could be anything from the world cup to a local time trial series.

Once you’ve decided what races you are doing/would like to do, enter them in a race planner. I’ve got one here but you could do so if a software package such as TrainingPeaks.

My Other-half’s Race Schedule for Next Year

Stage 1B – Prioritising Races

You can do this any way you want. TrainingPeaks uses an A, B, C priority system, whereas the junior GB riders use a Gold, Silver and Bronze system. They’re the same thing:

A race: a top priority, with training focussed to meeting the demands of the race. Typically, you should also plan in a ‘taper’ period before hand to help you peak. A rest period should be planned afterwards.

B race: a race you want to do well in and that you wish to go into relatively fresh. Typically, you may rest for a day or so beforehand; however, there’s no need for a proper taper. You may have a few days off afterwards to recover but then it’s straight back to training.

C race: a training race, used simply to develop fitness or practice specific skills and techniques. It could even be a race that you want to do for fun but have no specific performance outcomes for it. It’s just another training session.

Stage 2

Ok, so that’s a draft race schedule planned. Now it’s time to think about other Life Demands such as:

  • Work or study commitments- this could include weeks of travel away, exam periods etc. No need to worry if it’s a day here and there. I’m thinking of periods of 4 days or more.
  • Training Camps- think about why you are going on a training camp and plan appropriately.
  • Family holidays etc.

I’ve just come up with a few suggestions. You know better than I do what you need to plan for.

Conclusion and Summary

Wow….over 2000 words to make something simple and we’re only half-way! There are many ways to plan training so you’ve got to work out what works best for you and your lifestyle. It can get as complicated as your heart desires, but the simpler you make it, the more likely it is to work and be adhered to. The first stage is to work out what races you want to do and then prioritise them based on what is important to you. Your training has to fit around daily life so plan that in too! Next week, I’ll move on to Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses and we’ll see if I’ve got time to do more.

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6 thoughts on “Training Made Simple II: Planning for the Season Ahead”

  1. Hi Andy

    having looked at periodisation and refelceted on how I did it recently (module in course work) I felt that the annual plan was merely a framework to hang the plan on for the next season. The weekly and monthly micro and meso cycles turned out to be more important in tweaking the inital plan to reach the goal because of injuries, real world kicking in for athletes etc.

    But in reviewing my plans I recognised that I had I could do better in planning as new things appered such as recovery time and effects of intensity in the plan. Or is it that the initial plan is simply that, initial and you can only build the specific content when you know where the athlete is immediately prior to the cycle?

    So for me periodisation and planning is essential but only if accompanied by review and tweaks as necessary!
    Di

    1. Thanks for your comment Di.

      Yeah, I agree the annual plan is a mere framework but it’s far too easy to get too caught up with trying to get it right.

      Over the next few weeks, I’ll build up from the planning stage to doing more specific “blocks” of training so will hopefully provide my perspective on your questions.

      I definitely think planning is essential….but not so sure if periodisation in the sense of having micro and meso-cycles etc is that important.

      Quite happy to chat further or have a skype if you’re interested.

      Andy

  2. Nice writeup, here in the USA, very few know about Bompa, much less use it. They all want fast results, with very little work. Every magazine has an article about your first century or what ever in 6 weeks, or some other silly thing.

    keep up the great work

    1. Many thanks!

      Magazines are the same here….I suspect they provide readers with what they want to hear, rather than the best possible advice. I know on one big website that it attracts approx 20000 hits in a week on generic training plans with the “short fix”! My guess is that articles saying “it’s gonna take 5 years of hard work and sacrifice” wouldn’t sell so well though 🙂

      Andy

  3. Hi Andy, having recently given a talk on Periodisation and Specificity in Dallas I’d suggest looking more towards the work of Tschiene, Mellenberg and also Verkhoshansky particularly as his “block” approach and guidelines are considered to more closely mirror exercise physiology as is now known.
    Email me if you want the slides,
    Regards,
    “Another evidence based coach” 🙂

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