The ability to plan your own training effectively is a very useful skill for anyone to develop. After all, who knows you better than you do?
This is the first of a two-part series of articles and focuses on some key concepts that you need to know to plan your own training.
In the same way that I believe that everyone should be able to do the basics to look after their body, I believe that you should have the tools to plan your own training, at least at a basic level.
We live in the culture of the expert, even for things that are fairly easy to do. In many areas of life, we’ve lost the self-reliance that our grandparents had, a simple trust in our own instincts, observations and common sense.
As a coach myself, I know that there are a lot of benefits to hiring someone who knows how to do this stuff at an even deeper level. There are time savings to be made and a coach can help to shortcut the learning process. They can help you to avoid the mistakes that almost everyone makes in any sporting discipline when they start out.
I’d strongly recommend hiring a coach if you have a big goal, like a triathlon or bike race or a powerlifting meet.
That said, there is an enormous amount that you can do for yourself, much of which could be better than what a coach could provide for you.
That’s the goal of this article.
Many people simply train without any plan. Perhaps, their goal is entertainment, not progress.
”The only measure of a good programme is progress.”
- Paul McIlroy
Whenever we approach any physical goal, the tendency is often to treat that goal as if it’s everything and nothing else matters.
My own story isn’t that different to many of you, in that I started triathlon as a way to get healthy, a way to maintain the motivation to do some daily physical activity despite the mental fatigue from a demanding job.
Unfortunately, I quickly became ensnared in the “performance at almost any cost” culture that pervades so much recreational competitive sport. I ate a high carb diet that was meant to promote performance, used sports nutrition products that were little more than sugar in fancy packaging, took a range of supplements recommended for athletes, trained when I was sick or injured and bought almost all the goodies and gadgets that were meant to make me faster.
What I forgot - or perhaps only learned later - was that, in the trade-off between health and performance, health must come first. If I was going to be athletic into my 70’s, I needed to ditch that performance mindset and build robust health.
I was lucky not to end up with T2DM or any of the other conditions that athletes doing extreme training and events often find themselves dealing with after years of abuse. I’ve found ways to help my body recover from the structural damage I did. And I fight the performance mindset in my workouts every day.
Health now comes first for me and for every client I work with.
Remarkably, with this focus, performance follows and that athletic ability endures far longer, with far less effort than it does if performance is the sole focus.
That said, let’s look at how to begin to plan your own training.
Define the Event Characteristics
Event characteristics can be simply defined using the question, “What does the event look like?”
This includes things that are obvious, like how long the event lasts or the type of equipment used (a mountainbike race and a cycling road race require very different bikes).
It should also include a lot of obscure items that might affect the event - likely weather, differences in the type of course at specific events. These can make a big difference to success in a particular event.
If you’re not training for an event, but rather for life, ask yourself what your life looks like. What are the basic challenges you’ll face? What unusual events are likely to arise occasionally? Of course, you can’t train for every eventuality, but an examination of the environment in which you live should give you clues to help you plan your own training.
Grab a piece of paper and do a brain dump of absolutely every event characteristic you can imagine. If you do it well, you’ll have a long list.
Define the Event Demands
Event demands rely on the characteristics you identified above. The best way to define this is as those things you need to be able to do in order to be successful in your event. Put more bluntly: “What do you need to be able to do to win?”
Knowing the demands of your event should be what guides you when you plan your own training. In fact, a good coach will do just this when creating a plan for you. It’s more demanding time-wise, but it’s the difference between any old plan and a plan that’s effective for you.
Grab the list of event characteristics you made, another piece of blank paper and write down the items you could address in order to be successful.
Don’t just consider the physical demands, but the technique, tactical and mental demands too.
Sometimes, your list will reveal several things, each of which will give you a small advantage. Remember British Cycling’s “Aggregation of Marginal Gains” concept? That’s based on precisely this analysis of event characteristics and demands.
Components of Fitness
It’s generally accepted that there are ten components of fitness, but I’ve added an extra two of my own, which could be wrapped up in the ten, but I believe them to be important enough to warrant separate consideration when you plan your own training.
None of these components stand alone, they’ll all intertwined, like trees and vines in a rain forest. They’re inextricable from each other but considering them individually will allow you to keep each aspect in mind when you look at how to plan your own training.
Why do you need to know what these are?
Simply because an understanding that there are more elements to your sporting success is very useful. There just might be something here you’ve never considered.
Cardiovascular or Respiratory Endurance
The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store and use energy.
If your event obviously demands aerobic endurance, like a marathon does, then it will seem obvious to you that you need CV/respiratory endurance. It’s not quite so obvious to those whose sports are short and explosive.
However, every sport (and life itself) has a requirement for this quality. Your ability to recovery quickly from intense efforts has a large cardiovascular endurance component. The development of numerous mitochondria allows you to process oxygen more efficiently so that you can “repay any oxygen debt” faster and the upregulation of other processes that rely on effective respiration, help with the effective elimination of waste products that hinder recovery or perhaps even reduce their production in the first place.
Effective cardiovascular endurance improves your ability to use alternative fuels like lactate at a higher level and, in combination with the right diet, even improves your ability to burn fat beyond the widely accepted limit of 1g/minute.
Development of cardiovascular endurance is often thought of as a very low intensity activity. However, it includes any intensity of exercise in which oxygen is used, which is any effort over a handful of seconds.
The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store and use energy and to continue to do so under stress.
Stamina is very much a performance component. Without the ability to continue contracting muscles hard and fast, you quickly drop off the pace in any competitive situation.
It includes both respiratory and muscular contraction components, both of which need to be addressed. Your body needs to be able to deliver the necessary ingredients to the right place at speed, but it also needs the processes that convert those ingredients to energy to be working efficiently. Having done that, your muscles need to be able to use that energy to contract and relax with the force and at the speed you require for as long as needed, something which is highly dependent on your nervous system.
The ability of a muscle or group of muscles to apply force.
Strength is important for all athletes and, in fact, all people regardless of their activity levels.
Just because your sport doesn’t require high contractile force (e.g. cycling, where the forces are really quite small), doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be strong. This is for at least 3 reasons…
- The stronger you are, the more “headroom” you have when your sport requires any level of strength.
- Good all-round strength makes you more resilient in your daily life, meaning you’re less likely to get injured in some freak manner. Most people get injured in or due to their daily life, not their sport.
- Strength has been shown to be a factor in both longevity and quality of life in older age.
I’m of the firm belief that where your sport doesn’t require high levels of specific strength, the purpose of strength training is to proof you against injury. When you consider how to plan your own training, a good all-round, non-sport-specific strength programme is a must have item.
Flexibility (I prefer “Mobility”)
The ability to maximise the range of movement around a joint under control.
The reason I prefer the term “mobility” is that flexibility has long been used to refer simply to the length of your muscles, the ability to passively touch your toes, for example.
The issue with this flexibility approach is that it requires no actual control of the positions that you can achieve. The instant you require nervous system control, that flexibility disappears as your brain seeks to protect you from injury.
Instead, an approach that emphasises the development of control at the extremes means you will retain that range of movement when your body is under stress.
Any training that is performed in a restricted range of movement for a lot of repetitions - endurance sport is a great example of this - is extremely deleterious for mobility, as is any sport that restricts the planes in which movements are performed.
Every athlete should include daily mobility work in their programme. Much like strength training, this might be more important for preventing injury from freak events in everyday life than it is within the sport itself.
The ability of a muscle or group of muscles to apply maximum force in minimum time.
This is clearly necessary if your sport involves one short, maximum effort, like powerlifting, but is just as necessary at the start of a cycling event to get off the line fast or for a quick acceleration, in which the speed of the first pedal stroke makes far more difference than many people think.
It’s also worth training even when you think it’s not a sport-specific necessity because life includes the odd moment when you need a fast, maximum force movement without getting hurt. There’s a bit of a pattern emerging here.
The ability to minimise the cycle time of a repeated movement.
No, I’m not talking about driving on a motorway. In almost any competitive event where you compete directly with someone else, be it a rugby game or a running race, the ability to inject speed, even for a short time, is the difference between winners and runners up.
I’m often told by athletes that they can’t pedal faster than the 70RPM they typically attain or can’t run at 185 steps per minute. They claim not to be genetically able to do so. The reality is that muscle contraction speed in repeated movements is limited by your nervous system. You have to train yourself to pedal faster or run at a higher stride rate, it’s not innate.
The ability to combine several movement patterns into a single movement or movement sequence.
This is another of those components that would seem unnecessary for many athletes until, for example, you watch someone who doesn’t run very well. They just “look wrong”, they don’t have that fluidity you expect to see in a runner.
In reality, something as simple as running involves a high degree of coordination, combining elements of hingeing, squatting, rotation, anti-rotation etc, all in one fluid movement.
If you’re one of those folks who finds that your running feels wrong, you might well need to address your coordination.
Developing coordination can require a lot of input in the beginning because we’re often not as aware of where our bodies are in space (proprioception) as we should be.
This is an area where a good coach is worth their weight in gold. Just ask anyone who came to swimming as an adult!
The ability to move quickly from one movement pattern to another.
Team sports, which require the ability to change direction and respond to team-mates and opposition require high levels of agility.
The 2003 World Cup winning England Rugby team credited at least some of their success to a speed, agility and quickness programme that delivered forwards with the agility of three-quarters and backs, whilst retaining their strength.
Again, not all that necessary during your event if you’re an endurance athlete or powerlifter, but vital if you’re a soccer (football in the UK) player or a jiu-jitsu competitor. And vital in life generally.
The ability to maintain the position of the body’s centre of gravity in relation to its base of support.
Balance matters in every sport.
If you’re well-balanced, you won’t be spending energy fighting gravity when that energy could be used to drive you forward or to damage an opponent.
This is one reason why I’m keen on strength exercises performed on one leg. No, they don’t build huge muscle mass, but they do teach you to maintain good balance whilst applying force. After all, most sports are played on one leg, because most sports involve running.
Balance becomes even more important as we age because falling over can be disastrous for older folks, especially if they struggle to get back up from the floor.
The ability to control movement direction or intensity within desired limits.
Accuracy of movement saves energy for any athlete and makes you more evasive if you’re playing a sport that requires evasion. As for ball control, that’s another level of accuracy altogether.
Intuitive accuracy of intensity is something which most recreational athletes no longer have because of an over-reliance on technology to tell them what intensity they’re at. This becomes obvious when, as is almost inevitable, someone’s technology fails in the middle of their key race!
Instead of using these gadgets to control intensity, I recommend using them to learn what the right intensity feels like.
I once had the great fortune to work with an Olympic marathoner. She had the simplest possible heart rate monitor which she seldom used and could run a 6, 7 or 8-minute mile as instructed, on feel alone.
Reflexes or Reaction Time
Ability to minimise reaction time.
This is one of my additions. Simply speaking, the ability to react quickly, instinctively and accurately to an unexpected event is a huge advantage in sport and in life.
This could be that instinctive throwing out of a hand to catch a cricket ball struck just metres from you or the ability to make tactical decisions on the fly in a bike race (like whether to go with that attack or not).
These are both things that you don’t have time to ponder; you either do them or you don’t. It’s often what separates the best from the rest.
Ability of connective tissue to supply elastic rebound.
Elasticity isn’t really something you develop, but it’s something you absolutely have to work to maintain. It’s a quality that declines with age and any programme should emphasise keeping it.
The ability to run fast and efficiently has very little to do with strength or the ability to use energy faster (in fact it takes roughly the same amount of energy to run the same distance at any speed), it relies on elastic rebound supplied by muscles and connective tissue.
Bottom line: Look after your connective tissue, it really matters.
Principles of Training
When you think about how to plan your own training, you need to consider more than just the event characteristics, event demands and the components of fitness. You need to consider a number of principles of training that will have their own effect on how successful you will be.
Again, none of these principles stands in isolation. Instead, each relates to all the others and they have to be used in combination for the best results when you plan your own training.
The way your body and mind adapt by increasing their ability to deal with the stresses imposed upon them.
The human body is amazing at adapting to stress, as long as that stress doesn’t overwhelm our ability to recover.
Importantly, the stresses of your training should mirror the stresses of the event you’re training for, but they do not have to be equal to those stresses. Simply put: your marathon training does not have to include a marathon in order to be effective.
Every one of us responds to training in a slightly different way.
No two people are the same. If they were, the world would be a boring place, or so the saying goes.
It’s no different when it comes to training. Far too many people simply try to copy the training plan of one of their friends or, worse, one of their elite athlete heroes. “Surely, if they got those results using that plan, so will I.” Or so their thinking goes.
Only, that’s a mistake. Unless your physiological characteristics, recovery profile, time availability and life stresses, to mention just a few factors, are the same as theirs, that plan will not work for you.
“Know thyself” is great advice when you set out to plan your own training.
Long Term Planning
Long-term planning allows us to address different parts of our training at appropriate points in the training process, instead of trying to jam everything into our training all at once.
This is a double-edged sword. Too much long-term detail can be as bad as too little. Assuming you’ll hit certain benchmarks and planning out a year based on those assumptions delivers a plan that can be almost useless by the time you get to the second month.
On the other hand, some sense of where you’re going and what you plan to work on at each point will help you to get further along the road to your goal. It will also give you psychological reasons to keep up the work in a tough training block because you know that something different and, perhaps, more exciting is coming down the road.
If your fitness is going to improve, you have to apply a training load that exceeds what you would normally experience. As your capacity gets greater, you have to apply higher levels of stress or your progress will stall.
Manipulating the holy trinity of strength and conditioning - volume, intensity and density - is important because you don’t get better unless the load you impose on yourself exceeds, at least slightly, what you are already capable of doing.
There are mathematical formulae and models, which claim to be able to tell you what you should do today based on the last few weeks. Sadly, few of them actually work for more than a handful of people.
That manipulation can be a real juggling act because twice the intensity for half the volume is not the same half the intensity for four times the volume, even though mathematically, they are the same number. Intensity does things to you that volume doesn’t and vice versa. Throw in density and you have a real conundrum to deal with.
Because you’re working with a complex biological system, this can be very much an art and a case of feeling your way, rather than a mathematical certainty.
No matter what anyone tells you, this is the same whether you plan your own training or outsource the process to a coach.
Progression relates to overload in that load should be incrementally increased as work capacity increases.
A myth about Milo of Croton tells us that he carried an ox calf on his shoulders every day. As the ox grew bigger, Milo got stronger, until he could carry the full-grown ox through the stadium at Olympia.
This is the principle of progression (and overload and adaptation and specificity…) in action. Just a little more load every day added up to a huge difference between day one and that day in the stadium at Olympia.
This is the process of the body repairing itself both between sessions and over a longer period. Some body systems repair themselves quickly, others take far longer.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of how repair times vary is the difference between muscles and connective tissue.
- Muscles are remodelled in the space of a few days.
- Connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) take ~260 days to remodel.
Allowing sufficient recovery is crucial to making gains without getting injured. Always keep in mind that a week off training can cost you as much as four weeks to get back to where you were when the injury struck.
Discretion is the better part of valour, or so they say.
”Today’s workout only matters in the context of the overall plan.”
- Will Newton
Training adaptations can and will be lost if you don’t maintain your training.
We all know that if you don’t use it, you lose it. The principle is allied to the recovery principle above. Whilst too little recovery can drive you down the road to injury and illness, too much will lead to a detraining effect that will have you starting every workout at the same place you were at when you started the last workout.
Getting to know your personal recovery profile is important as you plan your own training because this knowledge will help you to hit your next important workout in that optimum window for making gains.
What you train for is what you’ll be good at.
You don’t get good at running marathons by doing kettlebell swings. And yes, that was a real question I got asked a few years ago by someone who didn’t fancy running but had committed to running a marathon.
If you’re going to perform your best in competition, you need training that matches the type of exercise, intensity, duration (within reason), profile, weather conditions, time of day you’ll be competing and a host of other factors.
For this reason, your “Event Characteristics” and “Event Demands” exercises above are very important.
Even within one event type, there are specifics you need to address. An Ironman race with a rough sea swim and a hilly bike course in the heat is a different beast to an Ironman race with a placid lake swim and pan-flat bike course in the rain.
Always doing the same thing can lead to mental and physical staleness and even overuse injury. Varying the aspects of your training which you focus on can help to prevent this.
There is an element of boredom tolerance that sets elite athletes apart from recreational athletes. One legendary Ironman World Champion is said to have had a very limited set of swim sessions that she repeated over and over.
Most of us can’t deal with that level of repetitiveness. Planning some variation in session content, focus points etc makes it far more likely that you’ll succeed.
Physically, doing the same thing repeatedly is a recipe for overuse injuries. Even varying the pace at which you run can stave these off because different paces require that you run slightly differently.
The Concept of Periodisation - Putting it All Together
Periodisation is a much-debated topic, with many coaches having their favourite way of putting training together, claiming that their way is the best or even the only way to get a result.
Truthfully, there is no such thing as a best periodisation template, only the best way to do things for you, the individual athlete. You must find what fits your life, your time availability and your recovery profile.
I know this isn’t what most recreational athletes want to hear, but it’s the plain unvarnished truth; you are an individual and need training that works for you.
Periodisation is simply the process of implementing the long-term planning principle as you plan your own training.
Each of the event demands that you identified will need to be addressed, but there are usually so many of them that it’s impossible to address them all at once. Instead, you decide which are most important and create blocks of training that address each of these as a focus. You then add items from your list that are less important to each block, so that you cover them all during your training.
Generally speaking, those items that are most important to event success should appear later in your training so that you address the specificity principle, but exactly how you do it is actually up to you and what will work best within your life and physical constraints.
There are a lot of definitions contained in this article, but they’re important to keep in mind throughout as you plan your own training.
Many of these are made out to be massively complicated. In fact, books have been written, just about the components of fitness and the principles of training. Really, it’s all pretty simple stuff.
If you take nothing else away from this article, take these three things…
- Event Characteristics - What does the event look like in detail?
- Event Demands - What do I have to be able to do to be successful?
- Periodisation - How do I fit all of this into a long-term plan that works around my life?
Do those, and your plan will be far better than those of many athletes with oodles of talent and high-profile coaches.