I was once asked about my philosophy on training program design. My philosophy on training program design is based on the knowledge that I have gained from the scientific literature on human physiology and adaptation to training, and obviously from my 13 years experience working with high performance athletes from a variety of sports. I have also had the privilege to work along side many great experts in training program design both from within Canada and abroad, and this has provided me with great insight into the nuances of high performance training.
To better answer the question, I’m going to delve into the history of sport science and training program design. If you dig back into the early years of the 20th century, when the modern version of the Olympic games was in its infancy, an athlete’s physical preparation was often far from scientific or methodical. The challenges included a brief competitive season with one or two major competitions that often required long and difficult travel overseas, lack of knowledge on the biological adaptation to exercise and training, and inadequate time and funding for the type of physical preparation available to the 21st century athlete.
It wasn’t uncommon for an elite athlete to begin training a matter of months or even weeks prior to the big event. The approach to training can be summarized with the “harder is better” cliché. It was common to see the simplistic, narrow minded but the all too often espoused approach to training that involves simply mimicking the competition exercise and adding some extra minutes or a bit more intensity. This would be like a runner, who runs a 40-minute 10k, spending all his training time at a 3.5 minute/km pace and simply trying to out-run the distance achieved in the previous training session. While this simplistic approach garners a lot of intuitive support from athletes and coaches it rarely produces significant success especially if it is used for any great length of time.
Somewhere during the mid 50’s, European sport scientists, who were being fueled by advancements in human physiology, began to formulate the concept of periodization. This involved the organization of training into cycles that ranged from short-term (e.g. one week) to long-term (e.g. annual). The general tenant of this philosophy was that organizing training into distinct periods with planned variation in the training volume and intensity, and the inclusion of distinct rest and regenerative periods was superior to an athlete randomly training hard according to feel and instinct. The rest, as they say, is history. In the 21st century, it is hard to find a successful sport program that doesn’t use some form of periodization in their training program design. The next generation of sport scientists will continue to exploit the advancements in physiological monitoring and genetics to design even more sophisticated training programs that are truly tailored to the individual, providing an even greater rationale for the periodization of training.
So, here we are as the sport science community with the technology and knowledge to understand an individual athlete’s specific structural and physiological tolerance to training, and not only are many coaches and trainers not applying the general knowledge that exists on the periodization of training program design but they are ignoring all of it and choosing to run their athletes’ bodies and minds through the proverbial brick wall. I won’t bore you with idioms like “seeing the light” but obviously this approach has been tried and has failed miserably. Not only does it more or less eliminate an athlete’s chance of long-term success but it is also an important contributing factor to the physical and mental breakdown associated with chronic over-reaching and under-recovering. Did I just spend an hour writing that? I think I might have had something to get off my chest. In all seriousness, the history I described has relevance to the question because all too often I see trainers, coaches and athletes repeating a lot of the mistakes that coaches and athletes made over 100 years ago.
My personal approach to training program design is systematic and detailed. I’m constantly trying to plan ahead to anticipate the type and amount of fatigue I expect to be present after training, whether that is a result of a single training session or training stress that has accumulated over a longer period of time. In a perfect world, I will use several forms of physiological monitoring, which includes regular measurement of certain biomarkers, heart rate variability analysis, and simple questionnaires, to better gauge an athlete’s adaptive potential. This adaptive potential is affected by the type and amount of training and is characterized by short- and long-term fatigue that ensues from a training impulse, the adaptation and super-compensation of the organism, and the potential reversibility and de-training of the adaptation. Developing a training program on this basis allows me to take a proactive approach to managing an athlete’s training rather than having to react to preventable injuries or illnesses that occur as a result of poor planning.
I am also sequencing training to avoid the interference effect between different training stimuli. An example of this would be the deterioration in anaerobic power that can occur when it is preceded by a large amount of resistance training that causes extensive central and peripheral neuromuscular fatigue. In layman’s terms, this would be like doing 10 sets of 3 heavy squatting and then trying to run hill sprints later that afternoon.
Proper sequencing also involves the designation of hard training days and lighter days. This sounds very simple but you would be amazed at the number of athletes who train too hard on easy days and then not hard enough on the hard days because they are still tired from pushing too much on the light training day. The end result is a training program that is more or less done at the same intensity, and this leads to a blunted response in physical performance. The designation of heavier and lighter training also extends to longer periods of time like a string of training days (i.e. microcycle), weeks (i.e. mesocycles) and in some cases months.
The final part of my strategy is the heavy prescription of regeneration and recovery methods. In the past 10 years, this has probably been the biggest addition to my approach. In my early days, I felt it was sufficient to simply prescribe rest and expect the recovery to take care of itself. As I moved along in my career, I began to see rest and recovery as a participatory process requiring prescription of passive strategies such as massage and hydrotherapy, and active strategies like meditation, yoga, and self-performed soft tissue release techniques. The end result of including this in my training program is an athlete who can truly push his or her physical limits in hard training and recover that much fast in preparation for the next difficult training bout.
So, to summarize, here are a few thoughts.
1. There is much to be learned from the history of sport science and the advancements in technology and knowledge.
2. Simple physiological monitoring can go a long way when you are trying to gauge how you or an athlete is adapting to a training stimulus. Obviously there are more complex monitoring methods but simple methods work too.
3. Training needs to be sequenced properly. This includes having hard days and lighter days that adjust for an athlete’s fatigue and ensuing recovery process. This also entails that athletes push themselves beyond their limits on certain hard days because ultimately progress is made when an athlete systematically pushes his or her physical boundaries.
4. Recovery and regeneration is a participatory process. Recovery and regenerative methods need to be prescribed to the athlete.