How to Maximize Training for Busy Athletes

How to Maximize Training for Busy Athletes

Every age-group triathlete, bike racer, or runner I’ve coached tends to have a lot going on in their professional and personal lives. I have the pleasure of coaching physicians, finance executives, entrepreneurs, and others at the top of their professional game (or getting there).

It’s not that they’re all “type-A” personalities, but they do have some common traits. They want to be the best that they can be, get the most out of their lives, and they strive to optimize their time so that they can be maximally efficient and productive.

I thought one great way to contribute to my fellow coaches, as well as to those athletes that might self-coach, was to write about the things I do to help my busy athletes maximize their time.

1. The modifiable schedule

Simply put, stuff comes up with busy professionals, and coaches have to roll with it. For starters, pre-canned and multi-week schedules just don’t work for these athletes. This type of athlete needs the coach to schedule weekly programming in conformance with their work and personal obligations.

I ask my athletes to let me know by the weekend if there are any work or personal commitments that we will have to work around. That could be business travel, early or late meetings, or a family event that needs to take priority.

I imagine that some coaches might think this could cause a lot of extra work, but honestly, in the 10+ years I’ve coached, very few athletes take advantage of this flexibility. Since I’m not a believer in monthly schedules, it also creates a great communication discipline between coach and athlete to set up the upcoming week of training.

The agreement I make with my athletes is that we centralize our scheduling communication in one place. For me, that one place is TrainingPeaks.

2. Concierge workout creation

I’m a coach that gets very specific with workouts, and part of that specificity includes creating and loading to the appropriate platform. So, for instance, I will load bike ERG workouts into their TrainerRoad account for them. The majority of my athletes appreciate the fact that they just have to turn on the smart trainer in the morning, start the workout, and be done.

For those that can safely train intervals outdoors, I’ll leverage the TrainingPeaks Workout Creator functionality integrated with the TP ConnectIQ app on Garmin devices. This helps them with any transitions in the workout along with giving them visual and auditory prompts when they’re in or out of ranges.

For all my athletes, I include video links for proper form on any strength exercises I assign them. While this may sound like a huge amount of coaching work, you can pre-build nearly all of these exercises in a strength workout library within TrainingPeaks. Just make sure you’re filling in the right weight increments that are appropriate for your athlete after dragging the workout from the library.

3. Managing the athlete’s zones

This is a big one, since athletes don’t want to waste time on unproductive workouts or miles by overextending themselves with efforts that are too hard.

Periodic testing in all disciplines helps with this, but I find that I don’t have to wait every four to six weeks for a baseline test to ascertain whether the athlete has developed any adaptations. WKO4 is a great piece of software that lets me analyze how an athlete is progressing in swim, bike, or run, as well as where we might need to do more work to help gain a breakthrough.

4. Their personal researcher and explainer

Athletes hear a lot of conflicting training, racing and nutrition information from their friends and on the internet. Some of the information is great, some is completely preposterous, and some of it is so cutting edge that the application is still unclear.

Curating information doesn’t mean that I, as a coach, have all the facts at my fingertips. First and foremost, I turn to the scientific literature that is available. This doesn’t mean just looking at a few sentences of an abstract in a paper. It can take a few hours to read through conflicting reports, then to come back to the athlete with a well-reasoned interpretation of the research and guidance on the subject.

In matters that are out of my personal expertise, I will always refer them to professionals that I partner with (nutritionists, physicians, physical therapists, etc.).

5. Understand each athlete’s training environment

Many coaches have athletes all around the country and even the world. In these cases, it’s crucial to understand what the daily training environment is for each athlete. I have noticed that busy professionals are more inclined to complete workouts if the facility is close by. It saves them time and also helps them overcome those inner voices telling them to “skip it” after a rough day at work. Suggesting tools like a smart trainer for their home is also incredibly important since commuting to and from a facility for a workout can be difficult for the busy professional.

Busy professionals often must travel for work. One athlete I have coached for nearly five years travels weekly to other countries. Learning about every new training environment was difficult in the beginning, but in time we developed a good communication plan where he would let me know where he was going and I could refer to notes on what was available.

Above all, consider safety within the athlete’s daily training environment.

6. Race-specific programming

Of course, coaches should always help athletes prepare for their big races. As part of my intake procedure, I interview the athlete to learn what their key races are including information about the race itself. Is the course hilly or flat? Windy? Is the water choppy or cold? Is the course technical?

I’ll research the course and also study data from a variety of athletes I track on Strava (thank you all for keeping your workouts public!). From there, I structure the athlete’s training to help them cope with predicted demands of race day.

For those elite age group athletes I’ve had the pleasure to coach, I’ll also research what other athletes in their age group are registered to race, then look at recent results. For outliers, there’s not much an athlete can do to catch up, but at least they can understand what the possibilities are. I also always remind them that anyone can have a good (or bad) day, so this information is not meant to create defeatism but rather to inspire and improve focus.

7. Help the athlete with long-term planning

Coaches are great at helping athletes see past the next few weeks or months, and even past their first season. That doesn’t mean we’ll have the privilege of coaching every athlete in the future, but we can help them understand it can take years for them to become competitive. They also need to understand the steps along the way they’ll need to take to get there.

This long-range planning as a service really helps athletes understand the commitment they need to make to the sport, as well as the sacrifices that come with it.

8. Teach them how to do transitions

First thing you may have thought was that I was talking about triathlon transitions, which is partly true. For those athletes I coach that live in New York City, I hold weekly stacked brick workouts to help them optimize their time between disciplines.

However, as a person that has juggled many interests in my own life (work, family life, sports, classical piano) I have learned that transitioning from one activity to the next is important. My athletes have told me that helping them learn how to improve their awareness how to “switch gears” is incredibly valuable to them.

9. Scheduling sleep

Research shows that an athlete’s body breaks down over time not with high-performance training, but due to insufficient sleep. Even so, it can seem counterintuitive for me to include sleep reminders in the TrainingPeaks calendar for my athletes since it is as if I’m taking time away from training or working.

The truth is many athletes think they can just push hard and recover later, living without sleep or rest days. My job as a coach is to help them understand that they will be more effective as athletes (and workers, family members, etc.) if they get the proper rest and recovery. I continually check in to understand where things are for them using available metrics, which leads to the next point.

10. Managing their level of effort (metrics)

Humans are far from perfect machines. One reason I’ve never been a fan of downloadable season plans is because they don’t take into consideration a given athlete’s starting point, or strengths, weaknesses, life challenges, etc.

The problem is compounded when the athlete starts to get behind on their workouts then crams, causing exhaustion, injury, or guilt as targets are missed. The money saved downloading that $150 season program isn’t worth the burnout that causes people to drop out of sports activity or  end up at the doctor’s office with physical therapy bills.

A nifty feature of TrainingPeaks is the metrics record. I have my athletes fill them in early and often. Some do it nearly daily, others once a week, and some I have to pester. Some have the app integrated with their heart rate variability (HRV) monitor, their smartphone, or scale.

On the quantitative side, I look for wide fluctuations in weight along with sleep fluctuation as mentioned above. HRV data can be useful, except as coaches we have to understand that some of the measurement methods can be unreliable. If the athlete’s HRV measurement is generally stable over time, then we look for fluctuations there.

What I find extremely useful are qualitative metrics. Is the athlete’s motivation low over a period of a few days? Fatigue high? Injury high? There are a host of metrics the athlete can fill out, along with some qualitative words they can write in metrics or in the workout itself that can let me know if we need to dial back training at any given point.

It is not just about dialing back, either. I’ve noticed that athletes sometimes make “quantum jumps” in fitness where they report workouts being too easy. That, along with a lower heart rate over a few workouts, could suggest they’ve had a welcome boost of adaptation.

TrainingPeaks implemented a very useful set of metrics within workouts, where the athlete can rate the workout on a scale of 1-10 (RPE), along with how they felt. Seeing a very high RPE on a workout that was supposed to be easier or seeing frowny faces on workouts, is call for a conversation with the athlete, which brings me to my final suggestion.

11. Communication and availability

At the end of the day, I’ve found that I need to make myself maximally available to my athletes. A terrific way to do that is through the pre- and post-workout comment functionality in TrainingPeaks. I get texts from athletes throughout the week letting me know how things are going, and, periodically, we also pick up the phone to discuss some workout or plan together. The advantage of centralizing communication in TrainingPeaks is that coaches have a historical record of the communication that you can turn back to, which I have found useful time and again.

One great tip I learned years ago in a coaching clinic from master coach Shelly O’Brien is to “learn how to set your boundaries” with athletes on communication. My suggestion to be maximally available could be taken advantage of; you have to to have your “availability hours” clear for your athletes. I’ve found over my decade or so of coaching that very few people have taken advantage of those boundaries. Most just need some quick assistance through the course of a given day or want to understand something better with a quick text or call. Also, learn to say, “I’m on the road or with my kids or am going to bed so so I will call you back at a different time.”

Finally, this level of coaching detail isn’t for every athlete. Some people don’t like this structure or don’t want to communicate this much. Ask your athletes what they prefer. Also, make sure you’ve properly priced your services so that this level of work makes sense, otherwise it may not work for your business model.

Joe Bachana

In addition to being a TrainingPeaks Level II Coach, Joe Bachana is a USAT Level II and Youth & Junior Certified Coach, holds Master Coach level certification from USA Cycling (Level 1), is both a USAC-Certified Power Based and a USAC BRP-skills Certified Coach, and is also an IRONMAN® Certified Coach. Along with being a multisport coach for the past decade, Joe has since 1999 been CEO of DPCI (www.dpci.com), a technology consulting firm, where he and his colleagues have helped organizations improve their productivity through sensible implementation and use of enterprise software. Always interested in networking and collaborating with fellow coaches, feel free to reach out to Joe at coachjoe@bachana.com.