There’s a perfect plan, then there’s a person who needs to do it…

Writing training plans and coaching are 2 separate things. Writing a plan is putting together a series of workouts, to best achieve a goal and coaching is working with people to enable them to do the plan, to the best of their abilities. In simple terms, you write plans and you coach people. If you look at coaching practice in different sports, the focus can vary widely. In club environments, especially when working with children, it’s very much a ‘coaching focus’ and more often than not, it’s face to face and prioritises skill development. In triathlon coaching, there is however a tendency (especially with the growth of online coaching) to become ‘training plan focused’ which means in many cases, it becomes more about the plan, than the actual person.

The training plan can in many cases become an art form. The coach can spend many hours working on a masterpiece and add detail in intricate levels, to produce a fine piece of work. No stone is left unturned, intensity is measured using power and heart rate, the workload and interval times are calculated perfectly and the nutritional requirements and specific biomechanical factors are all accounted for. In terms of scientific approach, physiological stress and sports specificity, the sessions are finely tuned, some would say perfect. Behold… the masterpiece is born.

The issue is, whilst the session may be perfect, it’s important to remember that there’s a person who actually has to do it. Training plans focus heavily on physiology and biomechanics, but rarely take psychosocial factors into account. The plan only works if the athlete does it, so perhaps we shouldn’t start with ‘what’s the perfect plan’ but rather start with ‘what does the athlete actually enjoy and want to do?’

Process orientated people always do better…

We know that process orientated people are more consistent with their training plan and generally have greater longevity in the sport compared to ‘outcome orientated’ people. If you enjoy swimming, cycling and running and that’s your prime reason for taking part, then you’re always more likely to get out of the door on a regular basis. Heading out onto the trails or the road because you enjoy being out in the fresh air and enjoy the scenery makes you a process orientated person. Yes, you may take part in races and yes, you may always want to be competitive, but primarily you simply enjoy the activities.

By comparison, an ‘outcome orientated person’ may not enjoy the activities so much, but they are a necessity to complete their goal. It may be that you’ve entered an Ironman and know that you have to do more swimming to make the cut off. You may hate swimming and you have a pact with yourself that after the event, you’ll never swim again, but for now, it’s a necessary evil.

We can very easily switch from process to outcome without even realising..

You may consider yourself to be a process orientated person, but you’ll be surprised how easily a ‘training plan’ can ruin that for you. Now that you’ve entered your Ironman, enjoying swim, cycle and run are no longer enough for success. You now need a structured training plan with greater quality and specificity. You also need to hit a certain speed, power output or heart rate for a specific time and if you don’t… then you’ve failed. There is a real danger that when we add structure in order to improve our performances, we can lose focus of why we started taking part in the first place. The plan can work against us, it hangs over your head adding stress and your training peaks notifications reminds you that you’ve missed yet another session… you’re such a disappointment.

No you can’t go for a swim and enjoy it, because you’ve got 16 ‘stroke errors’ which need correcting. Rather than relaxing and enjoying the feel of the water, you need to permanently think about that dropped elbow, poor catch and sinking legs until your brain overloads. Seriously, who enjoys a sport where you are reminded every day how bad you are?

Are you doing a long cycle ride today? Okay well no, unfortunately you can’t go out, ride 100 miles and simply enjoy the sunshine, because that’s just not structured enough. You need to ride at a specific power output for the whole day and there’s no cafe stop either.. you don’t get one on race day! You were going to ride with friends? No, you can’t ride with anyone else either, it has to be alone (just like race day) and you can practice your nutrition whilst you’re at it. One more thing, it has to be your time trial bike, aero for the whole thing, because that’s ‘position specific’.

That’s all very well, but I don’t want to enjoy it, I want to get better…

Let’s be honest, when you read about how a training plan should fit into your life, so you can balance it with family etc, a lot of people don’t care about that bit. A lot of people sign up to a coach because they want to know which sessions to do, to get faster. That’s what they’re paying for. They don’t sign up to a coach to learn about life balance, they just want to know which sessions to do and they’ll do the worrying themselves about how to fit them into the week without upsetting work and family. Just tell me how to get faster, that’s what I’m here for…

That said, one of the great mistakes is to believe that ‘adding structure’ will always add benefit and more importantly, believing that removing structure somehow makes a session less beneficial. Let’s look at some basic facts. Most people riding in Ironman events can’t ride 112 miles at a steady pace and get off the bike feeling good as they simply don’t have the endurance. The simplest way to solve this is to regularly ride 100 miles+ in training… end of conversation, no more needs to be added. The likelihood of this happening increases if you enjoy the day out on your bike so ride with mates, pencil in a coffee stop and enjoy the scenery. There is of course a time for specificity and before race day, yes, a solo ride on your race bike practicing your nutrition would be important. But that the finishing touches.

Enjoyment is key, you must ‘want’ to do it and there’s a greater likelihood of wanting to do it, if you enjoy it. Unfortunately when people hear the term ‘enjoy your training’ they often switch off at that point as they automatically associate that with ‘messing about and not training properly’. Riding 100+ miles on a regular basis isn’t ‘messing about’. Don’t feel guilty about enjoying it. However, forcing yourself to ride 100 miles alone, staring at a power meter and banishing all coffee stops is less motivating for a lot of people and is potentially mentally draining. It can be the case for many people that adding structure, data and targets to the plan can be far more mentally draining and as a result, far less enjoyable. Continuing to drill yourself into this hole because you believe ‘this is what it takes to get faster’ is simply not correct. It probably doesn’t help that triathlon is full of type ‘A’ personalities with addictive behaviours… and before you even start to argue, yes you probably do have an exercise / triathlon addiction or obsession, even if it’s on a small scale. So be careful how much it draws you in.

So just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should just ‘go and enjoy yourself and do whatever you want to do’ because if you do want to improve, then there is obviously a certain amount of volume and intensity that you’ll need to do and it’s more about manipulating your training to tick those boxes through the things you enjoy. My other issue is more with the over-complication of training sessions, because the coach perhaps feels it’s important to ‘add value’ when in fact, it’s simply adding data. And if you’re paying a lot of money for a training plan, then simply seeing the words ‘go and ride 100 miles easy’ is perhaps not worthy of such a price tag. What’s key here is that you’re paying the coach to give you to correct advice, not to spend hours writing a detailed session to justify their fee. So if the coach advice says no more than ’30 minutes easy trail run’ then you’re not necessarily being short-changed.

It’s important also to balance this from the other side, because at the moment this sounds like an anti-data rant. If you are the kind of person who is enthused by structure and technicality then crack on. Perhaps what’s key here is assessing individual personality types and using that to gauge approach. There are people who are driven by data, they need to measure all their training and calculate their ‘macros’ for their food intake etc. If that’s what floats your boat, then yes, crack on. If data motivates you, then that’s the correct approach for you. I have however seen a correlation between this and burnout, where triathlon is someone’s sole focus in life for a short period of time, before it crashes down on them.

One of the key things to take away is that you shouldn’t confuse ‘lack of structure and detail’ with ‘not training correctly or not training hard’. There’s a huge number of people simply not doing enough or not doing it hard enough to improve performance and the answers are often very simple… but perhaps they’re too simple? If you struggle on the bike at Ironman, then try to ride over 100 miles on a regular basis, until it becomes easy. It’s that simple. If you’re ‘bad on hills’ then go and find some hills and ride up them really hard and repeat until it feels easier, plus if you’re carrying excess weight, shed a few pounds (OMG he can’t say that!! We can’t talk about weight!!). In many cases the answers are very simple, but they’re also difficult to do so we swerve them (and we generally know we’re swerving them). Instead we’re drawn to the bright lights, because if we add ‘technicality’ then somehow the quality is better, the training is ‘smarter’ and we can therefore do less for the same amount of gain. Just go out and ride 100 miles regularly? Go and ride up and down hills? What a load of old fashioned nonsense.

So here’s some simple steps:

  1. What is it you need to focus on this winter? What’s your strengths and weaknesses? What do you need to do more or less of?
  2. Write your session plans and keep it simple. If you need to hammer a nail into a piece of wood, you wouldn’t hit it from one angle at 65% maximal force, then from another angle at 75% maximal force… Some things don’t need overcomplicating, hit the bloody thing hard, 3 times, on the head. If you need to ride long, then ride long. If you need to do 1 minute intervals at maximum, then just do them.
  3. Manipulate the sessions for maximum enjoyment. If you enjoy trail running, run on the trails. If you enjoy company and it makes it easier, run or cycle with others (groups & social interaction can be key for motivation). If you like data and riding indoors, then fine, get on zwift and ride your intervals to power. If you don’t go outdoors, find a hill and just ride up it hard several times. What stimulates or excites you to want to train and what will ensure that you consistently do so, every week without mental & physical burnout?
  4. Never let the plan become a stressor. If you just can’t face those intervals because you had a bad day at work or the kids are winding you up, then go for an easy run to relax and clear your head. Be flexible. Just because you didn’t do what’s on the plan doesn’t make you a failure. There’s more than 2 options, it’s not simply ‘the prescribed session or nothing’.

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Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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