Monday, March 26, 2007

Training, Testing and Junior Athletes

I was recently asked to comment on a proposed testing program for a junior triathlon team. The athletes are age 14 or younger. The testing would include blood draws for lactate analysis done at regular intervals, especially early in the season. Also included would be periodic 40k bike time trials to establish fitness levels during the season.

My response:
Wow, pretty serious stuff. In my opinion, this is well beyond the needs and best interests of 14 year olds. Even with the pros I coach I do blood draws quite infrequently--once or twice a year. Most never do any blood lactate testing. Not only do they not enjoy being pricked but if the analyzer is a portable one being operated by someone who hasn't done hundreds of them then the results are highly questionable. The only times I've done lactate analysis with my pros was when we had access to a YSI Lactate Analyzer, a highly experienced technician (not me), and a sterile environment. Otherwise, you are sticking your neck out, especially with kids. I prefer to use metabolic testing and even then this is done only 2-4 times a year.

I never have my pros do 40k TTs as tests let alone TTs that would take them over an hour (50k?). That's a very long test effort. This is a good way to find out what someone's motivation level is rather than their fitness level. If this is to establish and compare fitness levels, or to find out heart rate or power data there are far better ways to do it--most of which greatly reduce the motivation issue.

I'm a firm believer that athletes this young should be working primarily on skills and fun group workouts rather than doing things they might do some day if Olympic caliber. There is plenty of time for that later as they develop--if they hang with it. For example, I hired a coach for my son when he was 14 and told the coach I only wanted one thing--for Dirk to still be racing when he was 24. Dirk is now 37 and races nearly every weekend in the season. Along the way he raced pro in Europe (cyclist) for 5 years after H.S., won the Colorado state road championship at age 17 and was on the junior national team. He is still considered one of the strongest riders in Colorado and is on the podium frequnetly in pro-1-2 races even though he is now an amateur. His coach at age 14 did a great job. Had he burned Dirk out with frequent testing and an emphasis on attaining peak fitness at an early age I would have been beyond angry.

There is research showing that young athletes are more likely to overdo their training than an older athlete as they tend to think that they should be able to do anything the coach even suggests. They are more likely to be seriously injured, overtrained and burned out. Older athletes are wise enough to know when to call it quits. Young athletes have no basis for comparison. It can be dangerous to try to push them to greater fitness levels.

I'd highly recommend a more conservative approach.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Foot Strike in Running

Notice the left foot on the runners in these pictures. What you’re seeing is the difference between a running style that is guaranteed to keep you slow and one that has the potential for fast running.
Landing on your heels (red shoes) is, essentially, hitting the brakes with every stride. You have to overcome that deceleration by hitting the gas pedal hard at every toe off. And the time it takes to get from heel to toe is just lost time—time spent going no where.
Landing with a flat foot (orange shoes) greatly shortens ground contact time and moves you forward more quickly. This is the way fast runners run. In fact, the research (below) also supports this method and shows that the longer your foot is on the ground, the slower you are running. Makes sense.
To see a video clip of an elite triathlete running with a flat foot strike, go here and then click on “video clip.” Watch for my article in the June issue of Inside Triathlon magazine in which I discuss in greater detail the advantages of flat-foot running.

Ardigo LP, LaFortuna C, Minetti AE, Mognoni P, Saibene F. 1995. Metabolic and mechanical aspects of foot landing type, forefoot and rearfoot strike, in human running. Acta Physiol Scand 155(1): 17-22.

Paavolainen L, Hakkinen K, Hamalainen I, Nummela A, Rusko H. 1999. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol 86(5): 1527-1533.

Paavolainen L, Nummela A, Rusko H, Hakkinen K. 1999. Neuromuscular characteristics and fatigue during 10-km running. Int J Sports Med 20(8): 516-521.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Training Tools

In 1995 I tried using a power meter for the first time--an SRM the company loaned me for the summer while I was writing The Cyclist's Training Bible. It began to change the way I saw the process of training for bike racing and triathlon. Then in 1998 Tune, Inc. which created and sold the Power-Tap power meter gave me a prototype to use. I've been using them ever since and now require that everyone I coach also have a power meter. The heart rate monitor, while a useful tool in itself, is now an even a better tool. The combination of power and heart allows me to prescribe workouts and analyze their results in very precise ways. I don't know how I coached athletes before the power meter came along. I suppose it was all just guesswork although it seemed quite effective at the time.

Now something else has come down the pike that is once again modifying how I view and understand training -- WKO+ software (formerly known as Cycling Peaks). I started using it for myself and the athletes I coach last fall. Designed by Andy Coggan and Hunter Allen, this makes the power and heart rate tools even more effective. It took me a while to figure out, but once again I am beginning to see training in a slightly clearer way. Based on metrics called "Training Stress Score" (TSS) and "Intensity Factor" (IF) which are derived from power meter data, the software produces and updates daily how your training is going. (I won't go into the math of TSS, IF, etc here. Buy Coggan's and Allen's book, Training and Racing With a Power Meter for all the gory details.)

Let me give a small example of how my view of training is being refined and better defined because of WKO+.

Above is a screen shot of an athlete's "Performance Manager Chart" from WKO+. The red line represents fatigue, the blue line fitness and the black line form (race readiness). To paraphrase a basic concept from Andy Coggan, form = fitness - fatigue. This simply means that if you want to be race ready (rising black line) you need to first build fitness (rising blue line) by being very consistent with your training and then reduce fatigue (red) by allowing for rest. You can see this happening in the above chart. Fitness ratchets upward for several weeks as the athlete trains fairly consistently. Several times throughout this four-month snapshot fatigue is shed. You can see this as a drop in the red line. The athlete is resting by reducing training stress through less intensity, less frequency, less duration or some combination of these. As fatigue is reduced, form rises. The athlete is becoming race ready. Very simple to see.

But there are some less obvious nuances. For example, notice in circle "A" that fatigue drops and form rises. The athlete is becoming race ready. But also notice that fitness is dropping at the same time. Whenever training stress is reduced to eliminate fatigue, fitness also begins a slow decline. Basically, the same thing is happening with circle B--fatigue is down, form is up and fitness is dropping slightly. Even though form appears to be about the same level in both circles, notice that fitness drops more in circle A. In fact, the athlete reported not feeling very sharp at the form high point in A, but reported feeling quite strong at circle B's high form point. Obviously, because not as much fitness was lost.

So what does this mean? For years I have been tapering athletes in the Peak period by having them do a race effort workout every 72 hours with two active recovery days between. This has usually worked well. Circle B reflects that training method. Essentially, circle A had too many days of active recovery between the hard workouts. So because of the software now I can now see a representation of what I figured out many years ago and I can actually manage the day the athlete comes into high form. Pretty remarkable.

Stay tuned as I'm told there are even more remarkable features being designed for the software. It's becoming more fun all the time.

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