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Elite Coaches Interviews

Best Practices in Planning Methodologies

As part of the planning and design of planning functionality in GoldenCheetah I interviewed a number of elite coaches working with athletes in Olympic and Pro-tour cycling teams.

Whilst there are some differences in the overall philosophy to training, how to manipulate training volume, intensity and density or the relative importance and focus of different types of workout in developing skills or capabilities, there was a lot of similarity in the methods they followed.

I thought it would be valuable to capture some of these themes as they may prove useful to other coaches, if only to validate what they are already doing.

1. Understanding the individual

The age of the athlete and their training history, their type (sprinter, rouleur etc.), their genetic disposition such as work capacity and trainability, their weaknesses and desired changes are all commonly measured and monitored by the elite coach.

Special attention is paid to the timing and demands of the athlete’s competitions, the constraints on training and competing in order to set the main planning parameters up front.

For example; an U23 sprinter, a team leader and a domestique on the same team will have very different goals, capacity to train together and training history. Pros can generally hit a workout precisely, amateurs much less so (and they obviously have a lot less time to train too).

2. Competition as preparation

Some races will be selected as preparation rather than for competition. Often they are timed to coincide with 'peak' phases when increasing intensity, they have the additional benefit of enabling the coach to assess the athlete's performance in race conditions. The variation can also be used to motivate athletes and provide a break from the monotony of training.

The classic example for road riders would be the Criterium de Dauphiné ahead of the Tour de France, used as final preparation and to assess status against rivals for the GC in July.

3. Top down and goal focused

It's kind of dumb to say it, but all coaches have a plan, they don’t decide what athletes should do when they get up in the morning. There may be many reasons for this, but the overarching theme is one of progressive overload and recovery to reach peak condition at competition, which is then followed by transition before the next.

This top down approach is generally splitting the season into a number of periodized phases ala Bompa (1983), an approach popularised by Friel (1996) and often mistakenly attributed to him.

All of the coaches interviewed performed planning in two distinct steps; the first was to periodize training into macro, meso and micro cycles, the second was to translate daily load into specific workouts. In some cases coaches introduced an intermediate step where 2 or 3 weekly priorities were set, such as aerobic endurance, strength and force, TT bike etc. These were then used to guide the selection and design of appropriate daily workouts.

When planning periodization each set of phases were aligned with specific goals, typically competitions. Typically each ‘set’ of phases had a transition phase to recover from and reset for the next.

Season plans were not necessarily completed at the first iteration they would perhaps plan in detail only to the first major season goal. The plan was treated as a living document that evolved over the season (see the plan is always wrong below).

When planning workouts all coaches had a very detailed approach borne from years of experience as one would expect. The workouts almost always had a specification that used shorthand terms rather than a narrative, e.g ‘WU-RACE, 2x2 half, full. 20Min AR’. These terms were generally well known within the team or very sport specific.

Intensity was usually graded as a percentage of a maximum when describing periodized phases but when this was translated into workouts the coaches used a subjective approach to setting intensity. Metrics like relative intensity and IF were not used at all.

Notably, all coaches used spreadsheets to manage so-called ‘macro’ and ‘meso’ cycle planning. These were finely tuned and enabled coaches to work rapidly at multiple levels of detail. The workout definitions were typically edited and maintained within another document or spreadsheet.

Interestingly, web tools like TrainingPeaks were updated with workouts manually (duplicated from their working documents). Web tools were used almost exclusively for coach/athlete interaction pre- and post-workout. Web-based planning and analysis tool were not generally well regarded or used at all.

4. Establishing routine

The time period used for micro-cycles was universally a week. Professional athletes still like to think in terms of a week’s work, which may have some time off, some reward and achievement.

One of the first steps in making a plan more specific was to start planning training distribution in terms of off and on weeks, classically as a 3 on, 1 off rotation, but this may get adjusted to align with competition or account for peaks and tapers.

Within a week the coach typically set a distribution of work by day. This distribution was varied between phases, but there was usually a common structure to establish training patterns with the athlete. Even pro athletes like a routine, within which progression, overload and recovery can be overlaid.
For example, during a build phase they might see that ‘Tuesday is strength and force day’, ‘Friday is the long ride’ and ‘Wednesday is easy’. Each workout of a particular type (e.g. strength and force) would have a similar structure each week, but the duration and intensity of each step might be adjusted for progressive overload or recovery weeks.

The overall routine may ‘flip’ or ‘spike’ at different stages to avoid boredom, monotony and crucially homoeostasis. They may also change to accommodate specific blocks such as team training camps or be introduced as a sharp ‘shock’ as part of a peak phase.

5. Specificity is not about being prescriptive

I should qualify this by adding that workouts are not always prescriptive with respect to power output. Often the power output measured during a specific step in a workout is the result – it informs the coach of progression. This is training with power, not training to power.

This is embedding testing into training seamlessly. Progression is measured without having to perform formal testing procedures. But this is only possible if the workout step is not prescriptive about target power – that is the output not the input.

Giving athletes a degree of freedom can be liberating for them, specific wattages may be easy or hard depending on how the athlete feels on a given day. A coach may undercook or overcook an athlete by being overly prescriptive.

Whilst some workout steps will still target a particular power zone, those that don’t might target a particular RPE, cadence or heartrate by distance or duration. You might see ‘All out for the last 2 km of the climb’. This is testing, simulation of race conditions and good training all in one.

6. Power is only a third of the story

Without exception professional coaches all use a combination of perceived exertion, internal load and external load to track training status of the athlete. Heartrate response to exercise giving a clear indication of fatigue, RPE giving rounded feedback from the athlete (which is generally well calibrated in pro athletes) and of course power for external load.

Use of structured questionnaires was a common way of getting daily feedback from athletes e.g. Hooper-Mackinnon, and typically, these were tracked and correlated with performance and related data in bespoke tools and analytical applications.

In one case using a sub-maximal test was used on a regular basis to track trends in HR response, RPE and power to spot deviations from trend that might indicate acute fatigue. Interest in using HRV as a marker for fatigue is also increasing, but was not common practice. Almost all coaches used formal methods to measure and track changes; vo2max, lactate, sprint endurance, body composition (DEXA).

7. The plan is always wrong

Planning is not something that is done at the beginning of a season, published with the athlete and then methodically executed until it is done. Professional coaches are continually evaluating outcomes; if progression is not being made, or other issues arise, the plan is adapted.

If an athlete is not executing to plan then a discussion is needed to see where the problem lies. Perhaps motivation is lacking, or residual fatigue due to insufficient recovery or ‘rest of life’ issues is to blame. This feedback process is at the heart of the coach-athlete relationship.

All coaches monitor progression using tests, these may well be embedded in the training (as above) but will also, for some athletes, involve regular formalised testing. Where there is fierce competition for places (e.g. track pursuit team) this testing can be brutal; not just physically for the athlete executing them, but for the importance of the result (they might be dropped from the team).

Typically, the plan is adjusted by tweaking volume and intensity rather than re-planning cycles and phases. The one exception to this is when an athlete is injured or sick – this typically results in a re-planning exercise that includes re-evaluating and changing season goals.

8. Where tools can add value

In general, coaches have developed their own approaches to planning, high-level planning is almost always performed in Excel - coaches can set goals and phases very rapidly - if a tool is going to be useful it must be able to do this as quickly as Excel.

Workout planning is usually done with a regular structure that the coach has formulated over a number of years and will contain narrative alongside targets. Not all coaches have developed structured programmes and workout libraries in tools, but they all have a very clear and finely tuned approach that enables them to work very quickly.

Generate a standard plan There may be some value in using tools to automatically generate plans once some starting parameters have been established. Since most coaches tend to have an their own approach this generation activity should use templates. With perhaps some standard templates for self-coached athletes who won't have anything to start from. By systemising mechanical activities a tool will free the coach to focus on detail and individualising the plan to the athlete.

Quickly make adjustments By offering the ability to adjust phase durations or volume and intensity a tool should also be able to automatically adjust downstream and upstream. For example, after adjusting the plan by removing a workout or adjusting its duration a tool could automatically update the phase duration to match. Or in reverse, when increasing the volume for a phase, the underlying weekly and daily durations and workouts could all be adjusted to reflect the change.

Predictions and warnings By plotting a predicted PMC or Banister curve the planning tool will allow the coach to adjust the plan getting feedback predicting performance peaks, warn when there is a risk of overtraining or detraining and perhaps also when there is a risk of plateau due to lack of training variability. Or perhaps warn when peaks do not coincide with A races (e.g. focusing training to peak at the wrong times of the year, a very common self-coached error).

Track compliance Comparing planned with actual workouts to identify compliance will enable the coach to quantify and monitor potential issues, possibly with new metrics. Issues such as poor motivation or acute fatigue or even illness could be identified early. 

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