Training people when time is short

I’ll admit it here: as a professional coach I sometimes have to make business decisions along with coaching decisions. Ask my wife and she’ll  tell you I’m not nearly enough of businessman but here’s the rub: if I told every person who wanted to work with me exactly what I think they must do, most of my clients probably would not be able to work with me. There’s a simple reason for that.

It takes time…

To train to full potential you first of all need a long time: much longer than most people are comfortable investing in before we have developed a personal relationship. It’s cheaper to buy most subscriptions for a year yet most of us try a month first. It’s understandable.

Secondly, the decision to hire a coach often occurs to runners I work with ‘too late’ for an optimal build-up. My approach is not to turn these people away and ask them to come back later because quite frankly it means a lot of people will never come back. This is again the business man speaking but I need food on the table in order to be able to write and think coherently enough to coach. This decision-making does not have to be bad for you or for me as a coach as long as it’s clear what’s happening.

How short is too short?

I do not accept clients for shorter build-ups than 12 weeks (nothing material can be accomplished with shorter plans). If someone works with me for 6 weeks almost all the results they get (good or bad) is down to historical training – not my plan. So if things go badly, they will blame me in the wrong and if things go well I could take credit for results that are not my doing.

When I work with people ‘short-term’, I try to change things gradually away from current training and I consider the current plan a ‘stepping stone’ towards a longer term commitment where we have ‘time to do everything right’ later. I call this my ‘slow-track’. It does have the advantage of not shifting people out of their regular routine too quickly – something the body hates.

The Path to Full Potential (Arthur Lydiard)

The ‘fast-track’ is ironically the approach that takes longer to implement. I still call it the fast-track because it will get you to your full potential quicker. Focus on short-term success ALWAYS comes at the expense of fulfilling your ABSOLUTE POTENTIAL. I understand that for many of my runners long-term success is not the main goal – the next race is the goal and that may be it. I coach many runners who prepare for one big race and then that’s the end of their main running career. It’s pointless to impose career planning in those cases. It sometimes comes later.

The fast-track requires starting at least 28 weeks out from the main goal race of the season. At that date you already need to be fit enough to take on 10 weeks of heavy volume training (‘heavy’ is relative to you) so if you’re unfit (by your standards), you’d need to start even further back. You can see the problem here from a consumer (or I should say ‘client’) point of view: not many people plan THAT far ahead. The 28 weeks normally consist of:

  • 10 weeks GENERAL practice
  • 6 weeks RELATED practice (transition)
  • 12 weeks SPECIFIC practice consisting of about 6-8 weeks training, 2-4 weeks coordination work and 0-2 weeks Taper

BY FAR the majority of my clients sign up initially for 12 weeks or less – so we cannot run the full gamut of necessary work – we have to compromise initially. Keep this fact in mind here: most biological adaptations only begin to be build in the 6-12 week period after the initial stimulus. So a lot of what is achieved during a 12-week training plan is only ‘harvested’ by week 18 and 24! If your race is in week 12, you’re seeing only the early physiological adaptations especially the neuromuscular ones that happen quicker than processes such as capillarisation, mitochondrial biogenesis and so on.

Clubs and peer groups contribute a lot to the pressure here because we are often in the situation ‘here’s a club race 10 weeks from now – you ready’ and your scenario is that you’re just a few weeks back from an injury. It’s hard to say know especially if you’re a ‘goodist’ (want to please others) – there’s a reason selfishness is a vintage trait for high performers.

Going forward (I am launching my new coaching packagtes this month) I will try to make this clearer to anyone who works with me: the current plan works within certain time constraints (so it’s the ‘slow track’) but next time we work together we should be on the ‘fast-track’ (so be thinking about the right training roughly 28 weeks or more ahead of the next big goal.

 

The dangers of switching and of short plans

The most consistent underperformers are runner who constantly rotate their approach. I try to sniff them out in the early conversations as I know that although I will receive a payment, the relationship ultimately won’t work because the person wants immediate results and has a habit of shifting to another system ‘mid-stream’. The old heuristics nearly always work: don’t change horse in the middle of the fort.

Those who do have been brainwashed by our society to expect the results of a pill no matter what they buy – our culture of instant gratification. Many runners without coaches do the same – trying one approach of training for six weeks then changing to another. This has little value and won’t facilitate any real improvements except for learning about different methodologies (something I have to do a lot).

So when starting with a new coach – be it I or someone else – I advise you to give them quite a long commitment (I’d say that eh?). The only reason you should cut a new cocahing relationship short is if you can feel the chemistry is not there.

Coach and athlete chemistry is essential no matter how knowledgeable the coach is. If there’s no chemistry and rapport the message and the trust won’t develop necessary for working together. And don’t feel guilty about ‘dumping me’ or any other coach: I do the same – if I can feel early on that the chemistry between a client and I is not what it should be, I try to let the relationship naturally fade out. This means doing as good a job as possible for that runner but not making any effort to recruit them again or upsell them (businessman again – you see!) on future plans. In the rare instances where I have come up against a brick wall I do the same – I try to let the client ‘slip away’. Every one of us encounters a puzzle we are not made to solve and it’s important to give up then before too much time is wasted. In one case I had to tell a client that we could never work together again due to a breach of trust – this is crucial to in a coach and athlete relationship as trust is the foundation for any real relationship and your ability to adapt to training is directly affected by your subjective belief in and enjoyment of your training.

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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.

 

 

Training philosophy – ‘running in three steps’

meme3

Training your body for the demands of running seems like an incredibly complicated process if you read many running books cover to cover. I see the process as being very simple.

Step 1: Know what you want to do

A simple clear goal helps you understand what is required in training. Completing a 5 km race in 20 minutes or less fits this description. You need to be able to run 4 min / km pace (12 kph) for 20 minutes without getting hurt. You need to be able to train consistently enough to achieve this based on where you are today.

If you can currently run 30 minutes then you have a longer journey ahead. If you run 20:02, then a few simple tweaks are all that are needed and not much time.

Step 2: Divide it into manageable steps

Some training plans today want to focus your mind on ‘training everything all the time’. I do not believe in this approach because I view running as a skill and when you try to learn everything at once you tend to do a poor job of it all.

Imagine learning to play the guitar: if you focus on learning two chords then you can become very strong and proficient at holding those two chords and striking a pure tune. You can practice the transition between chord A and chord D and back without the distraction of trying to learn other chords. Six weeks of practicing chords A and D will provide a better foundation than six weeks working on 10 chords at the same time.

Running is the same: you find out the first piece you need to and focus on that and you spend most of your time on that until you’ve reached a reasonable level of proficiency. Running 1 mile perfectly without pain could be what is necessary for one runner. For another it may be ‘running for one hour without losing my breath and having no pain in the 72 hours after’. For a seriously injured runner you may have to start at a more rudimentary level: ‘work on your foot until you can balance easily on one foot’. Whichever it is you focus your energy there.

Step 3: Choose the first simple step and DO IT

This step requires the most experience because you need to understand which of your weaknesses holds you back from doing the training required for what you want to achieve.

If you need to run 4:00 min/km for 20 minutes and you cannot currently take a single step without excruciating pain, then the first simple step is not to run. You need to work further back than that. Without experience you must work with a therapist or a running technique coach who can provide the first priority for you.

Should you be so fortunate to have no injury, you can use logic and experience to give you the first answer (or also take the advice of a coach). If 4 min/km pace feels really easy for you over short distances – your 200m time may be much much faster than that – but cannot maintain it, then you probably have an endurance problem and need to increase that first.

If you run very good times on the roads but struggle to get up hills, you may have a technical issue or lack power and strength. You can begin by taking the problem apart and seeing how long you can maintain a fast pace uphill and what seems to happen when you slow down. From that you can begin to deduct the training necessary to fix it. All journeys are easier with a coach (I’d say that, of course) but while running is simple in principle, there is no cookie-cutter recipe you can follow to success. You need to evaluate yourself and where your weakness likely is and then GO FIX IT. Let us say you weigh 110 kilos and are 6 feet tall. You struggle to get up hill. Your first priority is not building power and strength – it’s reducing your weight in a way that doesn’t compromise your health.

Think about these three steps before you begin training again: clarify what you want to do, break the problem into stages of training and then go do the first step.