Monday, February 1, 2016

Three Times You Want to See Your Little Blue Line Take a Nose Dive

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

[Editor's note: A version of this article also appears on the TrainingPeaks blog.]

Athletes who use the TrainingPeaks Performance Manager Chart effectively have a potentially huge advantage over their competition in their ability to see the big picture at a glance. A large part of this big picture perspective comes down to being able to track changes in fitness by looking at trends in Chronic Training Load (CTL).

The “little blue line” on your performance manager chart offers a good proxy for your general fitness at any point in your training plan. As such, a common (and generally valid) goal is to see a steady and consistent increase in this CTL number as your training progresses. However, as a coach who looks at a number of these charts over the course of a season, I can tell you with a good level of certainty that there are times when you will actually want to see your little blue line take a nose dive, or put another way, there are times when you will want to make the decision to give up a little short term fitness in the interests of long term results.

The reason that you might actually entertain the “ludicrous” idea of consciously giving up some of your hard earned fitness comes down to the simple fact that fitness is only part of the equation. The other side -- fatigue, is something that must be both considered and managed over the short and long term.

So, without further ado, what are the three situations that you may want to let your little blue line head south?

1. Following a training camp or crash cycle
Any training that is significantly bigger or more intense than your normal training load will require a recovery period that is longer or of lower volume/intensity than your normal recovery week. While this borders on common sense, it has been my experience that athletes who are savvy to the intricacies of the performance manager chart are very reluctant to take appropriate recovery following an overload period for fear of losing some of their hard earned CTL. However, it is a reality that just as that level of fatigue in these periods is not sustainable over the long term, neither is that level of fitness. It is especially important that at the end of an overload period, an athlete takes the necessary recovery time to return to a neutral level of freshness (i.e. TSB ~0) In doing this, the athlete will generally lose some CTL. On the positive, when CTL is averaged over a longer period of time (e.g. a month or training block) the net gains from the inclusion of these training camps will still be greater than a standard 3:1 block, the CTL line will just be a little more “wavy” in nature.

2. Following a training season
While less of a problem for coached athletes, one of the most common issues for self coached athletes is falling into the trap of the “never ending season.” This trap is made all the more enticing for those athletes keeping a vigilant eye on their little blue line with a firm resolve to keep seeing it go up and up. However, even for those athletes who religiously employ recovery methods and strategies within their training program, there is a long term fatigue component that keeps adding up and can only be shaken with semi-regular extended periods of recovery -- that is, a transition period or off season. Failing to adhere to this golden rule can lead to stagnation, burnout or, at the extreme, such damage to the recovery processes of the body that the athlete falls into a chronic fatigue pattern that can take years to shake. In other words, employing these longer-term periods of recovery of four to six weeks per season is serious, important business and yes, shutting down the plant for four to six weeks will see your little blue production line take a (necessary) nose dive. The two guiding principles in this situation are:

  • The fatigue shed from the previous season must be as close to complete as possible (i.e. ATL approaches zero)

  • The starting CTL for each season should be slightly higher than the last. This is the concept of residual fitness, i.e. even when starting from a fresh slate, the athlete carries some fitness over from year to year -- that nice little surprise of a few dollars interest on your investment.

3. Before/after a race
The third situation in which you want to see your blue line back track a little is before &/or after a key race. The before/after part is a key distinction of B events (training races) versus A events (key races), especially so for the long course athlete.

For almost all athletes, long races of greater than 90 minutes duration require some extended recovery. Depending on the fitness of the athlete and the length of the event, this extended recovery may fall within the range of a normal recovery week. Based on my experience, this is the case for an average sized, fit athlete racing an Olympic distance or shorter event. In this case, providing no significant taper is included, the athlete may simply see a plateau of the blue line. However, for longer events such as a half or full ironman or more muscularly demanding events such as an open marathon, recovery will often be long enough that the blue line will need to recede a little.

Additionally, if an athlete wants to race at his or her highest possible level – peaking for the event – he or she will want to “rest into” the event as well, that is, trade a little (blue line) fitness for some (yellow line) freshness. While important for an athlete to race their best, these small trades all add up and chip away a little at the athlete’s fitness so consciously deciding on what length races you want to include within the plan, as well as those races that you want to peak for are two very important questions in planning an effective long term training program.

In summary, resolving to see your blue line on a non-stop rise to the stars is a fool’s errand. The best way to keep your blue line offensive rolling along over the long term is to incorporate a few planned, strategic retreats along the way at key time periods -- specifically, after larger than normal periods of training, at the end of each training season and before/after key events. By doing this, you will avoid the significantly more costly downward spirals that come when unplanned breaks are forced upon the athlete.

Train smart.

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