Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Coaching Novice Athletes, Part 1

A few days ago I posted Advice for Coaching a Junior Cyclist. Someone asked if I would do something similar for novice athletes. Good idea. This topic could turn out to be a rather long blog so I'm going to break it down into smaller parts with the rest to appear over the next few days.

Both juniors and novices fall into the beginner category, but there are some differences due to the mental and physical maturation process the junior is experiencing that is not an issue for the older novice. If you work with junior athletes you know what I'm talking about, I'm sure. I won't get into those things here.

Back on subject... There are many ways to address this topic. What I will do is go at it from the perspective of the 6 abilities I discuss in my Training Bible books. All of the workouts I schedule for the athletes I coach, regardless of their sport, are based on these same 6 abilities. If you understand them and how they interface with periodization then you can easily understand training.

This series of blogs will discuss the order I introduce the 6 abilities into the training programs of the novices I coach along with the usual timing of each and comments about the ability. The abilities are...

* Speed Skills
* Force
* Aerobic Endurance
* Muscular Endurance
* Power
* Anaerobic Endurance

You can find more details on each, including examples of workouts, in my books, especially in the appendices.

An example of the success of this process for novices can be found with a 30-something athlete I train from from New York City. When we started working together last winter he was new to the sport of triathlon. We began very slowly. For example, he started with walking instead of running. By late summer he finished in the top 10% of his age group at the competitive New York City Triathlon and completed a half Ironman done just for experience while holding back in 5:06. I don't usually recommend a half Ironman for novices, but he made such rapid progress that I sensed it would not be a concern. It wasn't.

By the way, these same abilities and the order in which they are listed are exactly what I do for experienced athletes as they start back into the Prep and Base periods of training. So this isn't just for novices, although for them the entire season may follow this pattern, while an experienced athlete will move through it in about 8 to 12 weeks.

1. Speed Skills. This is where I begin. Until an athlete has mastered the basic skills associated with the sport there is no need to do lots of aerobic endurance training - which is where most endurance athletes want to start. If we did that we'd only be reinforcing bad skills and prolonging the time it takes for the athlete to approach his or her potential.

Speed skills are a subset of economy which is one of the three basic elements of fitness I discussed last week in my post on VO2max and Race Performance. Some day I'll write more about economy here, but for right now let's just summarize it as having something to do with how much energy you use (or waste) during exercise for a myriad of reasons. One of those reasons is speed skill - the ability to make the movements of the sport efficiently when the arms or legs are moving at race cadence.

Improving speed skills initially involves doing slow-cadence drills that overemphasize the mechanics of a movement and gradually, over several weeks if not months, refining the skills and increasing the cadence until the athlete is able to do the movement at race cadence for extended periods of time.

At first skills are best learned by short, frequent drill sessions that avoid fatigue and emphasize mental focus on the movement being learned. Feedback from an experienced athlete or coach and video recordings are very helpful at this stage. This is the same whether we are talking about a swimmer, cyclist or runner. Or any other sport, for that matter. I am far from being a scratch golfer (a challenging, skill-based sport), but I have gone from a 20+ handicap to 8.9 over 10 years by following this strategy (I hope it doesn't deteriorate too much with 17 days of travel this month!).

Here are speed skill workout examples. I have triathletes swim 20- to 30-minute sessions several times a week focused only on technique while swimming 25-yard/meter intervals with very long recoveries as they stand at the wall. While swimming a 25 they are to focus on only one movement pattern. While standing at the wall they can think about anything they want. Something similar is done with runners using 20-second 'sprints' with walk-back recoveries that sometimes include skipping drills. Cyclists do one-legged pedaling on a trainer with a few seconds for each leg and two-legged pedaling for recovery. And, as you can imagine, there are a myriad of other drills for each of these sports.

Speed skill is probably the most neglected ability by all endurance athletes with the possible exception of swimmers. Many athletes at all levels could improve their performances remarkably by devoting more attention to this ability.

Next I'll talk about the force ability. I'm on vacation so it may be a day or two until I find the time. (Don't tell my wife I'm sneaking in some work!)


At November 11, 2009 3:45 PM , Blogger Fabiano - FCA Sports said...

Great post! Thanks...

At November 11, 2009 8:22 PM , Blogger Jim Dicker said...

Very interesting. No comments on skill. No questions about additional drills. But just mention the difference between racing and participating in events and you are inundated with feedback.

I would love to know some additional cycling drills, even handling drills for nervous cyclists.

At November 11, 2009 8:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read the cyclist training bible, the concept of speed skills for cyclists still remains rather obscure (the somewhat controversial "ankling" technique notwithstanding).

Are there some general telltale signs of, or tests for, good/bad pedaling technique? For pedaling economy?

Also, could you perhaps give us a more detailed description of a "form sprint"?

At November 12, 2009 2:58 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

anon--Try pedaling with 1 leg only. You'll quickly see that there is a skill associated with it. Good pedaling technique is difficult to define. But you know it when you see it. There is simply no excess of movement and effort appears quite low.

Form sprints are like any other sprint only you're at only about 90% of max effort and focused on form: butt over nose of saddle, elbows bent with head low, pedaling at high cadence. Do just a few pedal strokes like this.

At November 12, 2009 3:08 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Jim--Here are 4 more pedaling drills focused on improving the horizontal transitions of the stroke, especially at the top...

1. When the recovery foot is at 9 o'clock sense that you are driving it straight forward to 3 o'clock.

2. As the foot approaches the top of the stroke try to touch your toes to the front end toe/box of your shoe. Obviously you won't but that's ok.

3. Pedal while keeping your foot against the top of the shoe only without touching the insole of the shoe.

4. Visualize throwing your knee caps over the handlebars as the pedal aproaches the top.

I expect a nervous cyclist needs more time on the bike in a safe place such as a parking lot to refine their balance, braking and unclipping skills.

At November 12, 2009 9:50 AM , Blogger Jim said...


You devote more time to skills than any other coach. I appreciate it. My skills have improved a lot in the last couple of years, but I still have some questions:

Swim: I can do all the TI drills and what you recommend as swim drill in the training bible, but I cannot balance on my side or back without kicking, is this a problem. If I kick gently, I have great balance, but as soon as I stop I sink? I sense that there is more balance to be had, but my masters swim coach says to move on and just work balance into occasional drill sets. Your thoughts.

Bike: I have a computrainer which gives the % efficiency you are pedaling at, a very useful tool for skills. I set a goal this off season to be able to pedal over 90% efficiency for 30 minutes above a 85 cadence. Is this a useful goal, or would you refine it? Should it be at a higher cadence, lower efficiency? Also, my efficiency is much harder to maintain in the aero position. Do you have a recommended % efficiency in aero versus sitting up? Should they be the same?

Run. Does height affect what should be a good running cadence? I am a 5'4" athlete with a 30" inseam, pretty short. I've heard a lot of guidelines anywhere from 88-92.

I have never been able to run over a 90 cadence in my life, but I worked a lot on skills and have been able to run over a 90 cadence for 90 minutes this month and I am fore and midfoot striking now. Should I work on running at a higher cadence than 90 or just move on to Aerobic Endurance now? Also, when I run down hill I take off and run at a cadence of up to 100 sometimes, is this normal? Should I maintain my cadence up hill? I think cadence should stay the same even at my highest speeds, which it is now, is that correct?

Thanks for your time and any more help you can give.


At November 12, 2009 2:46 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jim--Thanks for your comment. I'll take a stab at your questions...

Swim--I wouldn't sweat it.

Bike--I don't use the CT efficiency metric so can't comment on it.

Run--All of the good runners I have known, regardless of height, had a cadence around 90 or higher. Downhill makes it easier to hit higher cadences. Basically, you should keep your cadence about the same all the time and vary stride length to change speed.


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