Friday, December 28, 2007

I have a question

I came across the writings of a well-known Internet coach, and I have a question:

Why should athletes with a deviated nasal septum, such as for example myself, train slower than the ones with a normal nasal septum?

Replies in form of comments to this post. Thank you in advance for your input.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Reverse periodization? Can you please say that again really slow to see if I can understand it?

This past week I saw the term “reverse periodization” thrown around again. And this expression has always puzzled me. Reverse from what? From what some think is periodization? It used to be that ignorance was bliss. Now, it just seems that ignorance is just… an opinion.

For the benefit of all of those that think that the term “reverse periodization” makes sense, I will go through a (very) brief history of periodization. The theory of periodization started in the former Soviet Union in the 60’s. The classical work associated with periodization is Matveev’s “Periodization of Sports Training”. Central to the concept of periodization is that training for any sport should be planned going from using general training methods far from the goal competition, to using more specific training methods as competition approaches. Another important concept associated with periodization is the division of training in temporal blocks: microcycles (1-2 weeks), mesocycles (4-8 weeks) and macrocycles (6-12 months). Each macrocycle is divided into three periods: the preparation period, the competitive period and the transition period. The preparation period is further divided into a general phase and a specific phase.

For mainly political reasons, the classical theory of periodization took some time to reach US shores. Even though the work of the Soviet sports scientists was available throughout Europe in the 70’s, influencing training methods profoundly, that was not the case in the US. Enter Romanian sports scientist Tudor Bompa. Dr. Bompa is sometimes called the “Father of Periodization” in the US, but more accurately he is the translator of periodization. Through his books, he brought periodization to the US, influencing the way American sports scientists and coaches think about and plan training. The downside is that most American sports scientists have a unilateral view of what periodization is, Bompa’s view. One thing that strikes me as odd in the US is the poor background that most coaches have in the classical training planning theories. It is very hard to see further if you don’t know where the giants are.

As you can see by the definition above, periodization is a fairly broad concept that allows for many variations. Throughout the years, many periodization schemes have been devised for different sports. Instead of going through periodization schemes that most readers of the blog are not familiar with (Bondarchuk, Platonov, Navarro, Tschiene, block training, etc), I will use as an example a periodization scheme from a US sports scientist that, not surprisingly, had his formal training in Europe: Dr. Jack Daniels.

Dr. Daniels’ running training 24-week plans are divided in 4 mesocycles of 6 weeks each. The first 3 mesocycles comprise the preparation period and the last mesocycle the competitive period. More specifically, the general preparation period is represented by the first two mesocycles and the specific preparation period is the 3rd mesocycle. Dr. Daniels uses often two-week microcycles, especially during the specific preparation period. As for the training methods employed throughout, they evolve from using general (non-specific) training methods in the first two mesocycles, to using more specific training methods in the last two mesocycles. For example, in the plans geared for 5-10km, the training emphasis in the last two mesocycles (specific/competitive period) is towards functional threshold and VO2Max training, while for marathon training the emphasis is on functional threshold and marathon pace training. So there you have it, Daniels’ plans are a good example of classical periodization:
- Training going from non-specific to specific.
- Organized in cycles (micro-, meso-, macro-)

So where does that leaves us regarding the so-called “reverse periodization”? Joel Filliol wrote here that what is called “reverse periodization” is just proper periodization and planning for long-distance triathlon training. I could not agree more. The fact that are some coaches that are still prescribing VO2Max training to Ironman athletes during the specific period is just plain odd. One possible reason for this oddity is that some coaches think that VO2Max training has some kind of peak-inducing characteristics. Because this kind of training is usually featured in the last phases of training for endurance races that last under one hour, common lore is that when you start to do VO2Max training, your peak must not be far away. God forbid you do VO2Max training the first 4 weeks of your season, because you will be peaking 6-8 weeks into the season. This obviously doesn’t make any sense at all. Another possibility is that some people think that VO2Max training is specific to Ironman racing, which in that case they (and their athletes) have even more serious problems.

Due to the characteristics of Ironman racing, with a long build and few intermediate races, classical periodization concepts like the ones stated above are especially taylored to training for Ironman. Note that I wrote the word concepts. Concepts are not recipes. If you use periodization concepts, you don’t need to “reverse” anything to apply periodization to long-distance triathlon training.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Interesting validation

Andrew Coggan had some interesting validation to the "Yes, I said no rest weeks" post. Here's what he had to say about it (please disregard the largely irrelevant last item):

"Half-life of numerous physiological adaptations to endurance training (e.g., increase in mitochondrial respiratory capacity, reduction in blood lactate, reduction in submaximal heart rate) = 7-10 d

Number of half-lives required to achieve >95% of full adaptation to a given training load = 5

Minimal frequency at which training load must be increased to drive further adaptation = 7-10 d x 5 = 35-50 d = 5-7 wk

Number of years that I've personally been building my training around 6 wk cycles = 30+"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Yes, I said no rest weeks

Some time ago a triathlon coach visiting Las Cruces asked to talk to me about coaching in general. Like I said before, I am always willing to discuss triathlon training, so obviously I said yes. This coach told me he wanted to know more about the “no rest weeks” concept I had referred to on Slowtwitch.

Probably because of the success that Joe Friel’s “Triathlon Training Bible” had when it came out, the concepts associated with traditional periodization schemes are very in-grained in the triathlon community. Therefore, it became that the “right” way of training was to structure mesocycles (training periods roughly corresponding to one month) as 2 or 3 weeks of “build” and one week of “rest”. This week of “rest” as per the “Bible” is a week where you decrease training load considerably, sometimes less than 50% of the biggest “build” week. This culture of the rest week has gotten us to a point that most athletes feel they need the rest week in order to improve. Other athletes (and coaches), use the rest week as some kind of sponge, wishfully cleaning away the ill-effects of a poorly designed training cycle.

The culture of the rest week has you think that unless you rest, you won’t improve. So not incorporating rest weeks can be extremely dangerous, since it might prevent you from improving. However, this way of thinking denotes a poor understanding of the way the human body adapts to endurance training in particular, and to stress in general. Whenever a new stimulus is imposed that causes stress, the body will work in order to adapt to the new level of stress. It seems simple enough to understand. Another thing that is simple to understand is that you don’t need to have a cyclic, extended period of rest in order to adapt to a new stress. Let’s pick three examples from normal life:

- You get a new job that means more hours and more responsibility. The first weeks are hard for you to cope with the increased workload. After 3 weeks, do you walk into your boss’ office, and ask for a week where you only work afternoons in order to adapt to the new job?
- You join the Marines and go through boot camp. Everyday is very hard and you think about quitting. After 2 weeks, do you ask the drill sergeant for a week of leave in order to adapt to boot camp?
- A new baby is born in your house. That means a change of routine and a lot of lost sleep. After three weeks, do you go ask your partner for a week off in order to adapt?

These three situations, and many more that could be mentioned, serve to highlight that humans have a remarkable capacity to adapt to a new stress while that stress is imposed. Obviously recovery is an important part of the adaptation process, but again very simply put, it can be said that recovery occurs at all times that stress is not applied, and that adaptation to stress occurs at all times.

Obviously not having rest weeks impacts the way you should plan your training. As I mentioned in a previous post, the training stimulus should be changed every 6 to 8 weeks, by manipulating either volume or intensity individually, or both at the same time. Not having weeks where training load goes down considerably means that training load will be more even inside a training cycle. This will also mean that you’ll be more consistent with your training from week to week. But more importantly, it means that through this consistency, you will be able to train more over the entire cycle. And we all know that more is MORE.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hear hear!

Coach Joel posted a short follow-up to my swim articles over on his blog, go take a look!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A little something we have forgotten

Efficient locomotion of any body in a viscous fluid is something really simple: in order to go faster you need to reduce drag and/or increase propulsion. However, when it comes to swimming, it would appear that things changed, since all the “swim technique” instruction is geared towards reducing drag, but nothing is said about increasing propulsion.

Almost 40 years ago, the great swim coach Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman was the first to notice the importance of the high-elbow position at the catch for propulsion. This importance should not be underestimated: it is the single technical feature that distinguishes every level of swimmer. Forget about the way swimmers recover their arms, kick, rotate, breathe. Simply put, the way they do the catch is what makes the difference between being fast or being slow. Many times you see a swimmer that apparently does everything right: good kick, great recovery, good streamlined and horizontal position in the water. However, he/she is not fast. Why? Because they don’t have a good catch. Therefore the importance of achieving an effective catch cannot be stressed enough.

The catch that Doc Counsilman was the first to mention can be described by the following analogy: When a person lays on a surfboard and paddles out to find a wave, the arms straddle out from the sides of the board, allowing the vertical forearms and the hands to hold or catch water and propel the board forward. Swimmers should not attempt to apply propulsive force until the arms are in this high-elbow position because (…) they cannot direct water back until the arms and hands are facing forward [1]. Failure to do so results in the most common technical mistake that prevents slower swimmers to become faster swimmers: pulling with a dropped elbow.

So this is great, now that we were reminded of what was forgotten for so many years, we just need to get in the pool and apply it. This is certainly true, but the catch (pun intended) is that mastering the high-elbow pull is one of the most difficult skills to master in swimming. The reason for this is that the movement patterns that we learn in pulling ourselves using our arms are “low” elbow positions. Think for example of doing chin-ups or climbing a rope. So we need to focus os learning a new way of pulling.

Two training methods that I like to use in order to teach good pulling mechanics are paddle-only swimming and band-only swimming. Here’s what Coach Joel Filliol has to say about these two methods [2]:

- Technical Pulling - Although many use pulling as a way to increase intensity and muscular load, paddles can serve a technical purpose as well. The added pressure awareness on the hands that comes from using paddles often helps keep the elbow high and armpit open, thus reducing dropped elbows, a common technical error in freestyle. Improving the catch also enables better use of the trunk muscles, including the lats – and a key to swimming faster is engaging these muscles, rather than just the arms. If a swimmer can feel some fatigue in the lats after a good pull set, then he or she is on the right track.

- Band-only - Swimming with an ankle band is probably not one of the most popular swim drills, but it is one of the most effective. An ankle band can be made of an old bicycle tube tied into a loop, and it will eliminate the kick from your freestyle. Doing so forces a swimmer to find a way to catch more water, otherwise they don't move forward; hence, it is often called a sink-or-swim drill. When first starting out with the ankle band, it can be difficult to maintain a good body position. The legs sink and it takes quite a bit of energy to move up and down the pool. Over time, however, swimmers learn to hold more water with each stroke, and their body position will improve. At first swimmers increase their stroke rate to make up for inefficiencies in their catch, but focus on doing the drill more effectively by pulling more water. “

The Columbia Encyclopedia simply and concisively defines swimming as “self-propulsion through water”. Think about that the next time you’re in the pool.

[1] Ernest W. Maglischo, “Swimming Fastest”. -

[2] Joel Filliol, “3 key workouts for an off-season swim focus” -

Monday, December 3, 2007

Really, what should I do with my swim training?

When it comes to swim training, it seems that there are as many approaches as there are swim coaches. Some will tell you that you need to swim all four strokes, some will tell you that you only need to swim freestyle. Some will tell you to just do drills, other to just swim. Some will tell you not to kick, others that the kick is very important. And then there is front-quadrant swimming… kayak swimming… high elbow… straight arm… relaxed… Enough conflicting advice that will make your head spin.

The first question when it comes to swimming revolves around “technique”. Swimming is “90% technique” some will tell you. When asked about what is good technique, they’ll usually pull up a video from Popov or Thorpe swimming and tell you that is an example of good technique. The main problem with that approach is that most triathletes are a long way from Popov or Thorpe, not to mention a one fundamental detail: triathlon swimming is not done in a pool, but is usually done in open-water.

Therefore, in order to find out clues about what we should seek for triathlon swimming, let’s go take a look at a class of athletes that specialize in a discipline that is closest to triathlon swimming: open water swimming. If you’re used to watching triathlon swimming, the first time you watch pure swimmers swimming open water you’ll notice two things. The first is how bad their form looks. These guys don’t look like Popov or Thorpe. They have what might look like terrible strokes, they sight way more than they need, etc. The second thing you notice is how much faster they swim when compared to triathletes. When you see them rounding a buoy, it might seem they’re going twice the speed than Faris Al-Sultan rounding the boat while leading the swim in Kona. You see them take off at the start and you know that they would drop the front pack at ITU races. So clearly, if the top athletes in the discipline swim like that, why would we want to have triathletes swimming like Thorpe or Popov? Clearly their “bad” form does not prevent them from being fast.

When I started coaching triathletes in the pool, I went through the usual “technique” period. The Total Immersion book was my bible. I had technique-only days. Sessions wouldn’t go over 2400m because I felt after that my swimmers would start to lose form. My swimmers became extremely proficient at kicking on their side, at swimming one-arm, at counting strokes. Because I was doing regular testing, it became increasingly frustrating to see how slow their improvement was. So maybe that wasn’t the solution. Maybe the solution was to swim more. So slowly, from season to season, I’ve increased the mileage. And guess what, they started to improve faster! It turned out that treating swimming as any other aerobic sport and planning training accordingly had better results than focusing on “technique”.

Swimming is a difficult skill to master, especially to those that learn it later in life. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced. A lot. The problem with drills is that each drill is a different skill to learn. So introducing several drills in your routine will have you learning many different skills, not just one. Of course it can be argued that drills have a positive transfer to the actual stroke. But for those that have used drills extensively know that this transfer is a bit of wishful thinking. A drill can be used to show the swimmer a particular flaw in his/her stroke, but the correction comes from giving feedback on the whole motion, not by expecting the drill to transfer the correction to the stroke.

From all the years I’ve been coaching triathletes, I was lucky enough to have athletes progress a lot with their swimming. All of those progressed because of the commitment they put in their swimming by swimming more. Some people will say “Well, they swam faster because they were fitter, not because they have better technique”. That is a bit simplistic. What happened is that they both got fitter and achieved better technique, because in a sport like swimming, you can’t get faster by just improving one of the two. Probably their form stayed the same, or even looked worse as they improved, but as long as triathlon doesn’t have artistic marks, I will continue to focus on getting my athletes faster.

In the next post I’ll talk a little about the single most important factor that determines speed in swimming. It was pointed out by “Doc” Counsilman almost 40 years ago, maybe that’s the reason why it is so forgotten these days.