This is the second part of my article about planning your own training. Here, we look at putting it all together in a sensible manner.
This is the second part of my article about planning your own training. If you missed the first part, you can find it here. My comments in that article about the place of non-sport-specific physical components are really important in the context of any specific training programme, especially if you want to be athletic for the long-term.
In that part, we discussed…
- The Importance of Health
- Event Characteristics
- Event Demands
- Components of Fitness
- Principles of Training
- A Quick Intro to Periodisation
In this post, we’re going to look at the nuts and bolts of the actual planning part of planning your own training.
There has been a huge amount written about the importance of setting goals and how to do so. For the sake of completeness, I’m going to run through the SMART goals concept used by many, if not most organisations. If you’re familiar with this, please feel free to skip it (I know I fall asleep in any seminar or coaching course where someone insists on covering this in detail yet again).
Far more important is the discussion of habits that follows the goal-setting piece. This is because, whilst lofty goals are usually far in the future and it’s easy to lose sight of them, habits are something you do all the time, and which will keep you on track if you purposely create them for that purpose when planning your own training.
Your final destination is the sum of all the small actions you take along the way.
The SMART goals concept is very common. If you’ve not looked at it before, here’s a quick overview of the initialism.
The concept describes the features of a well-written goal, which are…
Specific – Describe in a fair amount of detail, what it is you want to achieve. It should be specific enough that you would recognise the end result when you achieve it.
Measurable – Don’t just write “pretty prose”. Instead, include things that you can measure. Put numbers on your goal. How much will you lift? How fast will you run? What will your sum of skinfolds be?
Achievable – Setting a goal to win the Tour De France isn’t achievable in a reasonable timeframe if you’ve never done a bike race of any nature. It’s an insane example, but it tells the story nicely. Better to set an achievable goal, achieve it and then set another. An alternative is set a goal that you believe to be achievable and then set a “stretch” goal – you’ll see the stretch concept in online crowdfunding campaigns.
Recorded – Write down your goal and have it somewhere where you will see it a lot. Recording your goals makes them real, but also adds a level of accountability, even if it’s only to yourself.
Time-Bound – Set a deadline for each of your goals. A goal without a deadline is nothing but a daydream.
A simple example of such a goal for a beginner cyclist might be…
“By the end of July, I will achieve my third category road racing licence by completing 10 circuit races and finishing in the top eight on at least 6 occasions.”
Can you guarantee the achievement of this goal? Unfortunately, not. But what a goal that specific does is that it helps you to gain the knowledge and take the steps needed to achieve it.
Do you know how many points you need to gain a 3rd cat licence? How many races do you have to do as a minimum? What do you need to be able to do to finish in the top 8? What are the physical characteristics that you need to make that possible?
Can you see how a well-written goal can guide the process when planning your own training?
The power of habits is simply incredible. What you achieve in a year’s time is massively affected by the little things you do every day. I wrote an article about habits (systems) here and my Healthy Athlete Course is very much a habit-based approach.
A simple trick to help you assess what habits you need to develop when planning your own training is to ask yourself, “What would someone who <insert goal here> do every single day?” Then set up habits that will allow you to do those things every day. Effortlessly.
If we’re going to build good habits, we need to understand how habits work. There are different models that describe the “habit process”. They’re all pretty similar and what briefly follows is the one I use (it’s broadly the same as what James Clear outlines in his book “Atomic Habits”, and seems to be based on Charles Duhigg’s work in “the Power of Habit”).
Importantly, this process runs unconsciously whenever you do something out of habit, but it can be hijacked to break unhelpful habits and to consciously create those you want to have.
Every habit has a trigger, something that sets the habit in motion.
This can be almost anything, but my favourite example is that of a notification on your smartphone that you have a message waiting.
When your habit is triggered, you feel a craving for something, be that to eat something, drink something or, in my example, to find out who has sent you a message and what they’ve said.
This is incredibly powerful. If you doubt it, just consider how many people are unable to ignore their mobile phone when driving, even at the risk of a £200 fine!
The action is, self-evidently, what you do in response to that craving.
In my example, checking your phone is that action.
The most powerful reward is the chemical one you get from your own brain.
Looking at that smartphone message causes a release of dopamine, a substance that your body produces that makes you feel good, helping to cement the habit.
Hijacking the Habit Process
You can hijack this process for at least 2 purposes, to break bad habits and to build helpful ones.
Breaking a Habit
Once you know that a habit needs a trigger and a craving, you can consciously decide what you’re going to do next time you encounter that trigger.
I had a really strong chocolate and sweet (candy for my US friends) habit early in my Ironman racing career. Whilst I never had a weight problem, I was pretty sure that the sugar wasn’t helping me.
So, I decided that any time I came across chocolate or sweets in a store and felt the urge to buy them, I would repeat firmly and audibly to myself, “CANCEL! Chocolate does not support my goals.”
Did people in the stores think I was crazy? Probably.
Over a very short period, I got to a point where the chocolate and sweets no longer held any appeal for me. That was about 25 years ago and I have never had a chocolate or sweet problem since.
Building a New Habit
Knowing this process allows you to build new, helpful habits too.
Start by looking for potential triggers.
A simple example for me was when I wanted to drink more water. Working in an office with a coffee machine meant that I was drinking a lot of coffee; it was easy to make after all, you just press a button. I used making a coffee as the trigger for drinking a glass of water. To this day, it’s a habit: while the coffee brews, drink a glass of water.
The key to a good trigger is that it’s obvious. It was hard to ignore the “making coffee” trigger, so it worked well.
Initially, you might not have the craving that you’re looking for with the habit, but complete the rest of the process and it will come.
The action is, as before, simply the action you take. Initially, it’s a very conscious thing every time you experience your chosen trigger.
The reward can be anything you choose it to be. In the case of my coffee/water habit, it was as simple as the satisfaction (and probably the resulting dopamine release) of knowing I had followed through on something I had set out to do.
Consciously repeating that desired habit over and over and over again will, in time, mean it becomes part of your internal wiring.
How much time? It depends on who you ask, but there seems to be some consensus around 60 days or so as the time it takes to build a new habit.
Testing is an important part of the training process, but it’s important not to get carried away measuring everything in sight or trying to design tests to measure everything.
“Not everything that matters can be measured. Not everything that can be measured matters.”
– V.F. Ridgway
What this means is that you should not specifically train for the test. Instead, use testing as a marker which tells you you’re on track when you're planning your own training, i.e. you’re improving in one or two areas, indicating that you’re probably improving in most areas.
I know this isn’t the popular way of looking at testing. You have to ask yourself why you’re training? Is it to perform in a test or to perform in competition (or life)?
What Should You Test?
The easiest things to test are physiological aspects like lactate threshold, maximal lactate steady state running speed (MLSS), VO2 Max etc. And I suggest you choose a physiological test that gives a good indication of what you could do in competition.
If you’re a 5k runner, then something like MLSS makes sense because that’s the key determinant of performance. On the other hand, if you’re an Ironman triathlete, your ability to sustain output at your FAT MAX intensity matters more.
For someone wanting to pass the Strongfirst kettlebell snatch test, strength endurance matters more than for a powerlifter who needs to be able to perform single maximum lifts.
Once you’ve decided what your key physiological test will be, consider whether there is anything you can test on the technical, tactical, and mental aspects of your event. These should be guided by your assessment of the event demands.
Periodic Testing, NOT Over-Testing
One thing I see a lot is programmes which include constant testing. In fact, the athlete is so busy preparing for testing, testing and recovering from testing, that they never really get to do a solid training block.
Remember, consistency (of training) is the only hack that always works.
Also, we train to improve fitness, not to prove fitness.
My point? Test occasionally, only after giving yourself enough time for the training to have an effect. Always prioritise training over testing, but don’t fear testing either because testing has a purpose when you’re planning your own training.
That purpose is the ability to make course corrections.
If your testing reveals that you’re not showing the improvements you’d expect, it’s time to revisit your training with some careful thought about what isn’t working and what you might change to address this.
Changes could be as simple as a bit more or less volume, a bit more or less intensity, higher or lower density, or some combination of these.
Or they might be a bit more complex. Perhaps you’ve missed a particular workout that would address what you’re after. Perhaps there is something you should be doing, but don’t like, so you’ve skipped it.
It’s even possible that your test protocol doesn’t test what you want it to test.This can be an area where a one-off consultation with a coach would make a difference. An experienced eye might just pick up on something that’s missing. Planning your own training doesn't have to be a solo process; seek out advice when you need it.
Periodising Your Training
Periodisation is simply the process of putting your training into some sort of logical order, with a view to helping you cover as many of your event demands as you can within the constraints of your time and personal recovery profile.
It’s often spoken of in hallowed tones as if it’s some magical process that guarantees success. It’s really not that at all.
I grew up with a pretty standard version of periodisation. In the early 2000’s, along with a lot of other athletes and coaches, I experimented with something someone called “reverse periodisation”. The term is really a bit of a nonsense because periodisation refers to the process of planning what you’re going to do when.
Just because Leo Matveyev and Tudor Bompa might not recognise how you periodise your training doesn’t make it wrong; it simply makes it different.
Your periodisation reflects your training priorities, and so it should. Remember, you're planning your own training, not writing a test for which the answers are predetermined.
The classic approach tends to focus on low intensity volume early in the process, reducing the volume and increasing the intensity as the plan progresses.
The so-called “reverse” approach focuses on intensity (or speed) early in the plan and adds volume as it progresses.
It’s almost certainly not the best approach if you’re new to endurance sport, but if you’ve been training consistently for a few years, then shorter workouts that focus on developing speed might be a good experiment to run. It has the added bonus that you don’t spend hours out in the rain, logging those base miles.
So, let’s look at the classic periodisation phases and what they include.
Traditional base training consists of a lot of long, low intensity training, the purpose of which is to build aerobic capacity, mitochondrial density, muscular endurance, impact resistance, basic strength and a host of small adaptations that allow more specific training later in the plan.
A focus on technique is important from day one in this phase. Often, the opportunity to relax the intensity somewhat means you can fix some of the glaring technique errors that can be so costly in competition.
Most coaches would plan this phase to last at least 12 weeks, although it can stretch out longer than that if time allows or if you need the time to build any of the basic pre-requisites for your event.
The pre-competition phase addresses more sport-specific physiological aspects of your training. You’d expect to reduce your volume quite a bit, although gradually, and increase your intensity in lockstep with this decrease.
If your pre-competition phase is longer than 3 weeks, it would usually be broken into a number of separate cycles, each followed by a week or so of recovery training.
Lots of athletes hate having this phase broken into pieces, but the increase in intensity has a far greater fatigue effect than you’d think, which means you need that recovery time in order to absorb the training. Keep this in mind when you're planning your own training because you haven't got a coach to hand to put the brakes on your enthusiasm.
The competition phase maintains the intensity component but starts to include far more tactical and psychological aspects, which are as important as physiological training for success.
It’s also in this phase that you’d want to include workouts that mimic competition day in one way or another.
The taper could be considered part of the competition phase but deserves its own mention because it’s so often misunderstood.
A good taper is not just a rest before competition. Instead, it’s a carefully planned intervention that achieves a balance of fitness and freshness for race day.
You need to be aware that you do lose fitness during a taper, it’s just that you gain freshness (get rid of the fatigue you should have if you’re training properly). You’re walking a tightrope between recovering too much and not recovering enough.
Most frustrating for any coach is the fact that every person has a different recovery profile. I know people who recover from even the hardest workout block within a day or so and at least one athlete who needs a three week taper to get ready for race day (he is a track cycling sprinter, so that makes sense when you consider the forces his body deals with in training and racing).
I mentioned including technique in the base training phase. You don’t have to limit this to “just including a bit of technique”, you could have a block of a few weeks in which this is almost your sole focus. Including these when you're planning your own training can require a bit of flexible thinking; don't be scared to do it!
The best example of this is with triathletes, who will often throw in a month or so in which they do almost all their training as swimming because, if most triathletes have a weakness, it’s swimming. This focus allows technique development sessions without the fatigue that can be built up by trying to balance three sports, plus strength training, plus mobility training, plus…
Nutrition matters more than almost anybody wants to admit. It’s a popular belief that athletes can simply eat whatever they like, because they train so hard and so much.
Nothing could be further from the truth, especially if you want to be an athlete for the long-term.
Health matters for both performance and longevity (within sport and life). Along with sleep, optimising your nutrition is the most important thing you can do to for your health.
One of the big advantages of planning your own training is that you're free to use whatever nutrition approach you choose. Many coaches either know nothing about nutrition or simply follow the "party line" as laid out by NGBs for sport, certifying bodies etc.
In the same way that you periodise your training, you can (and perhaps should) periodise your nutrition.
It’s no secret that I favour a low carbohydrate approach to life and sport.
I’ve seen, first-hand, what happens to athletes who rely on huge amounts of carbohydrate and sugar foods during their athletic career, when they retire and start to age. At best, they get a bit fat, at worst, they develop nasty metabolic disease like Type 2 Diabetes.
Having said that, depending on your performance goals, the inclusion of a little extra carbohydrate in your nutrition plan at certain times of the training cycle definitely makes sense.
During your base training phase and around any workouts that are long and steady state in nature, you really don’t need to include carbohydrates at all. Your goal in this phase to become as fast and as strong as possible, burning stored body fat. If you shovel in sugar, you compromise this process. This is unless you’re training very long, which most of us in the amateur athlete categories are not doing.
That fat adaptation process includes ramping up your body’s ability to refill glycogen stores from gluconeogenesis.
During pre-competition and competition phases, you might want to include some carbs if you are at the “pointy end” of the field and you know you will need some supplementary fuel on competition day - it’s a bit involved, but if you calculate that you will need more than 10-12kcal per minute as a fat-adapted athlete, you probably need some supplementary carbs to maintain your intensity later in the day.
[It takes between 2600 and 3100kcal to run a marathon, regardless of how fast you run. This means that if you’re running faster than between 3:30 and 4:20 hours, depending on how efficient a runner you are and the maximum amount of fat you can burn per minute, you will need some calories from carbs, but much of that can come from stored muscle glycogen. The faster you go, the more likely you are to need to consume them.]
Using carbs around higher intensity training sessions in these phases should help you to get used to using both fuel sources. Beware of going overboard with this, though, because you don’t want to compromise your ability to burn more fat at higher intensities.
I put this heading in here for one simple reason only, and it’s to say this…
Don’t do anything on race day that you haven’t explicitly practised in training.
It’s a simple principle and it gets forgotten and ignored more times than it’s remembered.
Same pre-competition meal as your simulation workouts, same amount of salt in your water (or the same electrolyte drink), same carb sources if you’re using them. Everything should be identical.
The idea here is that you train predominantly as a low carb athlete and race as a high carb athlete.
In practice, most people struggle with doing this because they cannot stomach or process the levels of carbs they try to feed themselves on race day.
Instead, experiment with different levels of intake in your simulation workouts and use the levels that work for you.
For some people, this means you eat nothing during competition, for others the levels might be quite high. You do not perform better by following someone else’s ideal plan.
Some Basic Principles to Consider When Planning Weeks and Sessions
As you put the specifics of your plan together, it’s worth keeping these principles in mind. They’ll help you with planning your own training in a way that progresses without breaking you in the process.
The 80/10/10 rule is simply the fact that 80 percent of your training should be easy or steady. Depending on whose power or heart rate zones you use, that’s zone 1 and 2, perhaps zone 3. Or, the way I work, it should be at or below MAF.
Ten percent of your time should be spent training hard. By that, I mean very hard. It should hurt and you should have a definite desire never to do that to yourself again.
The last 10 percent is a case of “let the chips fall where they may”. This is the level most people train at almost all the time. It’s not easy enough to create the adaptations you get from easier training, but not hard enough to create the adaptations that truly hard efforts produce. It’s also a level from which it takes significantly more time to recover.
Planning your own training with this in mind and being disciplined about sticking to it will deliver far better results than many athletes who spend all their time in what should be the 10% "grey zone".
The 5% Rule
Never increase your training volume by more than 5% from week to week. And it should be less than that, if you increase the volume at all, if you’re adding more intensity to a week’s training.
The idea here is to ensure that you give everything - your cardiovascular system, muscular system, tendons, ligaments, nervous system etc. - enough opportunity to recover from your training and get stronger.
Consecutive Hard Days
Beware of consecutive days of hard training, especially if they’re in the same sport and even more so if that sport is running or heavy lifting.
Going hard the day after a hard day is a great way to dig yourself into an injury or over-training hole that can be hard to get out of. This is especially true of you do this week after week.
One exception here seems to be swimming, possibly because the loads experienced in the pool are smaller than, for example, running.
Train to Improve Fitness, not to Prove Fitness
Dan John talks about his concept of “bus bench workout” versus “park bench workouts”.
The former refers to the things you do every day and from which you know you can recover for the next one. These improve fitness.
The latter is what you might call a challenge workout or competition. They’re workouts which carry more risk and from which you might struggle to recover. These are more ego-driven and are more about proving fitness.
Workouts whose aim is to prove what you can do are workouts which are far more likely to break you. And remember, it takes a long time to regain time lost due to an injury or illness.
When in Doubt, Go Easy
Look again at the 80/10/10 rule.
Any time you’re in doubt about whether you should do a hard session or an easy one, choose the easy one.
It takes remarkably few high intensity sessions to get the high-end adaptations. It’s also very easy to tip over the edge with such sessions and to start going backwards.
Should you plan days off or not?
This depends on a few factors:
- Your recovery profile - some people just need a day or two to recover and planning it makes sure they get it. Other people don’t need this and an easy day is enough.
- Social, work and family factors - if you need to spend Saturday with your wife and kids, plan to take it off. That way, you don’t feel guilty for missing training.
I tend not to plan days off. This is a big advantage of planning your own training - nobody telling you to follow rules that don't work for you.
Instead, I allow myself a little bit of flexibility so that if life gets in the way or I am particularly tired, I can take the day off. This usually means that I get the time off I need when I need it, rather than not training on a day when I would have benefitted from that session. This approach does mean you must listen to what your body is telling you.
There is the old trope that you trotted out regularly, usually by coaches trying to find new clients: “Everybody should have a coach.”
I tend to disagree. Instead, I’d say that everybody would benefit from having a coach at certain points in their athletic development, but that understanding your body, your response to exercise and how to put together effective training for yourself is incredibly valuable.
Learn to plan your own training and hire a coach at times when you’ll gain the most from their knowledge and expertise. What’s more, beware of anyone who can’t or won’t teach you why you’re doing what they’ve planned for you. Having spent a little time planning your own training will equip you to ask the right questions and to better understand the answers.