When other coaches and athletes consult with me, we almost always end up focusing on core concepts, rather than advocating any particular training method. We answer why athletes should or shouldn’t do something, and that shows how training should be approached.
Asking the following four core questions will deepen training philosophy, and allow coaches and self-coached athletes to find their own way — because there is never just one correct way to train!
Can you individualize the plan?
In theory, creating a training plan is simple: work on your strengths and weaknesses according to the needs of the event. When you’re in charge of the plan, you can manipulate any variable you want, which allows you to tailor it to your needs. However, individuals respond differently to different stimuli, and complexity can stack up very quickly.
I prefer to address complexity with two of many concepts borrowed from Dr. Mike Isratel: minimum effective volume (MEV) and maximum adaptable volume (MAV). These were developed for bodybuilders, but can be applied across other sports as well. MEV, in its simplest terms, is the smallest training dose needed to make an athlete faster, while MAV is the maximum dose they can handle — above this dose only adds fatigue.
TrainingPeaks metrics like CTL (Chronic Training Load) and weekly time in power zones can help you determine MEV and MAV. If there is a CTL where you consistently see performance drop off, you know this is the maximum you or your athlete can handle. MEV would be the smallest CTL an athlete could carry and still see zone benefits or other performance increases. These two concepts can help give you guidelines when personalizing a training plan.
In the end, individualization is not only about managing training load and fatigue, but finding the type of training that is most effective. The intervals that worked for you might not necessarily be the best for everyone else, and this gets truer as people become more well-trained. I recommend watching Dean Golich’s webinars on interval training, where he demonstrates how to use WKO4 to start understanding workout individualization.
How much untapped potential are you dealing with?
This question may be the most difficult to answer, since it requires a prediction of the future. For example, if your goal is breaking 60 minutes in a 40-kilometer individual time trial, and your current best is 62.5 minutes, you’re about four percent away from your goal. If you’ve improved by 60 seconds each year for the last three years (about two percent per year), it might seem like that goal is within reach, but you also need to ask: how long will that improvement continue?
If progress slows or stops, there are still options for improvement. We might look at how well someone recovers from their MAV and try to add more blocks at this volume for greater training stress. We might also consider adding more recovery time to the existing plan, or even overhaul the plan in its entirety.
If you’re already training and recovering as well as possible, and appear to have tapped out your speed potential, then my goal as a coach would be to switch the focus to consistency or having as many ideal race days as possible. This is a different way to train, but can be just as satisfying as trying to squeeze out more speed. Asking yourself honestly where you’re at in your development process will give your training plan the context vital to measuring success.
Is there a balance of physiology and phenomenology?
There is an idea from sport scientist Mladen Jovanovic that one should recognize the difference between physiology or phenomenology in training. This means we must understand when a training program is focused on the physiologic underpinnings in body, or on an ability that emerges through the rigors of racing.
For instance, sprinting while fresh is the most physiologically effective way to increase maximum speed; the athlete is fresh and can make the most power, leading to the greatest adaptation. But sprinting while tired will help train the phenomenon of the “final kick” in a race. It is not the ideal way to increase overall sprint power output, but can be crucial for success.
I believe a training plan for a sprinter is incomplete without coaching both the physiology and the phenomenon. In some sports, a focus on phenomenology can be more effective than training physiology, especially once the athletes have reached a certain level of fitness. In cycling, however, I feel both physiology and phenomenology are equally important.
What and who do you (or your coach) know?
To me, one of the most critical things in understanding training is being secure in your knowledge base, and be realistic about what you don’t know. Personally, I’ve studied physiology for years and was a decent amateur sprinter. While it’s easy for me to interpret power data and advise sprint tactics, when an athlete needs to improve outside my areas of expertise (like in technical off-road riding), I don’t hesitate to get them together with another expert.
In areas where your coaching is not as strong, finding people to answer your questions or teach skills can save a lot of time and confusion. Especially in physiology and nutrition, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have countless active PhDs and expert coaches who will respond to comments and messages. Just remember to be polite and respectful of a person’s time and expertise by asking specific questions that hopefully have short answers. With this approach, you can gather several well-informed opinions and put them to use immediately.
Asking experts for advice is the shortest and most reliable way to bridge gaps in knowledge without having to absorb the entire body of knowledge on a subject!