Sunday, December 5, 2010

Training plans and structured workouts

Structured workouts and training plans are the bread and butter of coaching. Like a prescription from the doctor, most people expect to get, and would be hugely disappointed if they did not get a detailed plan with a series of highly specific workouts. Most coaches too seem to believe the training plan is the essence of coaching. Some go as far as selling training plans on the web for serious cash.
Training plan example

Recently there was some uproar on one coaches' newsgroup about people posting detailed training plans on social media such as FaceBook. Coaches were worried that clients might walk or that new prospective clients might opt for downloading a free workout plan instead of paying monthly fees. In case you did not know the practice of posting plans and workout is rather widespread.

Type training plan in any popular search engine and you are likely to be overwhelmed by free offerings that are either ready made, can be generated on the fly by typing in some data, or are past or future plans from pro or amateur athletes. The new twist on this and the reason for the uproar was due to detailed power and heart rate data being posted by software companies that sell software analyzing such data. But I digress.

There are two distinct parts of a plan. One is the overall long view that shows the different phases and culminates in key races or events where the participant is expected to peak or do well. The second part are the detailed descriptions of what you have to do on a given day. It is the latter, and more specifically the prospective plan and workouts (i.e. the plan and workouts for the upcoming season) that most coaches do not want participants to share with others.

Some athletes receive explicit instructions and risk being dropped or fined by the coaching group if they violate these. Although the overall plan is in many ways more important, the focus on the detail is typical. Many believe the secret sauce is found here. The fact that overall plans always need tailoring, something most athletes like to have someone do for them, also plays.

Overall plans by and large follow the idea of periodization. The roots are attributed to Hans Selye in the 1950's but most cyclists would point to Joe Friel's training bibles instead. Attributing intuitive and common sense ideas to specific people is a practice we in the Western world dearly love. In our mindset ideas need inventors, even if these ideas are self-evident.
Magic Recipes for Success!

In contrast to the set periodicity of overall plans, individual workouts come in seemingly endless varieties  and flavors. Creativity is boundless and so is the tendency to attribute great powers to new ideas. Coaches and magazines alike love to come up with a new ultimate workout on a regular basis. These special workouts are similar to snake oil in that they have magical powers and can effortlessly address nearly all problems athletes experience. Read my post on the lure of recipes.

I for one have never been a great favorite of recipes, whether they be for cooking or for training. I like to look at recipes and see what people do, but I always improvise. Even when I set out to follow a recipe I usually deviate at some point or another.

When it comes to training and life, I don't doubt many people feel the need for structure and planning. They want to know what will happen, how it will happen and how fast it will happen. I am not one of them. I have never followed an explicit training plan in my life, much less a structured workout. The only time I do (softly) structured workouts is on my rollers or on the treadmill. And then I do it to pass time and take away the boredom.

I have no doubt that structured workouts and training plans lead to improvement. That is not the question. Any time you stress your body it will adapt. The question is can you improve without them? The answer is yes. Much like a weight loss plan, where all that counts is calories and not the specific recipe, a training plan is defined by intensity. That is the key parameter. However, to drive the analogy further, a training plan like a successful diet needs variety. Without it, nothing can happen.

If you mix intensity with adequate variety, you will get better. It will happen easily whether your mix is rigidly prescribed and planned or free flowing, just as long as you mix and mix well.

Happy training.

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