This is the first in a series of Advntur blog posts by San Diego-based rowing coach Patrick Kington. Kington has eight years of experience coaching athletes from the junior to senior-elite level, most recently returning from Aiguebelette, France where he trained Paralympic rower Blake Haxton to compete in the 2015 World Rowing Championships. Kington will be alongside Haxton at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Each post in this series will cover a different element of the science and philosophy behind high-performance training, starting with the importance of utilizing data to inform your training regimen.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest one to fool.” – Richard Feynman
What Does “Data-Based Training” Mean?
Put simply, data-based training is an approach to training that is heavily informed by the collection of objective measurements and requires an incredibly wide range of testing methods and equipment.
At its most basic, this type of training can be reduced to periodically conducting time trials to gauge whether a plan is producing the desired results. At the other end of the spectrum, it can involve methods such as blood and VO2 testing.
For recreational or developmental athletes, time trials and heart rate (HR) monitoring are likely sufficient, whereas more elite athletes can be submitted to weekly blood testing and may wear devices that allow trainers to remotely track HR and sleep status 24/7.
Why Should I Make the Effort To Collect this Data?
Humans are extraordinarily bad at self-assessment. We have unreliable memories and an extraordinary capacity for finding charitable explanations for our failures while taking any and all credit for our successes. The only way to counter this is to collect and record objectively measurable data as a way of tracking our progress and our training plan’s effectiveness.
In addition to our many self-deluding cognitive biases, there is the simple fact of individual variation. Individuals often respond differently to the exact same training stimuli. An extreme illustration of this is the difference in fitness gained from the same training session as a 19-year-old athlete vs a 60-year-old athlete. Not only will there be differences in the way individuals respond to training, different individuals will have varying strengths and weaknesses.
Some athletes may have a well-developed aerobic base but low maximum power output. Others may have a good aerobic base and high maximum power output but need to work on their power output at lactate threshold. Prescribing the same training to these two athletes will lead to sub-optimal results.
Even the best coaches and athletes can be stubborn to the point of counter-productivity. Past success based on one strategy can convince them the same strategy will work in every situation for every athlete. Giving in to our hubris and stubbornly sticking to preconceived notions about training will result in lackluster results and has the potential to be actively harmful and lead to injury.
As Mark Twain once wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Once you recognize different situations and athletes require different training strategies, it becomes obvious why you must consistently use performance data to assess the effectiveness of a training program.
How Do I Start Monitoring My Training?
As stated above, the simplest and most effective strategy for monitoring the efficacy of training is periodic time trials. These should be conducted under as uniform conditions as possible. No meaningful data can be gleaned from comparing data pulled after a week of grueling workouts and data pulled after a week of rest. Testing must be performed under the same circumstances.
The next method I recommend is heart rate monitoring. The main use of heart rate monitoring in training is to determine training intensity zones and monitor overtraining. There are countless charts and articles online that show different training zones expressed in HR ranges. One of the simplest and, in my opinion, most effective ways to use heart rate for more effective training is the 180 Formula developed by Phil Maffetone. This method has successfully developed aerobic fitness in everyone from recreational to elite athletes. It also aligns with my sentiment for training intensity distribution, though that’s a topic deserving of its own post.
If heart rate training is effective, most athletes will be able to produce higher power and speed at the same heart rate. At a given speed, the athlete’s heart rate should gradually lower over time. If this doesn’t happen, this may be a sign that the training is ineffective and a new strategy should be considered.
Athletes should also periodically take heart rate readings at rest. If an elevated resting heart rate is observed over a few days, this can be a sign of overreaching, which can lead to decreased performance if not addressed. Athletes should know and monitor their bodies in order to monitor for signs of overtraining, which will lead to decreased performance and/or injury. For this reason, monitoring heart rate is one of the most effective and easiest methods of early detection.
Drawbacks of Heart Rate Training
Now that I’ve sung praises for heart rate training, I should mention it still leaves something to be desired. Many factors can cause a change in heart rate, which can yield an inaccurate picture of what’s happening in the body. Things like temperature, hydration, and training status will lead to fluctuations. For this reason, coaches and athletes should be careful when relying on heart rate as a guide. One or two training sessions with anomalous heart rate numbers can likely be ignored, and the focus should be on the pattern that emerges over time.
Beyond Heart Rate: What Else Can I Do To Monitor My Training?
The next step up from heart rate monitoring is lactate testing. Lactate testing involves placing a drop of blood on a testing strip, much like an insulin test. The advantage of lactate testing is that it gives us a more accurate picture of what is actually happening metabolically. It allows athletes and coaches to objectively determine training zones with less of the noise that can affect heart rate. While a lactate tester and testing strips are certainly more expensive than a heart rate monitor, these are useful training tools for anyone trying to get the most out of their training.
With this information at our disposal, we can begin to develop a training philosophy based on objectively measurable data. Not only is this the surest way to monitor training effectiveness, it is also a great way to hold yourself accountable as an athlete and/or coach. Without collecting this data, it’s far too easy to explain away negative effects and stubbornly stick to a plan that’s failing to produce results.
I was recently at the world rowing championships and listened to a group of coaches try to reason that a change in the rigging (think of this like the gearing on a bike, but for a rowing shell) would have an effect on boat speed. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “You have a GPS. Make the change, and test the effect.” Measure. Your. Results.
While reason and intuition are great starting points, even the best coaches can be wrong. The only way we can ever be sure we are making the right choices is to strap the GPS to the boat or take the stopwatch to the track or pool or wherever, and check. Then check again. And again. Pivot if it isn’t working. Keep it up if it is. Race Day is the test. Don’t go into it blind.