This year marks the 15th year that I’ve been coaching athletes through the “portal” of Tri-Hard Endurance Sports Coaching. Add 5-6 years prior to that, and I’m looking up at about 20 years, plus or minus a few, of coaching endurance athletes.
That’s a lot of coaching!
During that time, I’ve done things really well, and I’ve made mistakes. I’ve studied hard, I’ve gone to conferences, and I’ve spent time talking to other coaches and athletes… In short, I’ve learned a ton, and I’m certainly a much smarter coach now than I was 20 years ago.
A few things though, have held steady over that time. And those things relate to the title of this article. Your program will drift, and you need to pay attention to the spirit of what you are doing – MORE than the actual details of what you are doing… Both of which are vital when it comes to “living to tell the tale” of your training.
Let me start with that last one. Training, is about doing just enough work to stimulate specific adaptations. You stimulate your body, it adapts, and you can do that same task at a higher level of performance. That’s the goal! However, too often, athletes push too hard all the time. In doing this, fatigue is coming your way, and you are likely to have injuries as well! You need to have a balance of duration and intensity to adapt best over time. But the inner animal in each of us, wants to go! It wants to rip. It wants it go go go! Its fun, it feels like we are going for our goals and it feels like a heck of a workout. So it feels good. But, quickly we end up with what sprint coaches often call “chronic load syndrome”. In this scenario, we are training at a level that feels hard, but, steadily becomes less so because of the fatigue we generate. That means we are not able to work as hard as we could be… but also that lighter workouts feel harder than they should. In the end, it may not “truly” be overtraining, but we may not be improving… And with that chronic level of load, often comes burn out. If that’s occurring, we are not going to “live to tell the tale” very long. What I mean is this, while constantly drilling it during workouts feels good, it ultimately creates too much or too much of the same stress, resulting in a lack of progress… and often, less motivation and eventually, walking away from sport all together.
That, is not the goal of sport for most adult athletes. We want to have sport be a healthy part of our existence. We want sport to help us be well, be happy, and enjoy our life in a healthy way. It can be, but not if we are letting it become a whip at our backs… So, to keep the positivity in your training and keep you enjoying your training “tale”… focus on trying to find just enough training load, and very patiently progress rather than just getting on the gas and staying pegged at that point.
So, the idea of training enough to inspire your body to adapt and grow is vital. It lets you grow, but also lets you enjoy your training tale. Ok, then what about this “workout spirit” concept in the title? Well, say you had a middle distance steady state workout on tap for a given day. You head out the door, think you feel good, and so you keep ramping up and ramping up and next thing you know your middle distance workout feels like you are racing yourself. Suddenly, that workout is not even close to what it was intended to be. It will take a lot more recovery, it will impact following day’s training, and thus, it will impact your long term wellness and performance. When you or your coach has planned a workout, your goal is to do the type of work that’s listed. Say the workout has 3 X 8’ intervals at “threshold”. If you go out and work harder, or less hard, or do 8 x 1’ intervals at over “threshold”, you know what… that’s not the same. Meaning, it’s not the “spirit” of the workout as originally planned. Meaning, it may be a great workout, but it’s not at all the stress that was originally planned, or which subsequent training was laid out to follow. It’s a new and different stress. Instead of doing more intensity or “self-racing”, if you feel great on a planned steady state moderate intensity day, go longer at the same effort if you have time to do so. If it’s a “threshold” interval day, and you feel awesome, and want to do a little more, do longer intervals or do 1 extra interval. If on that “threshold day” you feel bad after 1 interval, skip the next interval/s. The key point here, is this: If you stay to the spirit of a workout, you are globally applying good stimulus, in the direction you are currently targeting. This strategy fits your long term progression and big picture. It also lets you maintain some autonomy which is vital in long term development and ensures you know how to adjust on the fly if you need to during a race for example.
And that last point leads me to program drift. There was a point in my coaching career where I wondered why everyone constantly changed what they were doing and would flex workouts over the week to different days – despite their best intentions of doing what was listed. Over time, this would be the equivalent to wind drifting a boat off course. Imagine this: you started out on your sail, you maintained speed, but you ended up at a different destination because you didn’t adjust for a strong cross wind!
The thing I’ve realized though, is that, well… Program drift is the programing version of “spirit of the workout”. We, as athletes, need that flexibility. If you feel smoked, or if you have a big presentation at work that kills a training day… Do you try to push through, or adjust? You should adjust to compensate for that changing stress load. Hey, it would be way easier for me if everyone just did what was planed the “first” time. But coaching is athlete centered – it’s about doing what is BEST for a given person at that moment. So, while program drift may slide the possible end point to a slightly different performance, it will allow the best experience along the way, and help generate the most consistent, long term approach to training. What’s all that do? Something amazing! It helps generate adaptations over a long period of time, and allows an athlete to enjoy building those adaptations patiently. Long term, consistent training is the single biggest key to reaching your best performances, and accepting drift helps this process along.
Now, that’s not saying you just throw training at the wall and see what shakes out. That would lead you towards that chronic load syndrome I noted earlier or even over training. But, do not stress if you have to adjust. Start with the mindset of hitting your target workouts, and if you have to adjust, adjust and take those changes into account as things go forward.
Here’s an example. A woman I coach that’s been doing great building to her first IM this summer, literally just emailed me asking about doing some “extra” cycling because her workout this morning (intervals) was 30’ shy of the targeted 90’ for the day. She had done a great workout, so my mentality was to just let go those extra 30’, and instead, go to bed 30’ earlier. In her case, everything has been going great, she’s done a great ride and worked a big day. Why cram in 30’ of cycling when she could have a little more time with her family and could sleep a bit more? Yes, this drift’s the program slightly for this week, but long term, she will stay hungry, stay excited to train and have great freshness and motivation for tomorrow and the next few days training. So there was drift, but it will serve her well long term.
I encourage you to consider how sensible drift, staying with the spirit of your workouts and building your workout “tale” can help you consistently adapt to training, and most important, can help you love having sport be a positive part of your life!