This is a link to my current research project. It’ll be open until the 20th of July. It would be awesome if you could complete it.
I recently saw a question on the 220 Triathlon twitter feed from The Swim Guru on whether anaerobic work should be included within training sessions.
In this Blog, I’ll do my best to answer the question from a personal perspective.
Science and exercise intensity
As I’m a chartered scientist, it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that I love science. That’s because I love observing, quantifying and analysing to better understand phenomena.
In endurance sport exercise intensity is demarcated into different training zones using threshold intensities such as lactate threshold, Fatmax, Critical Power, VO2max and so on. All these threshold values are based on factors relating to aerobic or anaerobic metabolism. However, to think about exercise intensity in terms of only these metabolic factors may be missing the point. Rather, doing so may be limiting training effectiveness and I tell you why.
Like many things in my life, I have ‘light-bulb’ moments when things that were completely confusing become immediately obvious. One such moment occurred during the write-up of my Ph.D. when I read a very brief paper by Mark Hargreaves: http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/104/5/1541.full.pdf which totally changed my view on endurance performance.
Hargreaves stated the obvious, that the body is a complex system not simply a metabolic one. Rather, the human psyche, neuromuscular activation and skeletal muscle are all implicated in fatigue processes, and thus endurance performance.
My conclusion was that fatigue (or training zones) should not be considered in metabolic terms alone. This is despite virtually every textbook and training manual making such an elementary error. I was guilty too, focusing my complete thesis on a few tiny areas of science. Hargreaves highlighted how naive I was being. He changed my (scientific) life.
What is a threshold?
Aerobic and anaerobic metabolism occur on the same continuum with rest being at the lower end and surpra-maximal intensity being at the higher. Human beings like clear differentiation between things and threshold points are used for such demarcation.
Over many previous months in the laboratory and staring at excel spreadsheets, I’d been trying to identify the first and second ventilatory thresholds (VT1 and VT2), using the plotting method below. For all intents and purposes, this is the same as identifying aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. Occasionally, I’d see clearly distinguished thresholds in the data but more-often-than-not it was messy. The diagram below took many hours of ‘trawling’ my data to find the set that best represented what Wasserman et al.’s Principles of Exercise Testing and Interpretation was describing.
Typically scientific data is presented in such a very clean way. After all messy data or stuff that is difficult to interpret rarely progresses beyond a journal editors desk. However, the more academic literature I reviewed around thresholds, the more I became confused. Researchers argued about the mechanisms and mediating factors of thresholds, using different terminology to describe similar phenomena and the same terminology to describe quite different phenomena!
My conclusion was that this lack of consensus was because the term “threshold” does not perfectly fit physiological processes. Rather, changes in physiological these processes occur on a sliding continuum, without a clear threshold but as a transitional or inflection point (supported by Meyer et al., 2004).
Furthermore, factors such as the the human psyche and neuromuscular activation processes would have to be wholly aligned for threshold intensities to adequately describe fatigue. I reached the conclusion that exercise intensity should not be described only in terms of aerobic or anaerobic metabolism.
An area that I also studied was oxygen uptake kinetics, which took me a few years to get to grips. This is despite the subject being relatively simple. The diagram below illustrates virtually everything a coach needs to know about the subject. It shows the oxygen uptake response for a bike rider who’s initially pedaling at an easy 100W. He instantaneously increases power to Functional Threshold Power.
As the rider is relatively well trained, it takes around 2 minutes for him to reach the point where a steady aerobic energy turnover is achieved. The aerobic steady-rate requirement for this rider is 3500ml of oxygen per minute. However, for the initial two minutes the rider is in energy deficit, having to make up for this shortfall through anaerobic pathways. Of course, this is beautifully clean data, it was measured in a lab using £40k worth of equipment and I still had to spent an hour or so to ‘reduce the noise’ in the data by eyeballing then applying a statistical filter! In reality, data in the ‘real world’ would not look like this.
In reality we rarely maintain a constant power/speed (because of choppy water, other people, hills, wind and poor pacing) so our oxygen requirement is never truly constant. This means that our aerobic and anaerobic systems are both ‘switched on’ all of the time. This is particularly true for interval sets (including most swim sessions), fartleks and when running on hilly terrain. Any increase in power/speed, even below the ‘anaerobic threshold’, requires a contribution from anaerobic pathways. Therefore, there is no such thing as either aerobic or anaerobic exercise. They are not mutually exclusive!!!
Understanding this in a triathlon context
Imagine a swimmer is doing 10 x 100m in the pool at their fastest maintainable pace with minimal recovery (circa 20 sec per 100m faster than CSS pace with 15secs recovery). A swim coach may call this a ‘lactate tolerance’ set (although they would be talking nonsense…lactic acid is a fuel and tolerance infers suffering….we should love the burn!!!).
For the first 100’s in the set, this would require about a 60% aerobic contribution and a 40% anaerobic contribution to total energy turnover. Theoretically, the ratio would change as the set continued because the swimmer would be depleting anaerobic stores and not be able to resynthesise this energy quickly enough in recovery. A further likely outcome is that technique falls to bits, pace drops rapidly, as does the anaerobic contribution. Sub-optimal training will result!
Many would describe such a session as an anaerobic workout even though aerobic metabolism dominates! However, I think having such a debate is immaterial to performance because of the demands of the sport.
The demands of endurance sport
There are three reasons why we train:
- To get faster (achieved by increasing the applied force and/or rate of force whilst minimising the forces acting to slow us down)
- To minimise/prevent injury
- To have fun (earning money doesn’t really count…….because the WTC etc have crap prize funds).
Now to use a Kirkland anecdote to explain more!
A few years ago I was at a testing session in a leading lab with one of the world’s best age-groupers….who I hope will read this. He’d just done an anaerobic test and we had an amusing conversation:
“Wow……..your numbers are equivalent to Chris Boardman’s on that test”
“Really” the athlete said with a grin on his face!
“Yep…….his were similar to a 12 year old girl’s too”
The bottom line is that this athlete who is good enough to finish on the age-group podium in Hawaii is unlikely to have his performance limited by the lack of ability to work anaerobically. The same can be said for any non-drafting triathlete in the world. It’s simply not a demand of the sport!
It terms of (1) to go faster no triathlete needs to undertake training to specifically improve anaerobic capacity. Never! However, this is semantics as ‘smashing it’ has its place. Here are my reasons:
- Training hard and training fast hurts and if done right, it helps reduce the rating of perceived exertion at sub-maximal intensities…… i.e. training hard makes racing seem easier….thus it takes into account psyche!
- Training above FTP/CSS taxes the aerobic systems more than training below it. Therefore, with adequate recovery, it promotes aerobic adaptations such as improved VO2max.
- Maximal type training can up-regulate aerobic enzymes such as phosphofructokinase which enhances oxygen delivery and hence performance
- It can be used to develop strength and speed
- It makes us feel good, satisfies the ego and it can hit #3……to have fun!
I’m gonna stick to the 80% train low, 20% train high ratio as a rough rule of thumb. That’s because:
- Training close to and above FTP/CSS relies heavily on carbohydrate metabolism (aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis) which reduces exercise efficiency when compared to fat oxidation. Doing too much high-intensity work compromises endurance
- High-intensity training often compromises subsequent training sessions
- Training should primarily be specific to the demands of the event that you’re racing in
- Most triathletes are unable to maintain good technique when going fast!
So there we go! I believe there is a time and a place for triathletes to work above an FTP/CSS intensity but there’s very few circumstances where training should target improving anaerobic capacity. If however you’re racing ITU, gimme a shout and I’ll revise what I say to you!
Last week, I picked up an interesting paper on Twitter: Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future aint what it used to be! It was written for UK Athletics by John Kiely of the University of Central Lancashire.
For those of you who are involved in training prescription, it’s an essential read. It’s encouraged me to take a few minutes to reiterate my views on Periodization, whilst exploring why it’s important to be a critical thinker and to take real care when accepting information at face value.
Let’s be Challenging
Periodization is simply a systematic way to organise training, most specifically physical training. At university it was the bedrock of all training theory we were taught. When I applied for a job at the Scottish Institute of Sport, there was that word again in the job spec:
“Essential….sound knowledge of Periodization “.
Periodization is like the root of a wart, deeply imbedded, an accepted truth in sports science and coach education throughout the world.
I have my own wart. The boss suggests that I use the word “but” too often and some people find it irritating. He’s right of course, but….I’ve convinced myself that it’s just about justifiable and it comes down to my academic training. During my undergraduate study, Prof. Bill Baltzopoulos delivered many of our biomechanics lectures and tutorials. Most of his teachings laminarily flowed around my slipstreamed head. However, one lesson stuck!
“What’s the mechanism?” he continually asked.
“Where’s your evidence?”
These infernal questions, whilst annoying, are vital for every self-respecting sports scientist and coach. Bill was simply asking how and why things work the way they do. His lesson was never to accept something as a truth unless his questions have been asked and/or can be explained by fundamental principles.
So why does Periodization work? Where is the evidence that it does? Ehhhh…….An inference from Kiely’s paper, which I wholly prescribe to is that there is no convincing evidence to suggest that Periodization is an effective training system.
Why does it not work?
Periodization involves the training of one of the most complex systems known to humanity….the human body. We may have a basic understand the fundamental principles that explain how singular systems of the body work i.e. the cardiovascular system. However, how do all systems interact together? Kiely analogises Periodization with chaos theory, the (mathematical) study of dynamic systems in relation to their environment. Chaos theory is a deterministic one which can predict the future state of a system. However, I’m sure any of us who have coached a performance athlete will know that:
“The chaotic, highly sensitive, nature of the biological system will ensure that the progress of physical fitness will not be an orderly, uniformly incremental, and predictable process. The adaptive responses to any given training ‘inputs’ will not result in readily predictable fitness ‘outputs’”.
Periodization is a deterministic conceptual framework which fails to account for the important scientific principle of ‘Shit Happens’. Take for example Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident in the ITU triathlon in Yokohama. She tripped in T2, sliced her foot with her chain-ring, which in turn affected her race result and subsequent training. This accident was avoidable but certainly not predictable. If Coach Daz had spent 2 days carefully designing a pretty periodised annual plan for Jodie, he’d be pretty pissed at having to start again!
Because I’m a bit of a thinker, I like to look beyond contemporary science to the humanities when exploring complex questions. That’s because I feel they enrich our understanding of humanity in a way not possible with science alone. Take Plato for example, the man who 2500 years ago laid the foundations for modern philosophy and science. He understood that the body, mind and soul are distinct but not separate entities.
This understanding is fundamental to contemporary training theory in which the aim is to promote adaptation so the athlete functions optimally. Let’s move beyond concept and apply Plato’s work to endurance sport.
Something that is relatively predictable is that with around a 1/3rd of a race to go, regardless of its distance, the mind will tell the body to slow down. Scott Jurek, the ultra-marathon runner, talks about the domain “between exhaustion and breaking” that I’m sure most of us understand. I will call this the Domain! Operating in this Domain requires an athlete to consciously control the urge to quit. The very best athletes can operate in the Domain consistently. Great endurance coaches such as Shane Sutton, Brett Sutton and Darren Smith understand that, with the right raw talent, athletes can be conditioned to operate within the Domain and subsequently excel at world level. This requires a training environment that is challenging by design.
Of course, every athlete has their breaking point and sometimes it’s important to go beyond this point to identify it in the first place. However, psychological factors and how to periodize them only gets a few pages in Tudor O. Bompa’s Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, a book that is required reading for most sports science and coaching students.
My conclusions are that:
- I accept that Plato’s writings on exercising the mind, body and soul together as a fundemental truth, specifically within the context of endurance training.
- Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident, proves that training cannot be planned effectively using a determinist model.
- Periodization is simply a conceptual theory that simply confuses coaches and practitioners because it bears little resemblance to what works in real life.
- If Periodization worked, then so would accurately predicting performance. Bookies would go bust!
- Plato would have rightly dismissed periodisation as nonsense.
What’s the Alternative?
Sometimes, athletes will perform optimally without too much structure but they rarely do so consistently. Rather, success in endurance sport usually happens by design, rather than by accident. But what is that design?
I believe that designing training programmes is an iterative (trial and error) process which can be informed on by a broad knowledge and experiential learning. Sports science certainly has a place, in which it provides knowledge to minimise coaching errors. Other factors to consider include:
- Having a dream of what can be achieved. Goal’s and goal-setting are also accepted truths in training theory. However, goals have limits! Dreams do not; they enable athletes to achieve what may not be considered by others to be achievable!
- Systematically developing an understanding of all the demands of the sport. Then prioritise training towards developing strengths and minimising weaknesses relative to these demands. Most athletes find it mentally challenging to continually work on weaknesses so priority should be given to strengths.
Considering these factors does not discount medium- and long-term planning or dismiss having specific training focuses within defined periods. Such planning is most certainly essential for elite athletes supported by extended programmes which require a degree of predictability to allocate resources.
As a coach, sports scientist or an athlete who wishes to excel, having a hunger to find out how and why things work is vital. Doing so enables us attempt to solve complex problems, to challenge accepted truths and to avoid dogma. One Olympic coach confided in me that he found a particular athlete very challenging. She always wanted to know why! She challenged his ego but also encouraged him to consider his own coaching knowledge and practice at every level. This is coming from a coach that has helped win more medals than many countries have won!
If more of us challenged dogma, it would be less likely that things like periodisation were accepted as truth when in fact the null hypothesis is far more appropriate.
British Triathlon held the Performance Coaching Conference at the East Midlands Conference Centre on the 15th of March 2014. In this blog, I’ll review the conference, providing my perspective and picking out key learning points that may be useful to other coaches.
It was great to be given the opportunity to attend the British Triathlon Performance Coaching Conference from both a professional and personal perspective. The day was a complete success with the programme far exceeding my expectations.
The conference was opened by the CEO of British Triathlon, Zara Hyde Peters OBE in which she introduced the theme “Science and Innovation”. I was a little sceptical of this theme. Many coaches are drawn to the sexy side of the sport and want to learn about the cutting edge. However, the basics such as communication and planning are often forgotten. My scepticism was ill-founded as every presenter made the innovative bits relevant to most of the coaches in attendance. 10 out-of-10 to Coaching Development Manager Paul Moss and the BTF team for putting together such a wonderful conference.
In this Blog, I review the presentations picking out some top tips and provide a bit of personal commentary in the hope that it will help your training or coaching, even just a wee bit.
Jim Pennycook: MOD Centre for Defence Enterprise
Jim provided an overview of his work at the MOD, relating to innovative and new technologies. Strategic planning for war has much in common with preparing athletes for high-performance competition. His first point was to always ask “Why?” This simple question is often forgotten, resulting with people doing “stuff” without a clear purpose. Environment is key insofar as it must be set up to allow people to succeed.Earlier in the week, my boss introduced me to the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a programme that supports “UK businesses wanting to improve their competitiveness, productivity and performance by accessing the knowledge and expertise”. The success of sport in the UK, especially in cycling, has been due to a willingness to engage with outside industries, to embrace chance and thereby create excellence.
What really interested me were the physical demands of soldiering. For example, infantrymen will typically only be effective fighting machines for 20 minutes. Previously, military training focused on endurance but now it’s more about strength development and intervals to replicate the demands of fighting. Soldiers used to drop their kit, which can weigh up to 70kg before fighting, but in Afghanistan when they did so, it was instantaneously nicked! Therefore, they carry on fighting carrying one bodyweight’s worth of the stuff! It makes doing an Ironman sound easy! Military training has therefore adapted to meet these changing demands.
Similar to many sports there is an obsession with the weight of equipment. For example, batteries required to power technology are relatively heavy and are a limiting factor in fighting effectiveness. Therefore, reducing battery weight is a key focus of research and innovation programmes.
Appropriately trained personnel are vital to military effectiveness. Jim has studied Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) most specifically to examine “how to facilitate change”. Planned people are the most content…..simply having a plan reduces stress and improves efficacy. However, people still want to avoid planning or change.
| Top Tips for Coaches
Prof. Mike Tipton: Heat and the Effects on Human Performance
Mike is a professor of human and applied physiology. His area of expertise is thermoregulation of human performance in extreme environments, applied within elite sport, the military and business.
Even though physiology is my area of expertise, environmental physiology is something I don’t know a great deal about. For example, I didn’t know that only 15% of the world is sufficiently temperate to sustain human life without clothing and shelter. The optimal temperature for human survival is 26°C and the body functions best for endurance performance at around 11°C.
Prof. Tipton argues that thermal regulation of an athlete is likely to affect performance more than either nutrition or training and merits similar attention within training programmes. There is also considerable genetic variability in how people can tolerate different environments, deal with dehydration and changes in core temperature. Ginger people tend not to cope well with heat so maybe the Marathon des Sables is not for me!
There’s one ‘extreme’ environment that most of us involved in triathlon within the UK are exposed to, cold open water! Over the last few years, I’ve developed a love for open-water swimming and discard my wetsuit at every possible opportunity! I’ve often wondered how I perform much better in it relative to my peers in the cold. Mike gave me my answer. No, there’s not a direct correlation between level of gingerness and thermoregulation, I believe it’s due to me being acclimatised and having no fear of the stuff.
|Swimming in Cold Water
When entering cold water, the skin and superficial nerves are cooled very rapidly. The trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for a number of neuromuscular responses, is stimulated which can cause gasping, swallowing water and the heart to slow. Blood is drawn from the extremities to the vital organs, meaning that there is less oxygen reaching the working muscles. Increased anaerobic energy turnover is required resulting in greater perception of effort and a more rapid onset of fatigue. In really cold water, I’ve found it feels as though I’m swimming in mud!Open-water racing has a disproportionate mortality rate when compared to training in open water. It is thought that this is the result of a “strange arrhythmia” in the heart; putting your face in the water slows the heart….. the adrenaline in competition quickens it. The result can be irregular electrical activity in the heart and in the extreme, it can stop.
Reduction in core temperature is rarely a problem and neuromuscular responses cannot be controlled. However, regularly immersing yourself in cold water is likely to reduce the shock effect by ½.
Top tips from Prof. Tipton include:
Kirkland’s Application of the Theory in Developing a Pre-Race Routine
I’ve developed my own pre-race routine which I’d like to share, particularly because after hearing Prof. Tipton’s presentation I have discovered it have theoretical underpinnings.
There are many British athletes who compete in hotter climates e.g. Nice, Hawaii etc….. The degree of acclimatisation, hydration status, clothes worn, state of health, skin disorders and use of medication may all affect how well they perform in the heat. Better acclimatised athletes will have an improved electrolyte balance and be able to metabolise carbohydrate more efficiently. In the heat, heart rate may initially be elevated but as the athlete acclimatises it will come down and steady to a ‘normal’ level. Therefore, monitoring heart rate is a good way to assess how athletes are acclimatising.
| Top Tips for the Heat
Ian Pyper: Performance Science in Elite Triathlon
Ian is a Performance Scientist to British Triathlon and the Great Britain Triathlon Team. He gave an overview of sports science support and performance analysis received by elite level athletes. The approach they use is very similar to the “leave no stone unturned” approach of the Great Britain Cycling Team.
Having worked in a performance environment as a sports scientist, I probably found Ian’s presentation the most challenging. That’s no disrespect to the quality of his work or the presentation. It’s just that coaches like Darren Smith of D-Squad and Brett Sutton don’t get much sports science support but still manage to consistently ‘produce’ world beating athletes. I believe that this is because:
a) they understand people.
b) they understand the sport better than any scientists.
c) they have eyes and use them effectively.
d) they are amazing communicators and motivators.
e) they understand that humans can only perform at their best when exposed to tough. performance orientated environments.
I strongly believe that a sports scientist will only re-enforce what a great coach already knows. If I had my way, I would divert resources into training and mentoring performance coaches who are able to understand and apply the science for themselves. Of course, sports science does have many important roles which Ian highlighted:
- Performance analyses to better understand technique, tactics and identifying risk factors for injury.
- Monitoring training, recovery and race performance.
- Benchmarking and screening athletes: strength, speed, endurance and biomechanical tests.
These roles provide coaches with information which can result in performance gains and minimise incidences of injury. If a team of 10 support professionals contribute even 1% to the performance of an athlete who goes on to win Olympic Gold, then in monetary terms the investment will have paid off. I’ve also accessed top level support for athletes in the knowledge that it will make them feel valued and supported; thus, a placebo effect is likely.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ian’s presentation and he’s obviously doing a great job. I’d just like to see greater investment in developing coaches from grass-roots to elite level who better understand how they can use sports science to develop people.
Simon Jones: Technical Performance Planning for Coaches
Simon was former Head Coach at British Cycling Performance Team Director at the Western Australia Institute of Sport and is now Head of Endurance Sports at the English Institute of Sport.
Simon ran a workshop on technical planning and the planning process for a performance environment. Everything was linked to having an understanding of “what it takes to win”. I feel I’m selling Simon short by not writing more, but it was a practical workshop using the EIS Technical Planning Tool. It started off with higher level planning, moving towards the small details. I’ll certainly be developing some of my own tools based on what I learnt on the workshop.
Sarah Broadhead: The Chimp Model- Understanding Yourself and Others
Sarah is a chartered Psychologist and Director of Sport at the Chimp Management Company and is the Sport Psychologist to the Great Britain Triathlon Team.
I love what Sarah does and have been to one of her workshops before. I chose to miss this one as it was running parallel to Simon’s workshop. Sarah works with Dr Steve Peters, using a ‘novel’ model in sport terms, which takes more from psychiatry and neurology than is typical. If you’ve not already done so, I’d urge you to read Steve’s Book The Chimp Paradox . This book has the capacity to change your life and certainly the way you coach. Some psychologists criticise this model because they feel it is not wholly valid. However, I would defend it up to the hilt as it contextualises many complex evidence-based principles in a way that can be understood and applied by us all.
Chatting with other coaches, they felt that Sarah’s workshop was great!
Peter Keen CBE: Keynote
Peter is Director of Sport at Loughborough University, he was previously a special advisor at UK Sport and Performance Director at British Cycling.
Rarely does one get the chance to thank someone for sparking an interest in a subject that becomes a passion in your life. I got that chance at the conference. Back when I started riding the bike in the early 1990’s, Peter was coaching Chris Boardman (one of my hero’s) and I read Cycling Weekly religiously, loving to hear about his battles with Graeme Obree. They used fancy bling heart rate monitors, carbon fibre bikes and suchlike. I loved it all and began reading as much on sports science as I could. Whilst I’ve met Peter a few times, it was wonderful to hear him talk so modestly, eloquently and intelligently on being a coach.
Peter stopped being a sports scientist in 1997 as he felt that what he was doing came far too close to coaching. He has seen many changes in that time, most noticeably a more holistic approach in which it’s not just about physical conditioning. Technical, tactical and psychological aspects receive equal attention. He gave some great coaching advice that many coaches would do very well to consider:
A coach is there to serve athletes and not their own ego. Good things are unlikely to happen when a coach is ego orientated. It will go wrong when coaches want or need a win more than the athletes they coach. They must not fear or think of horror when things go wrong……..covering one’s back is a road to nowhere. The paradigm a coach should follow is not clear: is it a medic, a councillor or teacher? What a coach should not be is someone who simply tells others what to do!
The coaching relationship can be a very intimate one, a relentless dialogue of an athlete’s life, knowing what they are thinking before they think it and anticipating how they’ll respond in certain situations. What do they eat when they are at home……each aspect is important in optimising performance. Finding the line can be challenging though and the relationship must not become a dependency. Being able to be effective in a high performance coaching environment means being sufficiently comfortable in who you are and what you do.
I had a chat with Paul Manning an ex-Olympic champion and now endurance coach at British Cycling last year and he said the best riders he worked with were the ones that were always asking questions. Peter confirmed this by saying that Boardman was a great questioner, always asking why. In turn, he gave wonderful feedback, always so much information to work on.
One delegate asked Peter what he thought of remote coaching. He suggested that whilst it has its place, simply seeing how an athlete moves, acts or behaves in any given situation is priceless in terms of coaching.
Key to success is having a vision of what it is……working backwards to plan how to achieve that success. Keen’s early career was based on numbers and what they mean…sometimes understanding them is intuitive but it’s not always clear cut. He recommends not to “go on rhetoric or emotion”, even though they do sometimes have their place.
I understand well what Peter meant when he said that a key thread in his career was that “he was doing something he is fascinated about, a motion of flow where the clock goes too fast and there’s never enough time in the day.
Prof. Vicky Tolfrey: The Science Behind Three Wheels, Not Two
Lucy Wainrwright: Nutrition and Recovery in Triathlon
Apologies chaps but I didn’t see these sessions.
What a great day. Peter Keen’s talk was definitely the highlight for me. The sign of being engaged for me is that I had a massive list of questions for all presenters that I wished there was time to explore. I met some wonderfully inspiring and knowledgeable coaches too, swapped emails with a few and even had a follow-up online meeting with one coach on the Monday to discuss how we could potentially work together professionally.
I’ve been to one or two conferences in my time but thought this was up there. I’ve been to ACSM in America before, costing several thousand pounds to attend but learnt far more from this one. Great job Paul Moss!
In my last blog of the year, I’m going to talk about standing out from the crowd. I’ll reflect on some of my own experiences of ‘standing out’ and relate that to the pursuit of excellence, whether as an athlete or coach.
Rob the running coach had just outlined the session for the evening “800m x 8 at 5km pace with 1 min 15sec recovery”. Simple enough! I set off with a large group but was soon on my own. “Wow……some people have improved vastly” I thought. They’re running fast.
My 1st lap done in 1:42, ventilation under control. It was absolutely tipping it down, water was dripping in my eyes and a squelching noise accompanied every foot strike. Lap 2 @ 1:42. Spot on. “What? Where is everyone going? The fools! They’ve skipped 30 seconds worth of the recovery”.
It was a lonely night of running despite it being a club session. I had done every repeat, bar one on my own. Despite this I was happy. Every 400m had been ± 2sec from target and the final one hadn’t been too stressful. Session aim achieved. I recalled an article I had read on the Runners World website on people running too fast or too slow and felt smug!
A few weeks previous, I presented at a careers day at my old university. Prior to my talk, there had been an MBE, a top sports-woman, a league football manager and a CEO all giving inspirational presentations. The key theme was how important it was to stand out from the crowd to have a successful career in sport.
It was my turn. 150 students and esteemed guests waited for Dr Kirkland’s inspirational vignettes. Striding onto the stage in a Billy Connollyesque fashion, ready to perform. I was introduced by a small group of students as “an elite sports consultant” or something similar. Not quite as bad as the story in the Glasgow Herald in which I was Chris Hoy’s sports scientist but sloppy all the same.
The lecture theatre was silent ! Blank faces staring down at the bald wonder. “I want a volunteer…..any volunteers?” I asked. Silence! Heads dipped to avoid eye contact.
“That’s good……I didn’t really want a volunteer” I said in riposte.
Turning to the fellow presenters I called out “good job people”, albeit in jest. After an hour of pontification from inspirational speakers specifically on standing out from the crowd, not one person was willing to stand out! I was saddened but not surprised. I then recalled how I often take inspiration from the Royal Institution’s Christmas lecture for children. It’s always presented wonderfully by an eminent scientist who engages with the young audience. When a volunteer is asked for, a sea of eager little hands appears. Every snotty nosed geek wants to be picked. But what was the difference between my audience and the Royal Institution one?
Sir Ken Robinson talks about kids losing their natural creativity through rote type education. Could it be similar that as people mature, they simply learn not to stand out from the crowd. Speaking with a friend on the subject, she suggested a relationship between levels of engagement and UCAS points i.e. students on better courses and who have achieved better exam results are more willing to engage. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, but I’m yet to convince myself to the contrary.
But this is a sport and coaching blog, so what’s my point? Well…I believe to be a good athlete or coach means putting your head above the parapet and being brave enough not to worry about having it shot off. That doesn’t necessarily mean being gregarious or extrovert. Being quiet and introvert is fine too. Rather, it’s a prerequisite to be disciplined, to stand out and aspire to excellence.
Excellence for Athletes
Excellence is simply about doing the best job possible and never resting on laurels. In sport, I personally don’t prescribe to ‘it’s the taking part that’s important’ even though I’m not particularly well endowed in athletic terms. Rather, I want to say to myself that I couldn’t have done any better. For example, I cried after the Sandman Triathlon and disengaged with the world until I had no choice to do otherwise. I had worked hard to the point of collapse and had lost around 8mins on the run! Why? I hadn’t thought of the implication of the bike being 60km rather than 40km on my feeding strategy and had hit the wall. Totally avoidable, inexcusable and far from excellence.
Having an excellence mindset means mastering the basics first and then focussing on the small details to fine tune performance. If a dead end is reached, it may mean ‘letting go’ and starting all over again. It also involves developing the skill and discipline to perform in the right place at the right time.
The next time you’re at a race, take a moment and observe what everyone else is doing. Most people will be mulling around chatting or looking terrified. But how many are going through their pre-competition routine? Who is physically warming up or going through mental preparation? Who is doing their own thing? Who stands out?
Following the crowd may be easier, but this path of least resistance is hardly ever the most satisfactory or effective one. To perform optimally requires hard work, discipline and above all the bravery to try new things. Don’t be a sheep but rather follow your own path when it’s the right thing to do. That means sticking to a session goal, even when the ‘red mist’ has descended for the rest of the training group. If the aim is to go slow, go slow, if it’s to go fast, go fast and if recovery is 30 seconds why on earth take 20 seconds….apart from because you’re a proverbial sheep or undisciplined?
Of course, it’s human nature to attempt to fit in, to become attached to people or things, even when they are negative or wrong. Even when things are going well, to make them go even better often requires a substantial change. A brave athlete will know when to let go, to leave the past behind and to embrace the future, whatever that may bring. I particularly like this video of an interview with Lisa Norden and her coach Craig Alexander in this regard. It says more than I ever can!
Excellence for Coaches
My current favourite coach is currently Jo Calado. She’s different; one who stands out from the crowd and is willing to try new things. Her sessions are innovative, fun and very well thought out. At Halloween, Jo delivered a ‘zombies’, killer swim set that involved kicking and deep core work. It hurt like hell, was technically challenging and I learnt something new. I swallowed half the pool every time I didn’t kick hard enough. But there was Jo, waiting at the end of the lane with a huge smile and a technically correct coaching point for every single swimmer. At 21 years old, understanding and being able to communicate ’cause and effect’ in swimming is an exceptional talent and Jo has it. Not only that, sessions are great fun too!
I’ve observed very many coaches, some of them in world class performance environments but the most impressive seem to be swimming ones, or so I thought. “How the hell can they use 3 complex stopwatches simultaneously and get the timing right to within a few 10th’s?” I think. Skilled man! Oh wait…..it is almost impossible to evaluate complex techniques when performing such a complex motor task yourself! Maybe they’re missing a trick.
The easy option for coaches is to deliver 10 x 100m set at race pace or whatever. It’s what most people expect. I’m one of these people. I love a savage physical workout even if it means crawling once I’m finished. For many endurance athletes, hard physical sessions are in their comfort zone though. It’s what they enjoy and a primary reason why they do sport. These sessions are easy to coach, and as we already know, most people follow the path of least resistance…… Athletes and coaches are satisfied but training is usually sub-optimal because technique is rarely the focus. The fact is that this is an area where many performance gains can be achieved.
It’s worth remembering that many coaches have to work with large groups, accommodating broad rather than the individual needs of athletes. Compromise is required as sessions can’t be all things for all people. However, even in high-performance environments, some coaches get lazy, falling into the trap of doing what they always do. Short cuts have no place on the path to excellence though, regardless of whether at grass-roots or Olympic level.
Are Some Coaches Missing the Point?
Training and racing is not meant to be easy. As fatigue begins to bite, all the body’s systems are pre-programmed to tell us to stop. To overcome this unwanted voice requires absolute focus and discipline. Athletes need to love what they do to drown out this voice…..ok, being driven by ego, inner-pain or fear of failure may work too…..everyone is different. But I believe people work at their best when they’re happy and enjoy what they do. Forgetting about fun or taking life too seriously may limit performance.
Smiling relaxes the body and a relaxed body goes fast! Being in a happy training group is pleasant and people seek out pleasant feelings. Happy people tend to perform better than sad ones. So why do many coaches take themselves and their sessions so seriously? Maybe it’s because they think is expected of them and or they are resistive to change. But fun, games, mock races and creativity works just as well for adults as for children.
Ok, there are times for seriousness too but not all the time. A coach who can laugh, can admit when they are wrong and who continues to seek new and innovative solutions will stand out from the crowd. My guess is that the athletes that they coach will respect them more for it and prosper as a result. Being happy is an important goal!
Standing out isn’t something we should do for the sake of it, but it’s sometimes essential on the path to excellence. Sitting back and letting things happen or not embracing change will never lead to excellence though. Doing ‘stuff’ differently from the crowd can lead to a bumpy ride and will not always go to plan. However, being a sheep will inevitably lead to you being herded up and put in a pen without truly exploring what is possible. Ok…if everyone thought like this, the world would be carnage……but do you want to be the norm or the positive outlier?
I was lucky enough to present this webinar with GB Cycling Team Rider Helen Scott and Melissa Schwartz from TrainingPeaks. Although the content is cycling based, there’s something for all coaches regardless of sport and for female athletes too!
If you’ve got any specific questions relating to it, fire me an email.
Knowledge is Power
Most of us love gadgets, especially when we believe they will make us faster. In cycling, the ultimate gadget is the power meter.This measurement tool doesn’t look bling and isn’t the lightest or most aerodynamic piece of kit out there. What it gives you is information about how hard you are working. It’s like having a mini sports science laboratory attached to your handlebars! I must admit that I’ve become more of a purist as I’ve got older. My perspective has changed and I’ve learnt just as much about sporting performance through yoga and Vipassana mediation as in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. However, understanding cycling power has helped me link the feeling and the physiology to performance optimisation.
In this blog I talk about how the information from a power meter can be used to help you achieve your personal best.
So you’ve been training for your big race all year, your motivation is high and the adrenaline is pumping. Your start time comes and you fly out of the starting blocks, getting up to your target heart-rate quickly. Your breathing becomes deeper and more rapid. The effort starts to hurt. That’s ok, though. Simply backing off a little gets you back into your rhythm and you feel you have performed well. But have you performed to the best of your ability? Read on and find out.
One of the reasons the British Cycling World Class performance programme is so successful is it is set up to allow riders to perform optimally; that is to produce the best performance possible under specific conditions. Simply focussing on winning isn’t enough because the performance of the opposition cannot be controlled. The use of power meters is fundamental to the step-by-step approach used to achieve the marginal gains required to optimise rider performance at the very highest level. Of course, not all of us can justify the cost of a power meter. However, by understanding cycling power could help you on the way to achieving a personal best.
What is a Power meter
A power meter typically consists of strain-gauges contained within the cranks, rear-wheel hub or in the pedal axle, a ‘switch’ to measure cadence and a small computer unit to collect and display the data. As the rider applies force at the pedals, the electrical resistance in the strain gauges change. This measurement of change, which is proportional to the force applied, is ‘sent’ to the computer unit and in conjunction with the cadence measurement, power is calculated. Therefore, in simple terms power, measured in watts (W), provides a very accurate measurement of how hard a rider is working. Most computers also record speed, heart-rate and GPS data. In short, a power meter is the bike’s equivalent of a black box on an aircraft, providing information on every turn of the pedal.
Understanding the Data
You don’t need to be a physicist or sports scientist to interpret the data collected from a power meter. Following a few basic steps will help you do so:
- Use a good computer software package to upload your data to. Many coaches and riders at use TrainingPeaks because it is so user friendly. This powerful online programme is suitable for experts and beginners alike because it can be configured to suit the analysis needs of the individual.
- Learn to ‘crawl before you run’. To develop an understanding of power requires is similar to designing a training programme. You must build strong foundations, understanding the basics of power measurement and link that to the basics of human energy production. If you attempt to do the complex analysis without strong foundations, you are unlikely to get the most from your investment.
- Enrol on a course. I developed one in my day job with British Cycling, details of which are found here.
The next course we’re delivering is Saturday 22nd February 2014 – 11:00 – 18:00 – Stirling, Scotland.
Using the Data
Top coaches and scientists working in cycling probably understand the demands of their event more than in most other sports. That is because they can analyse and optimise performance effectively using power data. For example, it’s possible to quantify the demands of a BMX event in minute detail, through every turn of the pedal. Power data will tell me that a female rider needs to deliver around 2000W out of the start-gates to gain the best racing line. Then she will deliver 5-10 efforts exceeding 1500W in a race lasting under 50 seconds, double what a typical male club-level athlete can produce in a one-off effort.
By understanding the power demands in a race provides valuable information on what training sessions are required to prepare for and improve performance for future races. For example, on-bike training is probably not sufficient to be able to produce 2000W. Rather, a supplementary and highly specialised lifting programme in the gym is required. The rider also needs to be able to do repeated hard sprints at power greater than Cav produces in his race to the line. A power meter gives the coach almost instantaneous and accurate feedback on whether the aims of the session are being achieved or not. Additionally, with more complex analyses in separating power into its component parts, force and angular velocity(cadence), it is possible to identify what the most effective gearing on the bike is likely to be for optimal performance.
Power output also allows us to accurately monitor training volume and intensity in the short-, medium and long-term. Looking at a few easy to understand graphs will tell us if we are improving or not. Coaches will know exactly what power output a rider is likely to achieve in specific sessions, even if they are on the other side of the world. If the riders are unable to hit these numbers, it may suggest that the rider is not sufficiently recovered from their previous sessions and the coach will adapt subsequent sessions to aid recovery.
In individual races such as time trials, all but the most experienced riders set off too hard. This is because the rider’s perceived effort in the first few minutes of exercise does not reflect the intensity they are riding at. By the time it does, fatigue will begin to set in and the rider will slow down. It is very common for a 20-30% power-overshoot at the start of a time trial, resulting in a loss of several minutes from what could be optimally achieved. A power meter will help a rider get closer to what is considered to be optimal.
- Power meters are great tools, but it’s important that you don’t get too caught up in the numbers. There’s no point in getting a personal best maximum power number if it’s not reflecting in your race results because you can’t go round a corner.
- Power meters are precision instruments and should be treated as such. Therefore, you should get your power meter calibrated at least once per year, ensuring this cost is factored in to your purchase decision.
- Don’t become over reliant on a power meter as doing so can limit your performance. Using one during group rides could mean you being dropped on climbs or you trying to ride at 100km.h on descents just to stay in your power zone. Don’t do it or bananas may fly at your head.
- Consider hiring a power meter before buying one.
- Invest in a specialist software package such as TrainingPeaks. It tends to be far more user friendly that the ones that are supplied by the power meter manufacturers.