August 19, 2010

Management of Intensity


In a world which preaches HTFU around every corner I am a guy who likes to preach STFD (come on you`re smart, work it out) for most athletes. Just this week I have started working with a new athlete who dismally wrote me an email to say he had to walk some of the flat pieces of his run to keep his heart rate in the right zone. This happens a lot when I start working with new athletes, especially on the run.

They are also very irritated with me for the first few weeks of working together. Why do I have to walk the uphills? Why do I have to go so slow on the uphills on the bike? Why so many short runs?

Management of intensity and workload is something that you accumulate over time. The volume of work I can deal with now compared to even a year ago is different. You have to start small to create consistency. 2 years ago I could manage a few weeks of 12-14 hours a week of training. Now I am able to easily cope with 20+ hours a week if I had the time. Its taken me ages (lots of walking to start, lots of slow hill riding) to get this going but really the effects now are plain to see and for all the funny looks I got in the middle, it was totally worth it.

Athletes have large variability in their tolerance for both workload and relative intensity. Over the years I have had this explained to me as:

Constitution – some athletes have superior constitutions… they can just handle it.

Experience – athletes have been racing fast, or training strong, since they were young kids… they can just handle it.

Mental Strength – the athletes that can’t handle it are mentally weak. They could do it if they would harden up. You need to buckle down, toughen up and just handle it.

Part of the reason why I dislike HTFU is the philosophy points many athletes in COMPLETELY the wrong direction. STFD is more appropriate for the majority of people that I coach, perhaps Steady … … Up (STFU).

All of the above make intuitive sense but may fall apart when we take into account Survivor Bias.

Survivor Bias is when the result is skewed by the fact that many participants died, or quit, or went bankrupt… along the way. The results are skewed because you are only left with survivors to analyze. The victors get to write history.

As a new athlete, you aren’t (yet) a survivor. So basing your approach to what works for the survivors could end up being anywhere from great to disastrous. If it is a disaster then you’ll probably fade out of the sport and we’ll never hear from you again. If it is great then you’ll reaffirm the bias that is already built into the data.

How many of you have used these excuses?

…I’ve always had a high heart rate
…I can handle a high heart rate
…it’s just the way I am
…I barely move when I train at a low heart rate

Something Mark Allen taught us all is that heart rate could be a more accurate measure of stress, than work. Mark’s program is as much about capping stress as it is about building bottom-end endurance. Many athletes are stress-limited in their athletic lives (under recovery being a lot more common than over training).

Something I learned from swimming is that smaller (especially female) athletes can handle a lot more stress than larger (especially male) athletes. We saw it this year in the Cape Epic where the smaller guys do far better on consecutive days, whereas the “bigger” pro’s can smash out the watts for one or two days but tend to fade towards the end of the race faster than the 60kg whippets.

When I cap my athletes (and my own) heart rates around AeT they cannot understand it. They feel cheated, like they are not working hard enough. Which is great in the first hour. When they are HUUUUUUURTING to hold that same heart rate 4 hours into their 5 hour ride, they get a better grasp of where we are headed with the mileage and the intensities.

Many of them get it wrong in that they believe they are paying me make them swim, bike and run. I believe they pay me to optimise recovery and correct intensities. That is why I don’t ask for training logs and I dont babysit my guys and girls. They are responsible for themselves and what I do for them is teach their bodies to recover, session to session, more progressively over time, so that they too can deal better with cumulative body and mind stress over extended periods of time.

So that when everybody else is fading, 8 hours into the day at Ironman, they are just rock solid and just keep ticking along like the little train that could…

One Comment on “Management of Intensity

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