Friday, December 4, 2009

Thoughts on the Base Period

All of the athletes I coach are now in their early Base periods. So I've been talking with them about why this period is so important. Here's the gist of what these conversations have been about.

In many ways Base is the most important training period of the entire season. If it goes well you will be able to train at a higher level in the following periods. If it doesn’t go so well you won’t be able to train to your limits later on in the Build period and you’ll be more likely to break down due to overtraining, illness and injury.

Training in the Base period has been compared with laying the foundation for the construction of a house. Build a solid foundation and the house will be sound and free of cracked walls and sagging corners. Do a very poor job of constructing the foundation and the house is likely to collapse as it is stressed by harsh conditions.

The Base period has also been described as being like an Egyptian pyramid: The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak that can be built on it. I've always liked this analogy.

However you like to think about it, the bottom line is that the Base period is when you construct your season. Everything you do after this period is dependent on what you accomplish now. It’s certainly not an 'off season' in the sense that it is relatively unimportant. This is a time that is critical to your success later on. You need to have defined objectives for the Base period and a training plan for accomplishing them. The higher your goals are for your racing this season, the more important clear objectives and a plan become.

The biggest mistake athletes make in the Base period is by-passing the basic-ability workouts that should be done in order to get to the truly hard sessions of the Build period such as high-intensity intervals, anaerobic hill repeats and 'racing' with training partners. Athletes commonly skip the Base period because the workouts seem too easy. They come to the conclusion that they aren’t working hard (read 'intensely') enough. If that happens and you cut out Base training, your fitness will not be as great later on as it would have been following several weeks of laying down a solid foundation.

There are four 'abilities' I strive to improve in the Base period for the athletes I coach: aerobic endurance, speed skills, muscular force and muscular endurance. The last of these is dependent on the previous development of aerobic endurance and muscular force so is delayed until later in the Base period. These are described in my books.

The bottom line for the serious athlete: Know what it is you must accomplish in the next few weeks, develop a plan and follow it closely.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Coaching Novice Athletes, Part 4

Now we move on to the last three abilities, the more advanced ones. The outcomes of races are determined by these three. They are also the most stressful in training, so for the novice athlete caution must be applied. The risk of injury and burnout increases as these abilities are added to the training mix.

4. Muscular Endurance. This ability is the most important for triathlon and running races. For the cyclist this is critical for time trialing. It has less impact on the outcome of a road race but allows the rider to hang in with a fast moving group. I include it in the training of all novice athletes, but generally delay introducing it until they are well into the Base period when it is apparent that aerobic endurance and force are progressing well. Working on muscular endurance before these more basic abilities are developed is not very effective.

Muscular endurance (ME) workouts involve relatively long intervals with short recoveries, or long, steady state efforts. The intensity is at lactate/anaerobic/functional threshold or slightly below. Using my heart rate zone system, this would be zones 3 through 5a.

For the novice I start with zone 3 steady states in the late Base period. An experienced athlete will typically begin this training in Base 2. A typical workout is swimming, riding or running steadily for 20 minutes in zone 3. For advanced athletes I look to see if there is much decoupling (as explained in Part 3). If aerobic endurance is coming along well the advanced athlete should experience little decoupling and so we can move on very soon to ME intervals. For the novice athlete it may take several weeks to achieve an acceptable level of decoupling before advancing with training.

For advanced athletes ME intervals, which I call 'cruise intervals' (I stole that term from a swim coach), are about 6 to 12 minutes long. But for the novice athlete I will start with about 3-minute durations. The recovery intervals are about one-fourth of the work interval duration. So after a 3-minute work interval the recovery is 75 seconds, and after a 12-minute interval the recovery is 3 minutes (for swimming these recoveries may be shortened by half). The work interval duration increases as the athlete adapts to this new form of stress. The intensity is now zones 4-5a. For the novice I start with about 12 minutes of cruise intervals in a single session once a week (per sport for triathletes so long as the novice is handling the training load well). The advanced athlete will do 20 to 30 minutes of cruise intervals in a single session weekly in the Base period. In the Build period the session volume of these intervals increases to whatever the athlete can manage. Again, this type of training is critical for steady state events such as time trials, triathlon, and running races.

There are many variations on cruise intervals. For example, they may be done on long hills when preparing for a hilly race, or to maintain force along with ME in the Build period. For long-course triathlon, especially half-Ironman distance, I often use 20-minute cruise intervals on the bike totalling 80 to 120 minutes of work interval time (4-6 intervals). I save this type of training for advanced triathletes only.

Once ME training begins in the Base period it continues uninterrupted through the remainder of the season and remains a primary focus of training for the novice athlete.

If time allows I will follow up with the next post on power training followed by anaerobic endurance soon after. Travel back to Scottsdale may delay these last two installments. We'll see what happens.

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