Monday, February 1, 2016

Season Planning - Part II: Setting Phases, Objectives and Checkpoints

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

“He who moves not forward goes backward”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In the last article on season planning, I outlined some of the math involved in making accurate performance predictions/goals for the coming season.

In summary, I suggested:

  1. Looking at how much extra fitness (CTL) you’ll be carrying this year compared to the last.
  2. Identifying your personal load:performance relationship (i.e. CTL:VO2)
  3. Identifying what level of fitness/VO2 score this extra CTL is likely to create by the date of your A race.

From this information you can begin to look at the CTL/Performance relationship from last year (as explained in the previous post) and begin to identify what this means to you in performance terms. As you know, I use the athlete’s VO2 score as a global measure of performance but the VO2 score:

  • Only tells half the story, for example, it may tell us that the athlete is generally fit but not whether the athlete is "race fit" over a specific distance
  • Can be a bit abstract for an athlete to really sink their teeth into -- telling an athlete that they have a VO2 score of 70 doesn’t carry the same emotional punch as telling them that they just completed a workout at 10W higher intensity than a top pro who did the same workout.

What we need is BENCHMARKS! A benchmark is a semi-specific fitness test that lets the athlete know:

  • Whether they are on track towards hitting their season goal.
  • If there are any weak points in the athlete’s physiology that may need to be worked on.

Once we know the athlete's starting point and end destination (as described in the previous article), we can begin to identify some checkpoints along the way that let the coach and the athlete know they are on the right course.


One of the key tenets of periodization is a gradual move from more general to more specific training as the season goes on. Whatever name a coach gives to the respective phases, this progression tends to be a common theme among top coaches.

In my own vernacular, this progression is represented by a move through three phases:

  1. General Prep
    My objective during the general prep phase is to lay an aerobic/strength base. No matter what your goal event, whether a 5K or an ironman, the amount of race specific work that you're able to do later in the year will be directly proportionate to the foundation of aerobic base that you lay during this phase (in other words, how straight up "fit" you are!). For many ironman athletes, due to the simplicity of what's required for an ironman (that is, be generally very fit and pace appropriately), I will only use two phases -- a very long general prep phase and a race prep phase designed to accomplish those two objectives.
  2. Specific Prep
    My objective during the specific prep phase is to correct weaknesses specific to the athlete. If an athlete has great fitness but a poor threshold when compared to athletes of a similar performance level, we will spend this phase correcting those specific weak areas of the curve. Depending on where those weaknesses lie on the curve will determine how far up the curve we go. "Specific 1" tackles those areas of the curve just above AeT. "Specific 2" tackles those areas of the curve up to lactate threshold (VT1). "Specific 3" tackles those areas of the curve from LT up to FTP. "Specific 4" tackles those areas from FTP to VO2max.
  3. Race Prep
    My objective during the race prep phase is to correct weaknesses specific to the event. We are dealing more with tactical and strategic/pacing concerns relative to the event (and the race course) at this point. Hopefully the physiology has been optimized at this point with the preceding two phases and now we're all about getting the most "real world," race day speed for the athlete's physiology. The subphase that we use - Ironman Prep, HIM Prep, Oly Prep, Sprint Prep is entirely related to the event duration.

This progression from general to specific applies to testing too. I will make the first benchmarks of the season the easiest to hit and the least specific to the event, while the later benchmarks (at higher levels of fitness) more challenging and specific.

Let’s work through an example to illustrate how we might go about doing this…

We have an ironman athlete with a starting VO2 score of 40 and a season end goal (in October) of 65. The athlete’s fitness progression and corresponding benchmarks for each phase may look like this:

So we:

  1. Set the expected rate of progression by first identifying the start point and realistic end point as described in the first article then filling in the gaps. Noting that, beyond the transition and prep phase, the rate of progression is expected to be relatively linear with a trend towards slight diminishing returns at the end of the cycle (the especially geeky can set up a prospective PMC in WKO+ to identify actual CTL and consequent VO2 at various points of the season).
  2. Fill in the phases, beginning with general preparation then moving onto the least specific, semi-specific and finally race specific phases.
  3. Identify benchmarks that we expect to hit that are both representative of that phase of training and in line with expected fitness at that point.
  4. Transpose the expected fitness level onto the benchmark to identify a goal test performance for that phase.

For example, in the case of the 5th block of training (Specific 4) we have planned a CP5/CP20 test. At that point in time the athlete’s VO2 score is expected to be 51. For an 80kg athlete, this corresponds to an absolute VO2 of 4.08L/min. Let's assume:

  • The athlete’s economy is 75W/L
  • The athlete’s VO2 endurance is ~10mins
  • The athlete is targeting an 8% fatigue curve (a good general number for a top AG athlete)

This will equate to a CP5 of 330W (4.08*75*1.08) and a CP20 of ~280W (4.08*75*0.92) so these become the target benchmarks for that block of training.

This process can be undertaken for all of the benchmarks through the year to identify targets for the checkpoints along the way.

What if we don’t hit the benchmark?
The magic of benchmarking is that, not only does it let the coach and athlete know if the athlete is on course, but it also let’s them know if they are off-course in a specific way. It can reveal weaknesses and help to shape the direction of the annual plan.

The downside of benchmarking is that it only represents one day in the athlete’s training year and a bad result could just as often be the result of a bad day as a true weakness. So what do we do if we fail to hit a benchmark to discern if it was just an off day or a true weakness?

Repeat it. Repeat it again within that block and if the athlete fails a second time, consider repeating that phase of training as it may represent a weakness in the athlete’s arsenal. For example, let’s say our athlete is rolling through all the benchmarks until he hits the tempo challenge set. He fails once, he fails twice. We may then consider replacing the following Specific 2 block with a repeated Specific 3 block of training to address this weakness.

There is no law to say that we must move through all parts of the specific prep phase at an equal rate. Rather, think like a massage therapist -- feel around a bit and when you find a tender spot -- spend proportionately more time prodding and poking and working that area. This is where the master coach separates himself and the art of adaptive training comes into its own.

So now we have a realistic assessment of how far we are likely to travel over the course of the season and we have the makings of a road map with some designated checkpoint along the way. In my next article we’ll look at a little more rubber meets the road planning and determine the true price in hours and load that you’re going to have to pay to meet your CTL/Performance goals.

Until then…

Train smart.

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