It’s Not About How Hard You Train But How Well You Rest
Question: I’m following a programme from my coach. It contains prescribed workouts for each day, based on an upcoming goal event – but I’ve simply been left to my own devices with it. Is this the right approach, or should I be concerned? – Clyde, Rondebosch
Doctor Jeroen Swart: A training programme is just the starting point of coaching. It’s obviously important that the programme follows a sound training philosophy – a periodised structure (changes in training volume and intensity over successive cycles of training), and scientifically validated principles.
But the more important aspect of coaching involves adequate monitoring of the athlete’s response to training – and where indicated, appropriate intervention.
All athletes respond differently to training loads. This depends on various factors, including stress, seasonal variation, and sleep. Blindly following a static programme has less chance of success than a programme based on response to training – as validated by Science to Sport coach Ben Capostagno, who is completing his PhD in this field.
Without monitoring, it‘s impossible to tell whether you’re at the optimal training load, or if you’re under- or overtraining, which may prevent training adaptation. Monitoring is done by measuring the stresses imposed on an athlete (external load) and the athlete’s response to training (internal load). The most widely used external load monitoring method in cycling is the Performance Management Chart (PMC). The PMC (see ‘The PMC Explained’ below) uses different inputs – such as power, heart rate or perceived exertion – to quantify training load. The first is an external load, the last two are internal.
Measurement of internal and external load should happen concurrently, allowing the coach to establish where those two measurements deviate. An example of this is when an athlete flies across numerous time zones. An external load-measuring unit (e.g. a power meter) will not measure the effects of jet lag on the athlete. However, the athlete’s internal responses will change (e.g. different heart rate, or perceived exertion). Illness, psychological stress and other factors can also affect these measurements.
There are a number of software applications that create a PMC from training data. These include TrainingPeaks WKO+ and Golden Cheetah.
If using these tools seems excessive, there is a simpler way. The human brain is adept at telling us when we are doing too much – we just need to learn to listen to it.
So, regarding your plan: if you’re training hard, and you’re feeling tired, and your coach isn’t monitoring you… perhaps you need to take a little more time to recover.
The PMC Explained
The classic PMC is based on the Banister model of training load and fatigue, introduced in 1976. Professor EW Banister hypothesized that fitness takes a long time to develop (42 days), while fatigue takes a short time (seven days). Monitoring the training load over 42 days gives us a true index of how fit an athlete is, while the training load over seven days gives us a true index of how fatigued an athlete is. The difference between a fitness test and a fatigue test gives us a value known as the training stress balance (TSB). When fitness is low and fatigue is high, the TSB will be negative. When fitness is high and fatigue is low, the TSB will be positive. With this, a coach can advise whether or not an athlete should rest (negative TSB), or whether they can continue the programme.