Other than workouts, the most basic element of planning for the athlete is laying out the week’s training routine. There are a lot of individual variables to take into account when doing this including such considerations as time remaining until the first race, seasonal goals, the week’s objectives, individual limiters, key workouts needed, capacity for stress, recovery attributes, health status, niggling soreness or injuries, progression of training prior to this week, general training objectives for the following weeks, lifestyle factors, weather conditions, level of motivation and more.
Obviously, I can’t define these variables for you. (I get emails every day asking me how the writer should train. Anything I say is likely to be wrong given how many things there are to consider. That’s why I hedge a lot when responding to comments of the same nature here in my blog.) The variables are entirely yours alone to be defined. But when I’m coaching someone I try to get as firm a grasp on all of these as I can before sitting down to lay out his or her training week. It’s seldom an easy task and becomes all the more challenging as the race draws near.
So let’s just take the most basic of these considerations and I’ll show you the process I go through in deciding how an athlete might schedule training for a week. Once this weekly training platform is laid out it can usually be repeated for a few weeks so long as everything else in the athlete’s life remains stable. Continuity in training is good for the athlete not only physically but also mentally. When the next mesocycle or block begins, however, there may be a need for a change to the weekly routine.
Here are some of the basic weekly training elements I consider and the order in which I consider them:
Anchor workouts. These are put on the weekly plan first and all others are often built in around them. They are workouts that the athlete does that are tied to specific days and times. For a triathlete this could be when lap swimming is available at the pool. It’s also commonly group workouts. Consideration needs to be given to the stress of these sessions in advance, especially those that are group workouts. Based on what you have planned for the week you may need to move to a slower lane, sit in on the ride, or train with a slower group. Or it may be a time in the season when several challenging sessions are needed in a week. Decide ahead of time what it is you need from a group workout and then stick with your decision. Be aware of getting caught up in “racing” when your goal was technique development or aerobic endurance. My experience is that people who train with groups frequently burnout earlier in the race season than those who train alone a lot. There’s a happy medium.
Key workouts. Once you have scheduled the anchor workouts and determined their nature, it’s time to decide what the key workouts for the week will be. This usually implies higher-intensity sessions and the most important workouts relative to seasonal goals and period objectives. They are generally the most stressful sessions. Of course, a key workout could also be an anchor workout. But if not then you need to schedule these so that your recovery from the challenging anchor sessions is adequate so you can reap the key workout benefits.
Key workouts depend on the time in the season and race goals. For example, it’s common in the base or accumulation period to have key workouts for the basic abilities: aerobic endurance, muscular force and speed skills (all of the basic and advanced abilities are explained in my Training Bible books). The build period or transformation block is often focused on the advanced abilities: muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and sprint power. But these generalizations don’t always hold true. For example, it’s not unusual for advanced Ironman triathletes to do anaerobic endurance training in order to boost VO2max in the base or accumulation period and then not at all in the build or transformation period. Some refer to this as “reverse periodization,” but it really isn’t. Periodization is defined as the shift in training regimens to become increasingly like the goal race as training progresses (this is the principle of “specificity”). Anaerobic endurance training is very much unlike the race for the Iron triathlete so it’s not reversed at all when done in the base period. If such workouts were done in the build period then it would, indeed, be reverse periodization—and of questionable value to the Iron-athlete who should be focused on muscular endurance.
Workout durations. Once I’ve decided what the key workouts are then I set their durations. How long a session is depends on what the goal of the session is. If it’s to be racelike in terms of both intensity and duration then it is highly stressful. But a long duration workout done well below race intensity is not nearly as stressful. Some workouts lend themselves to short sessions. This is especially true of anaerobic endurance, sprint power, force and speed skills sessions. They are generally the shortest of the week as fatigue caused by including them in long-duration sessions may be counterproductive to the intended results. But as fitness improves throughout the season the capacity to make such workouts longer improves and may make them more racelike.
Longer durations are often devoted to aerobic endurance and muscular endurance training. Long, of course, is relative to your goal race duration. A “long ride” for an Iron triathlete is considerably different from that of a road criterium racer.
Workout pattern considering recovery between workouts. The more advanced the athlete is the more stress he or she can manage before requiring a recovery break. How many stressful sessions changes as the training season progresses. In the build period or accumulation block the advanced athlete may do 3 or 4 stressful workouts (intensity factor greater than 80% of functional threshold) on consecutive days before needing a day to recover. But early in the season the same athlete may only be able to manage 1 or 2 such hard sessions before resting.
One of the best ways to manage this unfortunately makes planning difficult. In a perfect world the athlete would train hard until it becomes apparent that recovery is needed. This “recovery on demand” method only works for athletes who are good at listening to their bodies, patient in their approach to training, and smart enough to understand what they are trying to accomplish. Very few self-athletes have these qualities and so are best advised to schedule recovery days frequently in the training week. For most, this means a day of recovery (low intensity and, perhaps, short duration) after each stressful workout.
Volume. There may be times in the season when the athlete needs to increase volume well beyond what he or she commonly does. This is called “crash” training and is explained in my Training Bible books. For the advanced athlete there are significant fitness gains to be reaped from such scheduling but there are also risks (injury, illness, burnout, overtraining). For the athlete who is relatively new to the sport and who has never done “high-volume” training, this is even a riskier venture and not advised. Increasing the weekly volume by 10% or so over previous weeks is probably better in the latter case. The somewhat more advanced athlete can make bigger increases in weekly volume if in the past they have trained at higher levels without setbacks.
There’s more I could go into here but the variables would become increasingly dependent on the other factors pertinent to each athlete as explained in the first paragraph. Generally, my experience has been that most athletes downplay the significance of these other factors and as a result train too intensely and for too great a duration. And they usually mix the two together much too early in the season. The greatest key to success in endurance sport is consistency of training. If workouts are frequently missed due to whatever reason then race preparedness suffers. Less is often best.