Designing an Athlete’s Total Load

Designing an Athlete’s Total Load

Knowing exactly how much training is too much and how much will yield great results it a balancing act. Coach Andrew Simmons can help you strategize.

Coaches walk a tightrope as they balance the total load of training they give their athletes. Balancing load means that you have to understand how to incorporate the right amount of intensity, duration, periodization and tapering. This can make new coaches feel uneasy, as it’s hard to be sure if you’re asking your athletes to do too much or too little. Using your tools, establishing a rhythm and gathering feedback are relatively foolproof methods that lead to success at the finish line. 

Using Your Tools

TrainingPeaks provides a set of tools that can be used together to effectively create a plan based on training load (in the form of Training Stress Score or TSS) from the entire season down to individual workouts. By starting with an Annual Training Plan (ATP) you can define a general outline for your athlete’s season including goal events, specific training periods (base, build, taper, etc) and recovery cycle (every third or fourth week).

You can plan the ATP using weekly average TSS (similar to the way you might plan using hours) or by using the Target CTL method (Chronic Training Load or Fitness, or the highest volume of accumulated training load the athlete will achieve before starting the taper for their goal race). I encourage my coaches to utilize Target CTL as it is more conducive to individualized and specific preparation for most athletes. When you build an ATP using Target CTL you get a projected Performance Management Chart (PMC) for the entire season. These projected PMC metrics (CTL, ATL, and TSB) provide you with guidance about expected weekly volume, fatigue, and readiness for hard training (or need for rest) through the season. These options can help you to plan weeks with better intensity distribution as well as provide a better way to track an athlete’s progress against the plan. 

Creating a Weekly Rhythm

When you use the ATP, you’re given a TSS/ hours goal in the workout summary as you plan out each week. The first step is defining your athlete’s weekly rhythm, meaning sorting out which workouts happen on what days. Next, ask yourself if the rhythm you’re creating allows for enough recovery between major workouts.

Once you have defined a sustainable rhythm, create workouts that build towards their primary goals. I encourage coaches to first build out a schedule that meets an athlete’s aerobic demands. This includes base level runs, rides, or swims, and then long rides, runs and swims. This is the most sustainable method and ultimately drives the majority of an athlete’s weekly CTL load. 

Once the base work has been defined you will be left with a chunk of weekly TSS to distribute amongst your high aerobic/ high intensity workouts. This is where we start to distribute the load to meet the CTL goal and physiological building blocks for race day success.

Using the Workout Builder

This newer tool takes the guesswork out of load management. It allows you to start predicting where your athlete will be a few weeks out instead of having the data trickle in day-by-day. Programming with the workout builder demands that zones as well as the workout itself are set correctly. This will give you a full picture of how the athlete will respond to this week’s training and to the fatigue they’re generating in the coming weeks. It’s best to stick to what you know: generally avoid a TSB of greater than -30, keep ramp rate to five to seven points of CTL, and minimize overloading in any direction more than 10%. 

Filling in the Gaps

There will always be gaps to fill when creating a program for an athlete. Weekly TSS goals are given as targets but hitting them square on the head is hard. When you identify a gap you can either fill it with TSS focused on intensity, or TSS focused on base level fitness. A few more reps might be helpful or it could fatigue them to the point where they can’t recover in a few days. Applying base mileage is a very ‘safe’ premise but can lead to the accrual of junk miles. There is always a third direction of cross training, strength training, or yoga that can help fill gaps without tacking on more mileage. You’ll have to use your intuition as a coach to decide what’s ultimately best for the athlete.

Evaluating Subjective Feedback

As coaches begin to master the art of “workout Tetris,” they come to understand it’s more complicated than just cramming in weekly TSS. It’s essential to consider recovery and mental fatigue too. It’s essential to continuously ask questions and assess how athletes are feeling, especially if you notice them consistently underperforming in workouts. One way to consistently and easily assess how an athlete is feeling is by using the Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, metric. With this information, you are able to consider the whole picture of stress and effort that an athlete experiences including the impact that non-training variables have on their mental and physical health.

The hardest part of the coaching journey is finding that balance between effectively challenging but not overwhelming them. The best advice I can give coaches is to have strong opinions but not hold on to them too tightly as you program. Don’t let basic metrics like mileage and yardage drive all of your success. Look deeper and understand the story behind the data.