The Changing Training Landscape

At Vision Quest Coaching, we’re all about objectivity. When introducing new features, products and services, we’re constantly looking for tools that can help reduce the guesswork and offer up “hard” details. At the same time, the objective answers aren’t always as cut and dry as we would like them to be. Training comes with a constantly changing landscape, and, as coaches and athletes, we should always remain mindful of the subjective details that add context to our objective numbers. A classic example of this is our Functional Threshold Power testing. The dreaded 20-minute test is used as a reference point for fitness and performance. This makes it useful as a starting point for applying training load, both indoors and outdoors. Changes in 20-minute power also provide insight into changes in fitness. Many athletes have unhealthy emotional connections to “their numbers,” and this can lead to elation or dismay depending on the outcome of the test.

The reality is many factors, apart from fitness, can alter the test result. Some of these include proximity of the last hard training session, where you are in your current training progression, the nature of your recent training, quality of sleep, external stresses and overall state of health. Another example is Chronic Training Load (CTL), which can be seen on the Performance Manager Chart by Training Peaks Premium account holders. This number is expressed as TSS/day and references data over the previous six weeks. It is often equated with fitness because the higher your CTL, the more fit you will be. The corollary to CTL is Acute Training Load (ATL), which references your data from the past week and is equated with fatigue. The underlying theory is that what you’ve done in the past creates (or erodes) fitness, but what you’ve done recently makes you tired (or fresh).

However, where you are in your training year will have a bearing on your response to workouts. Early in a year, your training volume and frequency may be relatively low, leading to a high level of freshness. You should be able to work pretty hard and put out good numbers because you’re rested, and since overall training load is low, you can recover in time for the next training session. Later in the season, as you get close to key events, you’ve likely built up your volume to the maximum sustainable level. Although this training has likely led to improvements in fitness, you are also likely to be carrying more fatigue on a regular basis and going into workouts a little bit tired, which could compromise your performance on these workouts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as accumulated fatigue is one of the stresses that ultimately leads to growth. It just needs to be balanced with periodic breaks so the body is able to supercompensate and return to a rested state.

The above factors are ones you have control over and can design according to your needs. Other factors are outside of your control and will force you to be more dynamic in the moment and recognize that the objective data being used may have been nullified to some extent. Take this year’s Ironman 70.3 Racine event for instance. It’s been a relatively mild year so far and what seems like a late start to summer. Most athletes’ training has been in cool, maybe even cold, environments. Race day however was anything but. Between the heat itself, humidity and bright sun, this race day was a very different experience. Thermal stress forces more blood flow to the skin for cooling, leaving less going to the stomach for digestion and less going to the muscles to supply oxygen and energy. These conditions can affect different athletes to different degrees or in different ways, but rest assured: they do affect everyone. Smart athletes recognize the altered conditions and temper their objective race plans with subjective feelings and adjustments on course. Many athletes will soon be heading west for the LoToJa Classic, which presents yet another challenge due to the altitude where this event is contested. Again, altitude will affect everyone, but not necessarily by the same amount.

Two major factors to keep in mind are that the high altitude will reduce power output compared to sea-level performance and that recovery from hard efforts will be more difficult. Depending on your typical racing style, this could be a big change for some athletes. Those who tend to like to race aggressively may need to be more patient and conservative than they normally would. Being as fit as possible is an advantage, but when racing against athletes who live, train and race in that environment all the time, it’s important to be aware of and adjust for your limitations. Power and pace are excellent tools for training and help to provide real data about the work that you do. Accumulating data points over time should provide a clear picture of what you can do, how your fitness has changed and what you might be able to expect with regards to race performance. However, the body’s response to the work (HR and RPE) shouldn’t be completely overlooked. Although these metrics can’t tell you how much you have improved your fitness, they do accurately tell you how close to the limits you are at any given point in time and help you to evaluate whether your current effort is sustainable. When it comes to performance, have an objective plan and plan to stick to it.

Nevertheless, remain aware of the subjective responses and use those to proactively alter your original plan if the new data suggests you might need a change. Using everything at your disposal together will help you to perform at your personal best regardless of the conditions.