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Training With Data at the High School, College and Professional Level

BY Briana Boehmer

Briana Boehmer talks with three coaches to see how the use of data changes across each level of competition. From starting in High School to competing as a professional, using data to increase performance is part of the game.

When I first decided to have a go at distance running I was a sophomore in high school.  I was old enough to know that if I wanted to do well, I would have to be diligent in following a well laid out plan. I had watched my father methodically train to compete at local road races, logging everything daily in a spiral bound notebook. The first thing I did when I went out for my high school team was purchase a notebook to log everything I did, just like dad. At the time, I did not have a full understanding of what such a simple act could do for my long-term development.

Fast forward to 2015 and we see high school and collegiate athletes in the United States competing internationally and winning with regularity. It is a trend versus an anomaly. The athletic community has been debating the differences between generations past, and there is no doubt that a part of the equation is that we are training with more resources and information than ever before. To me, coaching has always been part art and science. A coach has hard data at a training session: distance, pace, splits, and maybe even metrics like elevation/grade changes and heart rate. Yet with this hard data they have the communication aspect– what the athlete is telling them via conversations and body language. How these components work together is where science meets art.

The question I wanted to ask is this: Does it matter what level the athlete is at as it relates to using data and communication? How does a high school coach view and use data versus a professional coach? What about college? In this article we will dive deeper into how coaches and athletes are communicating from high school to college and beyond. At the end of the day, there is a lot each can learn from the other to help move our athletes to better levels of achievement.

Training With Data At The High School Level

Jeff Boelé of Lyons High School takes a big picture view to describe how he perceives data collection and the value of using data with high school athletes.

Every coach has his or her own method for laying out training – plan the entire season, write a month in advance, go day by day, or something in between. Whatever the methodology employed, coaches draw on information to prescribe what their athletes are going to do to progress. That information is data and it is collected and utilized in particular ways by all coaches.

Coaches collect data in a variety of ways. A few simple possibilities include past experiences, asking athletes questions, making observations on a daily basis, and reviewing training logs. This collected data is stored and refined as time passes.

Next, what kind of data does a coach look for during the training process? Some options might be distance, pace, duration, heart rate, repetitions, perceived effort, or even proprietary metrics offered by a training software company. Data, in the case of cross country or track & field training, is essentially any information that offers insight into what an athlete is doing or feeling.

The penultimate and culminating steps with using data are analysis and implementation, respectively. Once a coach analyzes the collected data, he or she makes decisions on how to progress. The more comprehensive the data, the more appropriate future planning can be.

The caveat here is that the information provided by the athlete has to be meaningful to the coach. Depending on the collection methods, it becomes the coach’s role to inform the athlete what he or she needs to provide. In regard to mid-distance and distance events, an example would be one coach valuing duration, while another prefers distance as a measuring metric. Either choice is correct given the particular coach’s experience and ability to interpret that collected data.

At the high school level, a coach deals with a vast variety of abilities and commitment to training. Coaches in a team setting often balance administering individualized training with the demands of keeping a multitude of athletes on task. If the goal is to help athletes of any ability and interest level improve competitively, collecting data becomes key to adapting training within the team setting.

Establishing groups has long been a successful method employed in team situations to help with athlete management. Often times, race results are the only qualifying method used to assign athletes to certain groups. Not that this method isn’t appropriate, but more data, especially at the high school level, may allow for more accurate group set up on a given day. Factors such as training age, athlete strengths, favored workouts, inter-team relationships, or injury risk could be other considerations to parcel athletes.

As the coach/athlete relationship is established and grows, the process of collecting meaningful and useful information becomes more efficient. The coach knows what kinds of questions to ask different individuals and the athletes know how best to describe what they are feeling and perceiving. This type of communication allows the coach to adapt a general team oriented training program for each athlete based on sound data.

Another primary goal for many coaches at the high school level is instilling good habits. Knowing that data is important, a training log is the simplest and most comprehensive means for getting usable information from athletes. Imparting the importance of recording daily activities and any feedback associated with those activities is time well spent by a high school coach. An up-to-date training log becomes a great source of documented information for both the athlete and the coach.

Recording information with an intent to assist planning into the future can be helpful to an athlete. A critique of the U.S. “system” has been the lack of continuity between each level of an athlete’s advancement (high school to college to pro). A number of reasons exist for this assessment, but there are also ways to mitigate the potential breakdowns between each step. Coaching education is one method that tries to bridge these gaps. Having basic knowledge of training theory and exercise science can go a long way to assist coaches in best serving an athlete. Recorded data is another imperative element that can be used to allow for smoother transitions between the different U.S. levels. Starting the process of collecting data in a training log as a freshman in high school can provide a longitudinal glimpse into an athlete’s training history. If coaches are truly trying to best serve an athlete, knowing what has worked in the past is a good place to start on getting ready for the future.

Practical Application

Jason Drake, of the University of Washington, describes his specific use of on-line technology and devices to better communicate, plan and adapt training

Communication is key when coaching our athletes. There is not much that compares to a cup of coffee with an athlete laying out the goals and plan for an upcoming training cycle. The personal connection a coach will have with their athletes is why most of us enjoy the coaching profession. Sitting down with an athlete and laying out the season training plan, mapping out the next cycle through the conference championships, or simply discussing how they felt during yesterday’s tempo run is critical for success. Fundamentally, it is crucial for the athlete to have an idea of where we are going. With a cup of coffee and an hour of time, we can get a lot accomplished and be on the same page. The challenge of a college coach is that we typically carry 40 athletes. I drink plenty of coffee, but 40 cups is hard to do in a week!

Technology has allowed the coach athlete relationship to become stronger. Most college teams carry 15 to 20 distance runners. Here at Washington, we have 45 distance athletes and 3 coaches. With numbers like this, we are constantly challenged to keep everyone on the same page while still making sure each individual athlete is getting what he or she needs. We have tinkered with several online running logs, but this year moved to TrainingPeaks. This software has helped keep all of our athletes and coaches moving towards a common goal.

Using technology has become a vital component for our team.  We constantly use it to communicate. Technology has allowed us to layout individual training plans that are easily accessible for the individual and our entire staff. Technology has also improved the logging process. Simple apps are easily mastered by members of the “tech-ready” generation. The ability to quickly record information is preferred over the cumbersome task some athletes face in turning in weekly or monthly logs. What’s more, we now have the capability for devices to easily record and send distance, pace and heart rate to an online training log. The quick and easy access to this information, combined with daily comments allows our staff to stay on top of how our athletes are doing.

Another huge benefit is that we are now able to receive so much more data to track what is happening when we can’t see our athletes. Let’s face it, the life of a distance coach is often spent watching athletes leave the building for a run, and then talking to them when they return. We can now collect more data and look at what was going on in that hour they were away. What an athlete says transpired on their one hour “easy run” is often different than what actually happened. This concept goes even further when an athlete or coach is traveling or are simply far away from each other. Technology allows for real time notifications about what an athlete is doing no matter where they are. When coaching a couple athletes this may not be a big deal, but when trying to monitor 45 athletes, often this notification allows me to intervene before an athlete veers too far from their prescribed training.

Workout data analysis in TrainingPeaks software

All this said, nothing will ever replace face-to-face conversations with our athletes. This is still the lifeline of what we do. But having real data to look at, and discuss in our conversations, is good. This technology helps us get our athletes ready to perform at the highest level.

Going For Gold

Ben Rosario, coach of professional team Northern Arizona Elite, discusses using data as a critical piece to athlete advancement and trust

In just about every training talk I have ever given, to athletes of all ability levels imaginable, I sing the praises of keeping a training log. My own logs go back to 1995, my sophomore year in high school. Little did I know it at the time, but the data in those logs would in many ways be the foundation for my future as an athlete, and ultimately, as a coach.

At its most basic level, training data gives us a sort of treasure map that shows us how we got to our peak fitness, even if that peak fitness wasn’t when we wanted it to be. On the flip side it can also be a book on “what not to do” in terms of identifying patterns that lead to fatigue and injury. No matter the level, you can analyze athlete data and make improvements moving forward. For the most part, the more data available the better, as there are variables far beyond pace and mileage that can play into an athlete reaching peak fitness or to that athlete being fatigued or even injured.

For professional athletes, training data is absolutely vital. It’s vital because they’ll fool you. At that level, the athletes are so smooth and so good at getting proper rest, proper treatment, etc. that they rarely appear tired. They begin to seem like machines. But they’re not. They’re human just like the rest of us. Often times, it’s the data that allows us to catch a fatigue cycle coming on in a pro. Left to the naked eye, we might not realize telltale signs like elevated heart rate, pace change on easy runs, trouble on inclines, etc. Recognizing these things via data can mean the difference between a perfect peak and having to go into scramble mode to try and dig an athlete out of a fatigue-induced “hole.”

I personally use training data with the professional athletes I coach in a variety of ways, but probably nothing is more important to me than analyzing how they recover from certain workouts. As we continue to build a Northern Arizona Elite training database, I can really dig into their data from a hard workout and then look at the corresponding data from the following day or two of easy running. This is starting to give me a blueprint for future training segments. I can fairly easily see what workouts cause the most stress, based not only on the data from the workout itself, but also from the next two days’ data. Beyond that I can see where their numbers need to be before a workout in order to be sure they are ready to go hard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the athletes themselves, they need to believe. The buy-in process for a professional athlete is no easy task. By the time they reach me they’ve likely had at least 2 to 3 head coaches in their lives, not to mention all the assistants. That means a lot of different philosophies, but I need them to believe 100 percent in what we’re doing. Data is proving to be an invaluable tool in terms of getting them to feel confident in our program here at Northern Arizona Elite. We do a lot of steady state runs, a lot of tempo runs, and a lot of miles. With good data recording the athletes can go back after a good result and clearly see, in black and white, how much time we spent in each particular training zone and how ultimately what they did led to said result. The mind can play tricks on us when we’re going off of memory or a simple hand-written training log. High quality data does not lie, however. Once they see the method behind the madness, they’re hooked. And there is no better situation for a professional coach, or a coach of any level for that matter, than to have an athlete that truly believes you are the person that will get them where they dream of going.

Taking It All In…What Does the Future Hold?

In listening to these coaches at each level of the athletic timeline discuss their use and theories on data, I get excited by what the future holds. I think back to when I was in college and the multitude of injuries I sustained throughout my career. Would access to data and information transfer from high school to college have helped my coach know my “weaknesses”? Would I have been able to better communicate with my coach day to day with consistent data logging? How much more would I have gained from simply having a more complete picture of what I was doing?

There is a consistent theme I see at each level, and that is the value in keeping an open dialogue of what is happening day-to-day and season-to-season. Whether it is simply stating how a workout went, or actually tracking the metrics of a workout, this communication paints a picture. The better we can record and keep a solid record of progress and setbacks, the better we can make informed decisions for the future. Planning, tracking and ultimately analyzing all becomes more accessible and timely.

I know we are just scratching the surface of what data can do. The beauty in data is that we can adapt and mold what we see to the individual athlete in a real way. At the end of the day, data helps a coach do what he or she does best – make critical decisions and guide an athlete to their ultimate potential.

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About Briana Boehmer

Briana Boehmer has been a TrainingPeaks user for over eight years, guiding runners and triathletes to reach their personal best at any level — from competing at Boston or Kona to reaching the finish line for the first time. She is a former Division I runner and current elite-level triathlete. Follow Briana on Twitter.

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