Last week Fast Running coach Tom Craggs spoke about how a coach cannot predict the future, so to follow up here are his “rules” on adapting for your athletes.
Starting where I left off, I use a few broad principles to help make a bit of sense of the ‘chaos’ I talked about in last week’s article.
Feedback is critical to a plan working
Flexible planning and individualisation from emerging information are key. No matter what is written down on a ‘paper’ plan, coaching is about people – an individual’s body, motivation, lifestyle and response to training.
Without data and conversations, understanding how an athlete is feeling, understanding the broader context of their life, family, work, stress levels I’m not coaching then I am just setting a plan and the chances of that plan working reduce.
I have done this, particularly when I have tried to coach too many athletes, but just giving an athlete a plan and leaving them to it isn’t coaching and quickly loses it’s satisfaction for coach and athlete.
For me there is a maximum number of athletes I can effectively coach and for me to feel fully invested I have reduced the number significantly over recent years.
Plan ahead, but respect the details
Depending on the athlete and the context they are in I might set a maximum of two weeks of detail at a time. For some it’s day to day stemming out of those conversations principally but also the training data – GPS and HR, HRV, self scored fatigue measurements, RPE in sessions and on broader training, perception of sleep quality, blood tests and anything that might have come from a physio, sports doctor, nutritionist, physiologist (i.e. lab data) etc.
So the overview of the plan gives us the adaption we are looking for but not a formulaic day by day and week by week periodisation.
I find Training Peaks a useful tool to collate a lot of the data into one place and to monitor and track that the adaptation is what we expect or not and go through that iterative planning I mentioned last time.
Individualising the detail
Individualisation also feeds into the sessions themselves. If I am working with an athlete who struggles to stay disciplined with pacing I might be more likely to set plans to time or heart rate. It’s also important for me to see what an athlete chooses to do when they are given more freedom so sometimes ill set sessions with less explicit instructions.
Do they push too hard, not hard enough? Are they good at working to RPE?
A lot of feedback on an individual and their running personality can be gained simply by how you set a session.
What’s in a week?
It’s easy to get very caught up on a ‘training week’. It makes sense – our working lives revolve around a seven day cycle. From a physiological point of view there is nothing special about a week.
The danger of getting too focused on a training week is that you try to squeeze everything you feel you need to develop into that week. Maybe it’s a session focused towards Vo2 max, tempo work, race pace sessions, speed endurance, what about hills, S&C, drills?
The space between quality workouts is absolutely as critical as the hard sessions themselves.
Without that ‘adaptive space’ and a focus on decent volumes of easy, and at times steady running, the focus becomes just about the icing. Quality sessions are clearly critical to performance but they require time and space to adapt from and a solid foundation of aerobic volume and strength.
Particularly in longer events, like the marathon, where some of quality sessions include big volumes a training week split as hard / easy / hard / easy can often lead to, after initial rapid progression, plateauing or injury.
Whether it makes sense to work off 10 day training cycles, or 2-3 weeks with an easier week after or any other ‘micro cycle’, will depend on the individual athlete and their non-training stressors.
Just because your club do sessions Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday doesn’t mean you have to.
In terms of the broader training overview I see a plan as a meeting point between the individual athlete, and the demands of the key event they are focussing on. Training then becomes a process of moving from general training to more specific training as we get closer to the race.
A demands based approach mean’s really understanding what that individual needs to be good at in order to get the result they need or want.
At the marathon, for example, you need to understand the basic physiology of energetics, thermoregulation, mechanics and strength endurance required to run at your goal pace, as well as the psychological demands they will face. But you also need to understand other individual factors – the nature of the course and the environmental conditions expected for example.
Will the athlete be pushing for a place as well as a time? If so what are the tactical considerations? Will they need to be able to manage fatigue and energy whilst dealing with pace surges for example?
Will it be hot and humid or particularly cold? Are they looking to run a particular goal pace or achieve a finishing place and if so what pace do you feel (based on evidence) will be required to do that?
…matched with the individual
With a good idea of the demands in place I then go through a process of mapping where we are now.
How fast is the athlete running over a range of distances and are there glaring differences? What kind of training have they been doing to this point? What’s their chronological and ‘training’ age? How well does this individual cope in heat? Are they a salty sweater?
The list is extensive…running economy, pure speed, injury history, mechanics, recovery times, psychological considerations, personal values and a whole host of other factors come into it and the only constant is that the factors vary for every individual athlete you work with.
I map these and a whole load of other factors onto a spreadsheet (which I thank Dr Andrew Kirkland greatly for) and outline action points for the areas we feel most need attention, deciding how important / relevant each one us and whether we are able to impact on them.
Next logical step
With the broad overview of the demands and a detailed current picture of the athlete in place I’ll map out a very flexible direction of travel from one to the other. From where we are now, to meeting those race demands. This might include a wide range of training and actions – both training and non-training.
From the training perspective this overview of a plan will generally map out a movement from general speed and general endurance to event specific speed and specific endurance along with what supporting training we might need.
This process is neatly explained by Steve Magness and you’ll see is a pretty common approach amongst coaches from Canova to Brad Hudson and many in between.
This becomes slightly more tricky with half marathon and marathon runners. I think there is a lot of evidence and truth behind Dr Stephen Seiler’s research on the benefits of polarised training. There is a good line in this podcast where Seiler says “if you want to over train an athlete or cause stagnation in the athlete just prescribe a lot of threshold training”. I have absolutely seen this reflected in practice.
Athletes who are set a lot of ‘threshold’ running (at or just below anaerobic threshold) progress well for a period before plateauing or picking up injuries and going backwards as a result.
Seiler’s research also shows that many of the very best marathon runners in the world often do very little marathon paced running. However there is a balance that needs to be struck and more most tempo and marathon paced work is still going to be important in the latter stages of training.
I’ll work out broad training phases on this journey from general to specific; an introductory phase, a pre-competition or building phase, a competition phase and a taper, but I wont lay out an exact number of weeks for each. This evolves along with the athlete.
The first step on the road starts with the priorities we determined on the spreadsheet and asks ‘what’s the next logical step?’
A pretty wise voice on social media recently suggested that if you’re running outside 10 minute miles for your marathon then a lactate and vo2 max test, or stocking up on beetroot supplements may not be an essential element in building your training. I quite agree. Determining the next logical step involves asking ‘what’s important now?’.
What’s important now?
Do you have a key limiter you need to get over first? Is there an injury that needs to be fixed before training can build? Is there something mechanical that is limiting you?
In which case we might bring in an expert to help. Are you strong, robust and healthy enough to even adapt to training at all? If not the priority might be nutrition, recovery strategies or conditioning. Do you have a firm enough foundation of easy running to expect faster sessions to have any impact?
Deciding what’s important now means we accept we can’t do everything at once and involves a logical ordering of training and non training priorities.
As we move closer to competition phase I may feel ready to stay to pencil in some key specific sessions working back from race day, for the marathon these can often be pretty big and included every 8-12 days but again it depends how things have progressed.
What’s in a session?
Personally I am not a fan of ‘default’ sessions. We all like to try to bench mark our progress of course and there are logical sessions for particular events but sessions are there to get an athlete physically and mentally fitter.
There is no magic session that an athlete MUST do in preparation for a race or even one that will necessarily predict that they will do in a race. If I want to see how ready an athlete is to race, they do need to race. No heart rate data, lactate measure or pace in a training session can replicate the demands of racing.
It’s coaching ego to think we set better sessions than someone else – the reality is sessions matter less than the sum of the training.
Just copying hard sessions (or even whole plans) you see another successful athlete complete likely won’t work.
In it together
Training company does make a big difference though. I’ve got athletes training with training groups all over the country for example the at the Cottage sessions in Battersea, and training with other people can often be more important than the session itself, to a point.
Running with others will adapt your perception of effort, from long reps to easy running, so it’s something to be aware of.
In Battersea, for example, the sessions are well structured and thought through. Good company helps beyond any tweak I might think to add to a session bur clearly it needs to be focused on your goals.
Targeting energy systems
In programming sessions I’m interested in more than just ‘energetics’. I think there is big over simplification of energy systems in endurance at times.
Popping maximum heart rate into a calculator or doing a lab test and working to rigid ‘zones’ doesn’t work for me, because that’s not what is happening in your body, energy systems work concurrently and the picture is more flexible that some would have you think.
It can also lead to a lot of non-evidence based sessions. Aside from that performance isn’t just governed by biophysical processes. We all know athletes that train like champions but don’t deliver on race day. Training also needs to be structured to build self efficacy and enjoyment and avoid monotony (which is another great way to over train an athlete).
Be brave enough to change
Success is very rarely completely predictable or linear. A plan which accepts that allows a circuitous route at times, and is flexible enough to accommodate different rates of progression, is the difference between coaching and just following a map.
If you’re a coach or an athlete you have the ability to adapt your own training on a day to day basis. I’m not suggesting you don’t have a plan, but if that plan is set in stone, then you’re not going to get the best out of yourself.