Simplifying training

‘Everyone knows the ingredients, few know the recipe.’ – Arthur Lydiard

My main desire as a running coach is to simplify the training system, we put in front of runners. Running as a sport is superficially simple but at the same time endlessly complex because it deals with complex organisms. The word ‘complex’ does not mean ‘complicated’ but it appreciates that when you deal with human beings you enter the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ – when you start out training or coaching you simply cannot know everything that will become important.

The more rigid the structure of training plan and system we put in place the more we risk forcing these complex variations through a funnel that doesn’t suit them. We need to step back to universal principles that are demonstrably true equally for all individuals (such as the force of Gravity which affects us all in the same manner) and focus training on how to apply the effects of these laws to the ever-evolving unique situations of each individual.

The recipe for success

Arthur Lydiard said about running training that ‘everyone knows the ingredients, very few know the recipe’. This metaphor is as helpful as it is true – as coaches and runners none of us are truly inventing anything ‘new’ anymore – all the ingredients are pretty much discovered and several well-known recipes exist. We have reached a stage instead where the communicating the necessary steps of how to apply proven recipes is the task that will distinguish mediocre coaches from great ones, the successful from the not so successful.

In my own search to try to take the many successful historical system and communicate their key principles in a simpler manner for today’s audience, I have begun to settle on the following ways to represent the three core ingredients of running: consistency, endurance and power:

No perfect models

Before I go on keep in mind the truth about models: all models are wrong, but some are useful*. A useful model for guiding our running training decisions needs to be simple and succinct so that a runner can infer the correct decisions about what to do day to day and week on week intuitively.

* True because models are always simplified abstractions of a certain perspective of reality – they cannot capture the full complexity of reality itself. So no model can ever be 100% true. We need to take care not to live our lives as if it was any different

There are many layers of traditional training plans that while not completely useless, have bothered me because they add layers of complication that we may or may not need. A good example is phases and periods. On the one hand this can be useful to guide runners about what the focus of a particular period is (such as a ‘general period’ or a ‘base phase’). On the other hand, it adds extra words that we all need to think about he meaning off. Let’s play with the idea of removing phases and training periods and replacing them with the three elements of running: consistency, endurance and power. At any given time we are working on one of these three:

  • Consistency: training here is focused on being able establish a consistent long-term running routine. Anything we do that allows us to run more regularly, recover quicker and in a healthier and less injurious way falls into this area.
  • Endurance: the ability to produce a particular movement for multiple repetitions without falling below a minimum threshold of performance* or put another way – the ability to maintain a certain power output.
  • Power: The force we can absorb and create within a certain space of time. The more force within a shorter space of time, the more powerful or explosive we can be said to be. Frans Bosch refers to this as ‘Reactive Strength’ and running properly requires being able to absorb 2 or more times your body-weight within  a time-span of roughly 200 milliseconds. In other words: you need to be pretty powerful!

* This is not the generally accepted definition but rather one proposed by Ivan Rivera Bours which I decided to make the standard definition for our coaching system at ChampionsEverywhere. In my view it is more useful and accurate than previous definitions – in running we need to be able to create roughly 180 repetitions (strides) per minute to gain the greatest efficiency through elastic return and minimising muscle action.

Bashing strawmen

Over the years I have come to realise that a lot of the seeming inconsistencies in certain training methods can easily be explained once you understand the balance between these three factors – a relationship that really came together for me through the writings of Ivan Bours from Running in Systems. Advocates of one method tend to establish an ‘out of context’ strawman of other systems to ‘beat up’ – it’s the usual ‘us versus them’ habit playing out in our minds to defend our favourite systems from others.

A lot of opponents of Lydiard’s period of ‘long slow or steady distance’, for instance, are both wrong and right when pointing out that it ‘doesn’t work’. This period works in the right context: most of his athletes had a very high power output (young strong men) when they initially went into the program and came from a physical culture (1950ies new Zealand) so their endurance could be perfectly expressed. Throw a runner today who is often criminally deficient in power directly into high volume and you risk getting a pure plodder. Similarly, when you read Lydiard’s early books carefully it is clear that the first step is to achieve consistency and his approach takes a very gradual approach to building new runners into a regular routine. These beginners often start with ‘Out and Backs’ where incidentally you will generally express a healthy level of power for the duration of the run because you run well within your limits. Similarly, he would often create the right level of base strength, where missing, through introducing the runners gradually to cross-country BEFORE any kind of ‘marathon-conditioning’ phase. Today’s common view on these methods is more stereotypical and adopted by many simply as ‘go out there and complete time on your feet at any cost and keep increasing it’. He also built in what was essentially a POWER focused phase with his famous ‘hill conditioning’ which featured plyometric (explosive low-contact jumping) exercises performed uphill. Lydiard very early on understood the true meaning of ‘running-specific strength’ but I won’t elaborate on that tangent here.

It begins with….

Consistency get’s the central place in the triad for this reason: it does not matter whether you currently need to focus more on endurance or on power if you do not first have consistency. Consistency means you have a routine with regular enough stimulus to continuously improve in sustainable steps and this again largely rests on being able to stay healthy and injury-free. ‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery. It is about creating healthy training habits such as ‘train, don’t strain’ rather than ‘no pain, no gain’ which can never breed consistency – only a stop-go system of ‘breakdown’ and ‘restart’ – probably the most common way people’s training end up today as the 80% injury rate (unmoved since the 70ies) confirms.

‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery.

If we don’t have consistency because – let us say – we move terribly and our running style predisposes us to injury, then its pointless to train for endurance OR power as the brain will pick up on this danger and restrict performance (often through manifesting pain or keeping your paces down). Abilities that are generally presented as ‘fundamentals’ in training or physical therapy literature such as mobility, stability, strength, skill, technique, motor control and range of motion (note some are different names for the same thing) falls into this box. Consistency requires a natural range of motion for instance and it requires a certain baseline of technique (optimal ‘biomechanics’) to be present and a certain type of strength. Sometimes a runner achieves consistency because they have a few of these but not the others – so a runner with tremendous strength can achieve consistency even in the face of poor motor skill. It is not optimal – but sufficient.

Coach and athlete must decide the risks and benefits of diving deep into these areas (i.e. ‘you’re very strong but move rather poorly, what can we risk changing now without negatively affecting you for a long time to gain long-term benefits in return’). Generally the answer comes through a process of stochastic tinkering – applying small gradual changes and using the feedback of each change to guide the next (‘well give you a simple postural drill for 6 weeks and otherwise continue as normal – let us see if we see a positive motor response without drop in performance’).

stochasting meme.png

Athlete-focused training in a nutshell

In this system, the runner and coach must together assess the current priority based on asking the question ‘what do we have and what do we need the most’. We may have consistency (let us say a runner walks through my door who has been training 5-6 days per week for three years with little issue). I’d be happy to tick the ‘consistency’ box (for now) and would then assess, based on historical race results, training records and physical testing, whether the runner has an endurance or a power deficit (finding the bottle-neck – the critical constraint stopping long-term development). We want to walk Lydiard’s ‘Path to Full Potential‘ and we cannot do so if we ignore a glaring weakness.

Stripping training down

At the outset of this article I mentioned the desire to strip training theory down to the bare bones and the example of ‘removing’ possibly unnecessary layers of information such as training periods and phases. Instead of having a ‘general period’ followed by a ‘specific period’ and so on, we can instead simply say that ‘this week we focus on power’ or ‘the next four weeks are all about consistency’. We also move away from another pet peeve of mine: the proliferation of physiological terms in book for laymen. Scientists and science are there to tells us why the world is the way it is. But coaching is about ‘how to do it’ and this does not require an understanding of the underlying physiology (which is still in its infancy anyway and ever-developing) – you only need to know what works and what doesn’t. So we do not need to worry about various thresholds and what they are doing inside the body. Instead we can fall back on analysis by feel the way Lydiard did it: for instance he knew that high volume required staying at efforts that allowed recovery within 24 hours. He called such efforts 1/4 effort and 1/2 effort and described them subjectively.

This does not mean we have to stop using heart rate monitors – they are still useful feedback tools and ‘lie detectors’ and can help you understand your response to training better. Let us say you have 12 weeks to your next target race. You’ve been off running for a while due to other commitments. You and your coach know from experience that you are strong and powerful but lose endurance quickly and you currently feel unfit. You make a loose decision to spend the first 4 weeks getting back into a consistent habit and ensuring you can go back to training 5 or 6 times per week without issue. You and your coach work out the details. Since power is not a big priority for you, the next 6 weeks are ear-marked for ‘endurance’ with the final two weeks some race pace specific coordination (I did not touch on that in this article – in short: it’s the final piece you put in and what Lydiard fittingly called ‘Coordination’ which means ‘coordinating your endurance power at a race specific pace).

Finally, even within systems with periods or phases you never train only one thing – its only the emphasis that varies. A Lydiard base phase included ‘power’ work in the form of Fartleks, some steady runs and strides whereas endurance was still present in later weeks – only less so. Going back to the ingredient and recipe metaphor: you may add most of the spices up front but you still add a few later as the dish settles and you get an idea of the flavour.

Summary

To be successful in running we must have the factors in place creating consistency in our training and then we build a foundation of tirelessness (endurance) and explosiveness (or ‘reactive strength’ and ‘power’ the specific strength necessary for running) with the emphasis guided by the strengths and weaknesses of the individual athlete. Once these basics are firmly in place a brief period of specific training to coordinate our abilities brings us to a peak.

I will elaborate further on how to implement this as part of my work to complete the ChampionsEverywhere training system 3.0 – like previous iterations the goal is to simplify the message while staying true to the same unchanging universal natural principles.

Sources

Strength and Coordination and Integrative Approach. Frans Bosch.

Running to the Top. Arthur Lydiard.

Running in Systems. Ivan Rivera Bours.

Thinking in Systems. Donatella Meadows.

 

 

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