Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Great Volume Experiment

In my last post, I mentioned that I would pass along some thoughts on the training approach I followed this summer. I called it the great volume experiment.

I’ve trained for triathlons since 1999.  In 2004, I hired my first coach.  Since then, I’ve worked with a few different coaches, each with a different approach.  An approach, to me, is a way of doing things.  Most of us are working for the same goal: personal bests, progress.  Something I’ve learned as a coach and athlete over the years is that there are many ways (approaches) to achieve that same goal.  None is better than the other.  It’s just a matter of finding the way that works the best with you.  What works the best for you can change, significantly, as you change due to age, experience, fitness, life circumstances.

From all of the different approaches I’ve used over the years, what I’ve taken away is that I tend to thrive with a “less is more” approach.  This approach has been very much misinterpreted in the past few years.  Less is more does not mean training 10 hours a week doing short, high intensity workouts and expecting to go 10 hours at an Ironman.  It means doing the least amount of training required to reach your goals.  When I trained for Ironman, I did better training ~14 hours a week consistently versus training 20+ hours a week.  That training delivered me to my goal (sub 10:30).  For me, at that time, less was more.   

When I decided to take on more training this summer, the goal was to create a new adaptation with a new stimulus.  I wanted to increase my fitness.  Leading up to Eagleman, I trained consistently 9 to 14 hours a week.  There were 1 to 2 weeks of overload where I hit around 19 hours in trips to California.  But overall my chronic training load was fairly low (around 70) for my goals.  CTL is a value pulled off of the Performance Management Chart in TP.  Be warned though: for this chart to be useful you must upload data (HR/pace/power) for every single workout.  Your threshold data must also be entered (and current!).  While I don’t obsess about the chart, I have used it over the years (loosely) to observe trends and make more sense of my training.  

Disclaimer: I think science can boost your understanding of training but it’s still very much an art of looking at the athlete’s history, psychology, life, strengths, weaknesses to understand what’s really going on with them and how they respond to training as living thing – not just based on a bunch of numbers.

When I initially spoke with Adam, one of his recommendations was that we needed to increase my chronic training load.  We accomplished that not only through more training but more frequent training.  There were many days where I was doing 3 workouts a day which presented some interesting challenges.  I work, I care for a 3 year old, I coach outside the home and I have that home to take care of.  I also have a husband who's training for an Ironman.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be doing workouts at all hours of the day, here and there when I could, and sometimes splitting workouts.  There were days where I felt like I was just going in and out of workout windows and from one pair of shorts to another!  It was busy but I knew it would be worth it.

As far as chronic training load: I watched it climb steeply.  This is highly NOT recommended and we knew it would be a risk.  Ideally you want a gradual increase in your CTL.  When you set out to increase it sharply, you end up with a very high acute training load and a lot of training stress.  This was very challenging from a recovery, fatigue and mental standpoint.  As we trudged through the thickest training, Adam actually said to me: I’m sorry I had to do that to you!  Right before taper, my CTL had nearly doubled in less than 8 weeks.  I won’t lie – that process was very painful.  Finally, when taper arrived, I was able to shed the fatigue without losing significant fitness (less than 10% lost).  On race day, I felt fairly fit and fresh.

My biggest week of training peaked around 25 hours with the rest of the weeks falling around 16 to 20 hours.  Most of the workouts were relatively easy.  You can (fairly) safely do more by adding low intensity workouts.  These are the workouts that many athletes mistakenly call “junk miles”.  With endurance sports, many athletes are not limited by fitness.  They are limited by durability.  The easy swims, bikes and runs build that durability.  Yet these are the workouts most athletes will skip when pressed for time.  If you're breaking down late in the run on a half or full Ironman, you shouldn’t be skipping this workouts!   They are also a great way to safely increase your training load or capacity for bigger work in the future.

By the way - the other workouts ... were NOT easy!

Each week I did 3 swims, some with masters, some solo, some in open water.  Adam posted more swims (up to 5 a week) but I just didn’t have the time to get to the pool because of the added running and biking.  I also find that when I increase my swimming, my run really struggles.  It wasn’t a trade off I was willing to make this summer.  Luckily, I came off of a solid base of quality swimming this past winter.  I was able to coast on that base and maintain my swim.

For the bike, I did a lot of riding.  A LOT.  When we first started, I rode my bike for 14 days straight.  Most weeks had over 200 miles of riding.  Let's talk saddle sores (let's NOT).  Because of my schedule and where we live, I did a lot of riding on the trainer.  For a course like Eagleman, that works.  For a course like Vegas, I’m not so sure it worked but it was the best I could do.  I did 2 longer rides a week (3+ hours) with a lot of easy rides mixed around them.  Some big gear work.  We also did a lot of “ALL OUT” intervals on the bike.  These were painful but helped prepare me for the pops in effort on the hills.  As I grew more fatigued, my bike suffered the most.  I wasn’t able to generate the power which mentally frustrated me more than anything else.  But what helped was that much of my riding was written based on how I was feeling.  For example, ride at half IM effort or what you think you can sustain for xx minutes.  I liked the flexibility there and sometimes I even surprised myself!   

There was a lot of running.  Off the bike, long runs, track, tempo, hills.  Routinely I ran 1:45 on Sunday with the purpose of building my strength/durability especially late in the run.  I also did a track session each week.  These were not your typical “3 miles and call it done” track workouts.  Some were with a group, others were solo.  Some came at the end of 6 to 8 miles of a tempo run (these were tough but the feeling from nailing these workouts was powerful).  One of the most challenging (ridiculous?) track workouts I did involved 4 x 200, 4 x 400, 2 x 800, 1x 1600 – REPEAT GOING BACK DOWN.  The fact that I did this in front of the entire high school football team on a 90 degree day made it even better.  My track times actually were faster than I’ve ever seen.  I did a lot of hard running off of the bike, as well.  Most weeks had 5 runs.  Trust be told, I always cut some of the running short from fear of doing too much/injury.  In the end, though, I was consistently running 30 to 40 miles a week and what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s less about what you do with those miles than to simply run those miles consistently.     

The layout of the plan was not unusual – a few weeks up followed by a step back week.  Surprisingly, with all of the fatigue I built, I felt like I shed it pretty fast.  I tend to doubt the most when I am the most fatigued.  But after 2 days of less work, I find clarity again.  Fatigue tended to hurt my self-confidence more than my body.  This entire summer became a lesson of learning to accept that behind fatigue is great fitness.  It will come out when needed and not one day sooner.  This was tough to accept after coming off a plan that had me feeling fresh for every single race.  I wasn’t used to training through races or adjusting paces/power based to perceived exertion because I got so tired.  I kept looking for reassurance that I was ok when I should have spent that energy relaxing and trusting more.

With all of the training, I knew I needed to have everything else buckled down: recovery, nutrition, supplements, sleep. 

Nutrition.  Folks, it doesn’t need to be complicated.  I do not follow any special diet.  I eat – food.  Eating well isn’t a stretch for me – it’s what I do every single day.  In fact, I probably eat too well which is a problem with a lot of athletic women.  We tend to get low on the calories and quality fats as a result.  I add in a decent amount of fat to my diet when my training increases – nuts, coconut, nut butters, oils and avocado.  This is critical for your health.  I eat all meats and when my body craves something (ie., steak) – I listen and eat it.  With the increase in training, I had to slightly increase my daily intake.  Most of the extra calories I needed were taken in before/during/after training.  Outside of training, I made sure to eat plenty of quality nutrition to fuel not just fill.  With the volume and frequency of workouts there was NO room for caloric error.  Not eating enough impacted the next day, or (often) 3 full workouts.  I also drank a beer a few nights a week.  I indulged in desert each week.  A life without dessert and beer is – like a life without coffee.  While I gave up beer and dessert 4 weeks prior the race, I gave up coffee for only 2 weeks so I could feel the full boost of caffeine in race day.

By the way, those 2 weeks without beer, dessert and coffee were very, VERY dark days.

To monitor my recovery, I took my resting heart rate every morning.  These days, heart rate variability is a better measure of stress/recovery but I didn’t have a tool to measured it so I did the good old wake up and take your heart rate. Interestingly, I had very few days where my resting HR was above the baseline.  When it did go above – it wasn’t the training stress that threw it up there.  It was the combination of training stress and personal stress.  In fact, on days of high personal stress – whether from life, work, child, relationships – I recovered the worst.  Critical concept for anyone who wants to take their performance to the next level – you must keep your life very ‘low key’ – even keel, low drama, dare I say boring.  After a few days of a high reading, I would scale my training volume and intensity down.

I also kept notes on sleep quantity and quality.  I never, ever skimp on sleep – EVER.  Even with the busyness known as my life I aim to get in 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.  I don’t cut sleep to cram in workouts.  If anything, I cut workouts to get more sleep.  I also keep track of my quality of sleep by noting the number of wakings (and when they occur).  Any night I didn’t eat enough after a workout, I would wake up around 1 to 2 am.  When training stress was high, I also had to wake up around 4 am to pee.  This is not normal – you should be able to make it through the night without a pee break (unless you drink a lot before bed).  Cortisol rhythms get a little whacked out and you wake up.  When this occurred, I knew I was a bit on the edge so I would back training down a little.  One other thing – I had just a few instances where I had difficulty falling asleep – this generally means you are “overtired” and can happen from either training too hard, training too close to bed, eating too close to bed or (again) whacked cortisol rhythms. 

I popped a lot of pills.  All legal!  Back in March I started a comprehensive list of supplements.  Since then, I can say that I have never been healthier.  I have a 3 year old and I didn’t get sick once after starting this regimen.  This might have been my biggest accomplishment!  From my experience in the world of fertility, I knew there were a lot of supplements women take to improve egg quality.  I thought to myself – if it’s good enough to make better eggs, why wouldn’t they make better health for an athlete?  With some of those supplements and others known to have sports enhancing properties, here’s what I took:

Prenatal vitamin (I think every athletic woman should consider this)
Vitamin D
Optygen HP (I’ve used this for years during race season)
Pine Bark Extract
CoEnzyme Q
L-Cartinine (before bigger workouts)
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
HMB – especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts
Phosphatydleserine – especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts
Melatonin - especially in periods of bigger training or harder workouts

I do not think supplements replace proper nutrition.  But I do think they help to fill any holes resulting from the draining nature of endurance sports on key minerals and vitamins.   

The other part of the puzzle was working on my mind.  I read the book Elite Minds by Stan Beecham.  I’ve read a lot of sport psychology approaches and always tend to go back to Garret Kramer’s Stillpower and now this book, Elite Minds.  I also find that the ASCA newsletter has a lot of nuggets on the mental side of athletics.  Any coach should join ASCA for the newsletter alone! 

After all is said and done – do I feel this approach worked?  Certainly it was effective.  It delivered me to a place I’ve never been before.  I kept missing the podium by 1 minute or 30 seconds and like I said in my last post, I finally bridged that gap.  And this is something worth noting for all athletes.  One of the most difficult things for athletes to understand is that the faster they get or the more time they spend in the sport, the harder they have to work for 1 watt, 1 minute, 1 second.  I had to nearly double my training hours to get that 1 minute.  When you are at the upper level of your age group, everyone is fit.  You have to bust your ass to gain that little edge of fitness or spend the extra money/time to take the best supplements, have the most aerodynamic equipment, reach optimal body composition.  Triathlon is not always a sport of fitness.  It’s weaving together 3 sports efficiently, economy of movement, energy consumption, strategy, mindset.  It’s finding that extra edge.  I found that edge and it helped me.

But would I do it again?  Someone asked if I would continue with the ‘high volume’ approach.  It depends.  Clearly it worked.  But I can’t overlook the fact that I did nearly twice as much training to bridge such a small gap.  All of that training took time – time that right now is probably better invested in myself outside of sports, my family, my home, my business.  Not only that but if I can reach 99 percent of my goals on 50 percent less training – that's not bad math.  My ultimate goal is longevity: I want to do this the best I can for as long as I can.  I really enjoy the lifestyle, the fitness and the adventure.  What it all comes down to is this: there is a big difference between an approach being effective and being sustainable.  Sustainable in terms of keeping up the motivation for training and maintaining the health to allow you to train.  For me, this approach was effective but I’m not sure it’s sustainable for where I’m at in life right now.

What if an athlete can’t train big all of the time – is it worth doing a week here or there?  Yes.  Prior to Eagleman (and even many years before that), I found short doses or blocks of “overload” training can be very effective to boost fitness and confidence.  I think prolonged weeks of it tend to erode self-confidence.   So, it’s a tricky balance. You have to be willing to accept a lot of uncertainty, fatigue and even underperformance as you get deeper into this approach.  You also have to be the master of the little things.  Doing 3 workouts a day is easy.  You just need to make time. Recovering from 3 workouts a day is the challenge – finding the time to also eat, sleep and maintain your body to get up and do it day after day is difficult.  This is why I do not think this approach is sustainable for many athletes.  However, I use high volume with many of my athletes – from those without jobs to those with full-time jobs and families – and it works because they do the little things to make it work.

Effective or sustainable, what really mattered is that I truly enjoyed the work I did this summer.  Don’t get me wrong – it was tough, challenging and at times downright feet aching nasty!  But I woke up every day excited to tackle what was ahead of me. That’s because early on I accepted that I asked for this.  And when you’re going to set a big – no, HUGE – goal, you’ve got to put in the work to get it.  Not some of the time.  Not most of the time.  ALL OF IT.  This is the difference between those that get there and those that fall short.  From what I've seen, athletes have no problem setting big goals.  They have problems doing everything it takes to get there.  Whether everything includes going to bed at 9 pm, believing in yourself, getting a swim lesson, giving up chocolate, training solo, sacrificing, eating lima beans – you must be willing to do all of that, all of the time.  Not just when things are going well or when the weather is 75 and sunny or when you’re having a good day.  ALL OF THE TIME.  And quite frankly – that’s exhausting.  Doing all of that is sometimes harder than just doing the damn workouts!  

But no one ever said high performance would be easy.

Now, I’m officially off of all plans.  I’m off seasoning.  The magic lasted about 5 days at which point my showers were cleaned, my floors were scrubbed, I kept my “training” to under 60 minutes a day and said to myself:  NOW WHAT.  NOW WHAT!?!  Well, that’s the beauty of the off season.  I got back about 20 hours of my week to figure the now what out and if I know what’s good for me (and my body), I’ll take my time answering that!


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