Sunday, February 14, 2010

Specificity of Training

I consider specificity the most important principle of training. And I tie specificity in with periodization to create training plans for the athletes I coach. So what is it? Basically, the specificity principle says that if you want to become good at something you need to do that thing. Sounds pretty simple, huh?

According to the specificity principle to ultimately become good at bicycle racing you should ride a bike – not run. That seems fairly obvious, but it’s remarkable how many cyclists, when short of time, will resort to a run workout. That may be ok early in the Base period. But in the Build period (3-11 weeks before the A race) there is very limited value.

So how about this one… If your goal is to run a 7-minute pace you need to do a lot of 7-minute-paced running. Not 8 minutes and not 6 minutes. There is this thing called “economy” which relates to the principle of specificity. If you spend a lot of time running 6- or 8-minute pace you will not be as economical at 7 minutes as you could have otherwise been. Economy has to do with how much energy you use (or waste) at a given pace.

One I deal with a lot has to do with triathletes and bike races… Many multisport athletes believe that bike road racing is good training for triathlon. It’s not. Bike races are, indeed, aerobic events, as are triathlons. But that’s where the similarity ends. The outcomes of bike races are determined by two-minute episodes when all hell breaks loose. They are anything but steady state aerobic. Bike racing has a huge anaerobic component which is critical to success. No one in their right mind races a triathlon that way. Triathlons are steady and anaerobic intensity is avoided. A bike race done by a triathlete is largely a wasted workout day. It’s even worse than that because the recovery after one of these delays when the next, truly specific triathlon workout can be done.

(A brief aside… I know many triathletes may be upset about what I just said. I’m sure I will get comments about pros who do this and how successful they are. But I think they’d be better if they stayed focused on triathlon. Some will comment on the “fun” factor of doing bike races. I have no problem with that. I used to do that myself and coach athletes who also participate in both sports. Everyone needs to decide what it is they want from sport. In other words, what is “fun” for you? You can be a generalist who is pretty good at a lot of different things, or you can be a specialist who is very good at one thing. I have no qualms about either. Either can be "fun." The purpose of this post, however, is to describe how to be very good at one sport. Now back to specificity.)

Here’s an even less obvious example… If training for a criterium you need to spend a lot of time in the drops or hooks of your handlebars – not on the brake hoods or tops. Why? Because crit racing demands you be in that position almost all of the race and pedaling economy is different when in the drops versus being on the hoods. Slightly different muscles are used.

You’re probably getting the idea now, but here’s a final one, similar to the above, that is often overlooked by road cyclists… If you want to race well in time trials you need to train on a TT bike. Again, different muscles are used in an extreme aero position than when on a road bike, even in the drops. In the Build period I have riders do muscular endurance intervals on their TT bike weekly.

This specificity principle is applied to periodization by ensuring that your weekly key workouts become increasingly like your next A race the closer in time you get to that race. So let’s examine “key” workouts.

A key workout is one that I have called a “breakthrough” workout in my Training Bible books. It’s a workout intended to push the limits of your fitness. I’ve recently started defining them with a “Training Stress Score” (TSS). I determine very early in the season what the approximate TSS of the A race will be. Then I design workouts based on that stress. I’ve mentioned this concept before here. But I continue to refine it and will post something here in the near future when time allows.

Essentially, a key workout is a hard session. Serious athletes typically do two to four of these in a week during the Build period. If you want to race faster, determining the details of these workouts, when to do them relative to each other, and the rate at which they become increasingly like the A race is what serious training is all about. Missing a key workout is bad but you can recover from it fairly easily. Missing a bunch of them is disastrous to performance.

The bottom line is that these key workouts must be specific to the demands of the A race for which you are training. Specificity isn’t so critical for the non-key workouts in your week. But some is still required. How much is difficult to say. But I’d recommend that a cyclist do them on a bike. That’s probably beneficial, but hard to measure.

It’s a little trickier for triathletes. They probably need to do each of the three sports at least three times a week. That means three key workouts and six “others” every week. Very competitive triathletes do far more than that. In fact, some would probably progress better if they cut back on some of the “filler” workouts.

You can make some exceptions to the specificity principle when it comes to recovery workouts. Triathletes are probably better off recovering on a bike or in the pool rather than by doing an easy run. If you’re going to develop an overuse injury it’s most likely in running. Saving the legs for the key runs is generally a good idea. I still want the triathletes I coach to run at least three times a week. So one of those “other” runs may be to improve skills or as a short run after a key bike ride to prepare the body for the “unusual” stress of running after riding.

At this point I should also get into recovery days in greater detail. That’s a post for another day, however.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stress-Based Training

I've been traveling a lot this month including 10 days vacationing in the Caribbean. I'm now in Norway with some time to kill after speaking to a large group of athletes on Saturday. So I've been thinking a lot. The following is something which grew out of having a lot of uninterrupted thinking time.

Training for racing is all about adapting to stress. Pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities in a race is highly stressful. This stress comes in the form of some combination of intensity, duration and perhaps frequency. For example, the duration of a 20km cycling time trial is relatively brief, but the intensity is quite high. A 5km running race has a similar distribution of intensity and duration. Heart rate and perceived exertion are near their upper-end limits in both types of racing. In an Ironman triathlon, however, the duration is quite high while the intensity is quite low. That's another kind of stress. A cyclist competing in a stage race has a third variable with which to be concerned – frequency. This could take the form of two stages in a day or stages on consecutive days. The combination of intensity, duration and frequency is what makes events such as the Tour de France so challenging.

We can measure and quantify stress if we know duration and intensity (we’ll mostly ignore frequency for now). It’s easy for duration. Just use a stopwatch to determine how many minutes you exercised. Frequency is also simple. Count the number of races or workouts completed in a given number of days.

Intensity is more challenging. Endurance athletes are not very good when it comes to expressing how intense a race or workout was. The most basic way, the one athletes have been using for as long as there has been competition, is perceived exertion. “That was a hard race,” always means the same thing - intensity was high relative to the duration. In a similar way athletes typically use terms such as “easy” or “moderate” to describe intensity when compared with duration. But since this is al somewhat vague, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) have been used to quantify the intensity-duration combination. The most popular systems were developed by Gunnar Borg. Here is his 10-point scale [1]:

RPE Zone - Level of Exertion
5 - HARD

About 30 years ago the heart rate monitor was invented. By the late 1980s heart rate zones were being used to express intensity. For example, in the system I’ve been using for the last 20 years there are seven zones based on a percentage of your lactate threshold heart rate which can be found with a 30-minute time trial [2]:

HR Zone* - % Lactate Threshold
1 - less than 0.81
2 - 0.81-0.89
3 - 0.90-0.93
4 - 0.94-0.99
5 - 1.0-1.02
6 - 1.03-1.05
7 - more than 1.05
For the purpose of this discussion I've changed my normal normal zone titles for the anaerobic zones: 5a zone to "5," 5b to "6," and 5c to "7." You'll see why shortly.

For cycling, intensity may also be quantified with zones using a power meter in a way which is similar to heart rate zones. In this case the reference point is something called Functional Threshold Power (FTPw) which is very similar to lactate threshold. This also may be found with a 30-minute time trial. Then by using percentages of FTPw power zones are established that are unique to you.

Power Zone - % FTPw
1 - less than 0.56
2 - 0.56-0.75
3 - 0.76-0.90
4 - 0.91-1.05
5 - 1.06-1.20
6 - 1.21-1.50
7 - more than 1.50

Using the idea of FTP, running zones based on pace may also be determined. Only in this case “FTPa” stands for Functional Threshold Pace [4] and found by - you guessed it - a 30-minute time trial.

Pace Zone* - % FTPa
1 - greater than 1.29
2 - 1.29-1.14
3 - 1.15-1.06
4 - 1.05-1.01
5 - 1.00-0.97
6 - 0.98-0.90
7 - less than 0.90

Besides simply expressing intensity of a workout at any given time, these RPE, heart rate, power and pace intensity zones can be used to determine how long and how intense the key “breakthrough” workouts need to be to prepare you for stress of the competition. This is based on what the race will be like in terms of stress. Given some experience in racing you should be able to estimate what the stress of your race will be. For example, if you are doing a 90-minute, steady-state bike race that will be conducted entirely in zone 4 (using whichever system from above you prefer) then the stress of that race could be expressed as a "training stress score" (TSS) of 360 (90 x 4).

Now that you know the stress demand of the race the next step is to determine the key breakthrough workouts to prepare you for the race. In the early to mid-Base periods those workouts would involve low intensities, especially zone 2. So to do a 360 TSS workout in the first half of the Base period you could train for 180 minutes at zone 2 (180 x 2 = 360). This is a grea way to improve aerobic endurance.

By the late Base period you would be training with more zone 3 time so this would require 120 minutes (3 x 120 = 360). But by this stage it is wise to break the workout into intervals since this duration-intensity combination is becoming exceptionaly demanding. So if you did 165 minutes (2:45) including 5 x 20 minutes at zone 3 (300 TSS) with 4 x 5-minute recoveries in zone 1 (20 TSS), a 30-minute warm up with half in zone 1 and half in zone 2 (45 TSS), and a 15-minute cool down (15 TSS) you would again create a 360 TSS workout. Excellent muscular endurance trainng as you normaly should be doing at this time in the season.

In the Build period interval training would again be the way to go. And since we want the workouts to become increasingly like the race these intervals would be done in zone 4. A 367-TSS workout (a little over our 360 but not by much) may then look like this.

30-minute warm-up with half in z1 and half in z2 (45 TSS)
9 x 8-minute work intervals in z4 (288 TSS)
8 x 3-minute recovery intervals in z1 (24 TSS)
10-minute cool down (10 TSS)

You wouldn't want to do a workout like this too often. It's very hard. Probably no more than once every week or two would be best. This would depend on how stressful the workout must be to prepare you for the race and what your fitness is like at the time. Runners would also have to take into consideration the potential of injury from long and intense workout combinations.

This is a lot of work but it may be a way of getting you prepared for the stress of your race. You can do all of this or you can simply use WKO+ software ( with your power meter and/or accelerometer and GPS device. This software automatically determines a Training Stress Score (TSS) for each workout. You can also use this software to estimate the TSS of your races. This is what I do. Much simpler. And very effective.

1. Borg, GAV. Borg’s Rating of Perceived Exertion and Pain Scales. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1998.
2. Friel, J. The Cyclist’s Training Bible. Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 1996.
3. Allen, H. and A. Coggan. Training and Racing With a Power Meter. Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 2006.
4. Friel, J. The Triathlete’s Training Bible. Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 1998

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Estimating TSS

NOTE: Several people raised good questions about the table that originally appeared with this post. Essentially, the issue was at what RPE/heart rate should a score of 100 occur. The points were well made so I've adjusted the chart to what you now see below.

Last week someone asked how I estimate Training Stress Score. My answer was a bit sloppy since the formatting of tables is all messed up in comments fields. This had all started when I posted a blog on how to project fitness and form during a Peak period using WKO+ software. Before getting at the table below to show you how to do this, I should provide a little refresher on Training Stress Score.

Training Stress Score (TSS) is a way of expressing the workload from a training session. It is the product of the workout’s intensity and duration. As either of these increases, TSS also increases. The formula for TSS is (there will be a test on this!)…

TSS = (sec x NP x IF)/(FTP x 3600) x 100

• “sec” is duration of the workout in seconds,
• “NP” is Normalized Power (don’t worry about this for now),
• “IF” is Intensity Factor (a percentage of your FTP; in other words how intense the effort was),
• “FTP” is Functional Threshold Power (your best average power for a one-hour race or test),
• and “3600” is the number of seconds in an hour.

There’s no reason to remember all of this as I’m going to make it much easier for you. But understanding where the numbers come from may prove helpful for some. (The WKO+ software does all of this calculating for you automatically when you download your bike power meter or run GPS/accelerometer device. The TSS data point from the workout is then inserted into the Performance Management Chart you see here.)

If you don’t have a power meter or GPS/accelerometer but would like to use WKO+ to manage your training you can estimate your TSS and input it manually into the software. Many triathletes already do this with their swimming since as of this post there is no downloadable device that can be used to determine swim TSS (I expect to see that change in the next year). And there are also times when the device fails because the battery goes dead or you inadvertently erase the data and so being able to estimate the TSS salvages a data point.

To estimate TSS you must know two things: How long was the workout, and how intense was the workout. How long is easy. You just need a stopwatch. How intense is the hard piece. This is where estimation comes in if you don’t have a power or pace device. To estimate intensity for a workout you need either a subjective Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or average heart rate. Both of these are far from perfect, but they can give you a TSS estimation which is close. And given that you will use the same method each time you should be relatively accurate (or inaccurate as the case may be).

Some examples may help you to understand how to use this table…

Example 1: A 30-minute workout at an average RPE of 6 would be a TSS estimate of 35 (70 x 0.5).

Example 2: A steady 90-minute workout at an average heart rate of high 2 zone would be a TSS estimate of 90 (60 x 1.5).

Example 3: A 15-minute warm-up averaging high heart rate zone 1 (TSS 10) followed by 30 minutes at heart rate zone 5a (TSS 50) and a 15-minute cool down at low heart rate zone 1 (TSS 5) would produce a one-hour workout TSS of 65 (10+50+5).

And one caveat: Since FTP is by definition 100 TSS for one hour, a 100 TSS workout cannot last longer than one hour. A portion of the workout can be one hour with a TSS of 100, but an entire workout that lasts longer than an hour cannot be at the 100 per hour rate.

Once you have an estimated TSS plug this number into your WKO+ software on the Calendar page. To do this right click on the appropriate workout date, select “Create a New Workout”, click “Save”, and then right click the new workout selecting “Override values” from the pop-up menu. Type in the estimated TSS and you’re done. Easy, huh? Actually, it gets quite easy as you become accustomed to it.

I hope this helps, but if not please let me know your questions.

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