Steering: the optimization process
What is good training?
High Intensity Training - Some coaches prescribe mostly high intensity training sessions suggesting that anything less is garbage. We call this the "Rocky" training approach because in the movies, Rocky busted his gut every day. So if you are not busting your gut then you are not doing it right. Anything less than continued all-out workouts will not get it done. That is what all the movies show. The sports most guilty of this are those with events lasting between 50 seconds and 15 minutes with rowing being the most guilty. We have had more than one conversation with coaches who have seen their high school star rowers go off to a college program and watch the athlete regress under high intensity training.
Low Intensity Training - Then there are coaches who emphasize what we call long slow distance training sessions. That is, most of the training is done at effort levels that are relatively easy for the athlete and little of the training time is spent at high intensity. Very often the athletes object to this training not because it is long and monotonous but because they can go much faster with little apparent strain and believe more intense workouts will train them better. Many wonder how long slow distance can cause the muscles to get stronger. Can you imagine anyone making a movie where the athlete trained mostly long slow distance.
What is the right approach? Which of these two approaches is right? Or is there a happy medium? Or is there another approach altogether. The answer is that there is an approach that combines both high and low intensity workouts that is apparently best but it should be tested with each athlete. High intensity training will be very useful and low intensity training will also be very necessary and occasionally there will be some efforts in between. Good training will always be a combination of several approaches because first, not all the approaches will train everything the right way and two, each training workout/approach will have both negative and positive effects.
It will also depend upon the individual, their current conditioning level and how they adapt. Not everyone is genetically the same so some individuals respond and adapt differently than others to the same workout. It also depends upon the event for which the athlete is training.
Proper training physiologically also requires that the coach understand the effects on aerobic and anaerobic capacity of each workout. Every workout will affect both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. And each change in these systems will affect the performance of the athlete in his or her chosen event. Most coaches only consider the aerobic system but a change in the anaerobic system could make the athlete slower or faster depending on the length of the event. This is a concept many coaches don't understand but if it is not being taken into account the athlete will not be trained optimally.
A Systematic Approach to Training
In his book, "The Science of Winning", Jan Olbrecht takes a different look at training. Olbrecht recognizes that training has many objectives but, a large proportion of training is to change the energy systems of the athlete. Because of this the coach must know three things:
- The current conditioning level of the athlete in terms of energy systems.
- The desired conditioning level for the athlete in order to reach competitive objectives.
- the types of training that will get the athlete from the current conditioning level to the desired levels.
This requires that training must begin with an accurate assessment of each individual's current conditioning profile in terms of these energy systems. Otherwise a sensible plan to change the energy systems to reach a specific objective is at best guess work. The coach must also know how each workout will affect both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and that nearly every workout an athlete does will have both positive and negative effects on each of the athlete's energy systems.
The coach must then set out to see what works best for each athlete because not everyone adapts the same way. Each coach will have an innate understanding of how to train athletes in a specific discipline for a specific event but must still individualize each athlete's training due to different conditioning profiles, length of events and each individual training history in terms of how they respond to specific training approaches.
Olbrecht points out that the best training is probably high intensity but an athlete cannot do too much or else he/she will get some very negative effects. Training is a process of breaking down the muscle fibers and then the body responds by building them back to a higher level. For most, extended high intensity training breaks down too much and the body can not build the muscles back to a higher level before the muscles are broken down again by the next high intensity workout. See the discussion on training in our triathlon/endurance athlete section of this website.
Individual adaptation responses - while some athletes thrive on high intensity workouts, others seem to stagnate or regress. So the answer is to find out what works best for each athlete. Start out with a template on what should work but be prepared to change it based on how the athlete responds or doesn't respond. We tend to favor an approach that is mostly low intensity but includes bouts of high intensity workouts prudently inserted during appropriate parts of the training cycle. Olbrecht has been using this approach on his athletes for over 20 years ago, starting in the early 1990's but finds that some athletes respond differently. Other coaches and athletes have also instinctively been doing using this approach for years. See the review of training by Stephen Seiler and Espen Tønnessen.
But whatever approach a coach takes it will not work with every athlete especially if the athlete believes he or she knows best. See the example in the side bar for a triathlete's swim training.
Importance of the anaerobic system
This mixture of high and low intensity will also vary by sport and the type of event the athlete is preparing for. Athletes in all sports and events will benefit from a strong aerobic system but the anaerobic system is a much more mysterious system in terms of how it affects an event and how to train it. A road cyclist and a track cyclist will train differently as will a middle distance runner and a marathoner. Why? The track cyclist is highly dependent upon a strong anaerobic system while a road cyclist cannot afford to have an anaerobic system that is too strong (see example in the lactate and cycling page that illustrates the effects of anaerobic capacity on the anaerobic threshold.). Both are dependent upon a well developed aerobic system but a highly developed anaerobic system will lower a road cyclist's threshold and not let the cyclist compete with those who have higher thresholds in a road cycling race. So how should a road cyclist, track cyclist, middle distance runner, marathoner, 100 m freestyle swimmer or 1500 m swimmer or any athlete train? Each should have an individual plan based on what is needed in terms of both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems for each event. This is where the "Steering" principle and lactate testing comes in.
Steering to a optimum performance through constant testing
The "Steering Principle" is simple and many coaches do it instinctively but many do not and as a result often make bad training decisions. Measurement is at the heart of this process. The graphic below illustrates this.
The following is a brief discussion of the "Steering" principle we have had with Jan Olbrecht on how he uses this process to guide the training of many top level athletes. Jan did not invent the Steering Principle but has been using it for years with the athletes he advises. (The athletes Jan helps train have won over 50 medals at the Olympics and some of the other athletes he advises are world champions in triathlon, swimming and motocross.) The process is not just for Olympic athletes or those competing at the world championship level but is appropriate for any athlete who wants to optimize his or her performance. We often use the example of the man who wanted to break 3 hours in the marathon as one of his life's objectives. This is certainly a very fit runner but no where close to an elite athlete. And when he finally did, he was one happy marathoner
Training and Lactate tests
Measurement is at the heart of the Steering Principle. One can not do much without some measurement process. Often the measurements are easy to do as one goes about their day and observes the consequences of what they do and what is necessary to complete their daily tasks. More complicated activities require more detailed observation and measurement. Training an athlete for an event several months off is not as easy. Certainly it will be helpful to measure progress but progress of what. Since the conditioning of energy systems are central to an optimal performance, measuring these systems is essential. A short aphorism summing this up is "Feedback is essential for success." And measurement is essential for good feedback.
Since the training has the objective of changing the energy systems, one essential feedback should be on changes to these systems. Lactate is unique in the body in the sense that it can measure each of the two energy systems. Lactate is the output of the anaerobic system and the fuel for the aerobic system. So careful measurement of lactate within appropriate testing procedures will assess both systems.
Training Objectives - Appropriate lactate tests will determine the physical conditioning profile of the athlete from an aerobic and anaerobic perspective. This profile can be used to detect the conditioning weaknesses that prevent the athlete from performing better in competition. This profile can be used to set training priorities.
As a consequence, every minute the athlete spends on training is focused on what is really needed. The athlete avoids unnecessary or counter-productive workouts and minimizes the risk of injuries.
Training individualization - Depending upon the athlete’s unique metabolic profile (development of aerobic and anaerobic systems), certain types of training sets will be more or less effective. In addition, training volume and training intensity also need to fit with this conditioning profile.
As a consequence, training programs will be adjusted to the athlete’s unique metabolic characteristics.
Increase training efficiency - Even after individualization of an athlete’s training, it is sometimes the case that some athletes do not respond in the same way. This meant that Olbrecht and other coaches had to make further adjustments. All this can be summed as the Steering Principle.
The Steering Principle
- first, train – set training objectives and build the appropriate training program. Then document or record training and competitive efforts (volume, intensity, type of exercise, performance times, etc.)
- second, measure - there must be a systematic and continuous evaluation of biological adaptation following training. The coach needs to know both the kinds of adaptations and the kind of training that has taken place. Comparing both will provide insight into the training efficiency.
- third, adjust - by comparing the measurements with the goals that have been set, the coach can find out how efficient the training is. Have the goals been achieved and is the athlete headed for a better competition performance, or have the goals not been achieved or only partially achieved? If the measurements correspond with the goals you have set, the training was very efficient and the athlete should be on track for better performances in competition.
If the goals have not been achieved or only partially achieved, then training methods need to be adjusted.
As a consequence, over time the coach learns the training methods (sets/types of intervals) that work best with each athlete. This is a circular, iterative process: train, measure, adjust, train, measure, adjust, etc. with the goal of learning which training methods are most effective for each athlete and steering the athlete to a peak performance.
Within the Steering Principle, lactate measures are very useful to optimize the athlete’s training program. A single lactate test protocol provides many important indications for appropriate training. However, the ultimate goal of lactate testing requires more tests, appropriately timed. A regular evaluation of actual training (stimulus) and the lactate test results (response) provide the real benefit of lactate testing and allows the coach or athlete over time to determine each athlete’s “best training practices.” This is the real value of lactate testing. See the swimming example in the side bar to the right.