These days it seems like every athlete has advice on how to train most effectively. Their ideas and philosophies are often a result of the athlete’s own experiences with training and racing; quite often these have some merit, however when it comes to training principles, it’s definitely true that we “don’t know what we don’t know.”
I often get asked to review athletes’ training programs. While it can be difficult to make a judgment without knowing what both the athlete and their coach are trying to achieve, I do quite often see sessions and programs that are so complex that I think people have forgotten the basic principles of exercise physiology. I thought I would take this opportunity to remind everyone to always consider the basic principles of training first and foremost when putting together your next training block.
Training Principle 1: Overload
For any adaptation to take place, the human body is required to exert itself beyond the normal stress levels of training. Put simply, you need to ‘suffer’ in training in order to progress. This doesn’t mean every single session you need to be putting yourself in the ‘pain cave’ but you will need to check in regularly to ensure you are pushing yourself enough for the body to reset its current fitness levels.
Training Principle 2: Progression
I like to think of progression as a very close relation of overload. Overload refers to the stress of a single session, progression relates to the short, medium and long-term development of an athlete. In a well-periodized program, the athlete should be challenged regularly to attain new levels of fitness to ensure better performance is given. The higher the caliber of the athlete the more difficult this becomes to elicit.
Training Principle 3: Recovery
The adaptation to overload occurs during rest periods. When you are pushing your limits you are in the process of breaking down your body. During the recovery phase, the body experiences a ‘super-compensation’ which results in the body adjusting to new levels of fitness. Remember you cannot expect to feel recovered for every session—and if you waited for full recovery between every session you would get very little done. It is OK and normal to train tired and fatigued. Then when proper and planned phases of recovery are prescribed you can expect to feel amazing!
Training Principle 4: Specificity
This put simply means that you’ll get better at what you do. If you want to improve your swimming, then swim more. If you want to improve your riding, then ride more. If you want to improve your running, then run more. There are many other modalities of exercise that will have some transfer regarding their benefit to you, but nothing beats training specifically for the disciplines you are trying to improve.
Training Principle 5: Reversibility
This one is easy… Use it or lose it. Failure to regularly adhere to your training program will result in you going backward. So that massive training block you did 6 months ago won’t mean much now if you haven’t done anything since!
Training Principle 6: Individual Response to Training Stimulus
This is probably where I see the biggest mistakes made by coaches and athletes. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all, so when one athlete has a great response to a training program the temptation is there to try and get everyone to follow the same program. Whilst we need to consider and incorporate all the principles above, how we apply these in a practical sense is more art than science. A great coach will identify innate differences and variances within each individual athlete and work to determine what is the best recipe to prepare this person for optimal performance.
Try to keep all this in mind when you are preparing your next training block. A fancy training program doesn’t mean it is effective. Just ask Craig Alexander—he will tell you that his training sessions are often quite boring, but they were good enough to win Kona three times!