In this two-parter Fast Running Coach Tom Craggs gives an overview of the things he thinks about when developing a plan – striking the balance between clarity and flexibility, race demands and the individual athlete.
“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge” Lao Tzu. As coaches we tend to like to control things. Look for predictable patterns, repeatable results and a training ‘identity’ as a coach.
The reality is performance is not always predictable, there are many aspects that the coach or athlete cannot control, things you can adapt and mitigate around but not influence directly through an entry on Training Peaks or stood by a hill or track.
Managing the chaos
The idea that coaching is essentially ‘orchestrating chaos’ is one that makes sense to me. It reflects the practical realities of coaching (or coaching oneself) rather than the more comfortable idealised version on paper where you plug in a set of standard inputs and get predictable results. As most reading this know it’s not always that simple.
We have busy lives, most athletes are not full time. We work, we have families, we are squeezing high volumes of training into limited time. We are influenced by the environment where we live, our training partners, our psychological fitness, our ability to recover.
Of course a coach’s role is also to simplify and minimise some of the chaos too. So this doesn’t mean we have less responsibility as a coach, in fact even more so, but it recognizes there is a difference between coaching and setting someone a training plan.
Over this article and the next are a few of my thoughts on planning and some of the things I think about what I plan with an athlete. Many will disagree and that’s great, we learn most when we disagree and there are many more successful coaches than me who take a very different approach.
Periodisation is a fully accepted concept in the minds of many athletes and coaches across a range of sports.
Simplified it’s the idea that if an athlete does X, Y and then Z, in a particularly order, then they give themselves the best opportunity to progress.
It’s a systematic way of categorising training and progressive ‘set’ cycles of workouts so we can achieve the coaching golden goose of predictable performance results. It’s ingrained into the narrative of coaches and athletes, into the heart of coach education but is actually a disputed concept.
I do not believe that performance can be broken up into neat blocks that simply need to be organised – if it were that simple there would be no role for coaches and athletes would perform far more consistently than they do.
Performance is not just a biophysical process.
“I never think of the future, it comes soon enough.” said Einstein. OK – we can’t afford that approach but it is important to recognise that some of our most accepted principles of planning are often based upon tradition more than evidence and are often not used by some of the most successful coaches in endurance sport.
We like to simplify and categorise things as athletes and coaches. This block, follows this block, follows this block. This session or ‘zone’ works this energy system which means this. Nice, neat tidy ideas.
Unfortunately competition, biology and people’s lives are not nice, neat and tidy. Performance and progression isn’t just governed by controllable biophysics. It’s affected by psychology and motivation, training environment and by a huge range of non training factors (see how you perform at times of heavy work or family life stress).
Planning needs to recognise and allow for the impact of these broader considerations which do not fall into normal conceptions of periodisation.
Structure is still important
That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in structure and a logical flow to training. Structure and variety can help makes sense of the chaos I have already mentioned and can help athletes understand where a particular session or period of training fits in a bigger plan.
So for a coach a plan is about striking a balance. Providing a logical sense of direction based upon sound physiological, sport specific and psychological principles without becoming formulaic or trying to predict the unpredictable.
This is clearly the case even more so for club coaches trying to provide a useful and effective planning for bigger groups of people.
I try to take a more blended approach where there is an overview of what I am trying to achieve, based on where the individual athlete is now, and the demands of the event they are training for.
It’s broad sense of direction if you like, but one where I don’t try to predict too much of the future by laying out months of detail in advance. Of course we need to make a sound judgement about where we think the training we are setting or completing is heading, but the further in advance we go, at least at a detailed level, the more sound judgement turns into guesswork.
The detail of training comes out of high quality feedback and self reflection between athletes and coaches, training partners and mentors, as well as evidence and information – adapting our approach as we go.
I will do this based upon certain broad principles and the next article goes into these. Importantly they are not rules though. If they were rules I would be breaking them all the time, but they are broad principles I use to guide myself and make a bit of sense of the ‘chaos’.