Designing Your Own Training Programme

Designing Your Own Training Programme

Introduction: why?

I have coached a number of high level athletes and have met a number of the worlds elite over the years and it continues to surprise me how varied peoples understanding is of how to maximise their potential. I am also intrigued by the variety of different methods used to achieve similar outcomes. On my journey towards trying to decipher this apparently mystical art these differing concepts and coaching / training perspectives massively confused me (and to be far some still do!). Over the next few months I will share the concepts I frequently use and how they can be integrated into a bespoke training programme and to hopefully demystify how athletes and coaches pull an effective training plan together. Importantly I will provide examples of how these concepts can be integrated into training programmes, in particular with the Ocean Sports squad I coach. But first, I will share the fundamental ethos which shapes the principles behind what I do before covering some rudimentary training concepts.

Finally, to clarify who this is for and what it is or is not!

My intention is to share ideas and to maximise the return from training whether this amounts to one or two sessions per week or ten. I hope that this information may help others to gain a greater understanding of how to design training programmes or to borrow some ideas which might facilitate already well established programmes. The programmes I write are focused toward paddle sports, ocean ski and the shorter Surf Life Saving events however, the general concepts are applicable to other disciplines. This is by no means an exhaustive list merely a collection of concepts which I have found useful over the years. The concepts and ideas are my interpretation based upon my experiences as an athlete and my quest to understand the hows and whys behind training – it is also my informed opinion academically both as a Coach and Sport and Exercise Scientist.
By no means would I expect anyone to undertake the following suggestions without firstly seeking the opinion of an expert (be it medical or coach) before hand.


This is an important thing to establish, for me at least, and for many may not be necessary, ultimately, training is training at the end of the day! Or is it? Essentially the body will respond to any stimuli if presented over a period of time however, if we want to maximise gains with limited time, to consistently improve over a period or by some infinitesimally small margin a system is needed. Something which I will go into shortly.

Be Holistic and multidisciplinary in your approach – Look at the body from a holistic view point – as age steadily encroaches I am acutely aware that a well rounded athlete will be more injury averse, experience sustained longevity in their sport and enjoy the variety in their training. Just because we sit on our bums (or stand) and paddle (for the most part) it does not mean our training should replicate this (all the time). What I have experienced personally and as a coach is too much specific training builds in hidden injuries for the future. Cross train, run, bike swim, surf, go to the gym try other sports which common movement patterns, go boxing etc – all of which help to stabilise the body when movement patterns place the body outside of its comfort zone. Try to look at the person or the body as a whole, establish how seemingly desecrate (separate) movement patterns / chains are integrated as part of a whole. I have thrown my back out so severely that I required complete bed rest for ten days – how did I manage this? by bending down to pick up an empty cardboard box when I was at my fittest! hardly a well rounded athlete. Quite often I refer to the body as a system with my students, one which works from some very simple (at first sight) principles – the system is either expending energy or conserving energy. Training stress influences this energy balance (homeostasis) and is something, which as a coach, can be artificially manipulated to bring about some kind of adaption / improvement in performance. As a coach I try to accumulate this stress over a period of time from various means however, training is not the only stressor. Work, family, school, exams, deadlines, friends, partners, money, time, equipment, pets (the list is endless) are also all stressors and must be factored into training. Ideally, you may want to train ten plus times a week but if your current circumstances do not allow it – training must be adapted to suit your current lifestyle. We must choose between central adaptations (essentially heart and lungs) or peripheral ones (enhance capillary density – local O2 extraction and by product removal) – both of which represent two different types of training.

Quantify – I like to try measure things! how can performance be quantified (measured), how do I really know how hard I am working or my athletes, how can I measure the amount of training we should be doing each year, month or week, what targets should be set, how fast or far have I / we travelled, how can I reliably measure recovery and adaption? Given that we train (mostly) on an ever changing dynamic medium, measurement and its accuracy becomes problematic – this is not to say impossible or should not be attempted because of inherent flaws.

The paradox – quantify training intensity using heart rate monitors but switch them off! consistently assess how fast you are paddling but ignore the speed, adhere to the principle of specificity but complete none paddle specific training! quantify how much and when to drink in races but use intuition and thirst. Rest not training allows you to go faster – stress (training) ultimately will make you slower! Something which many athletes overlook. The flip side is, without stress we can not encourage adaptations but, without rest these adaptions will not occur and eventually, injury, under performance, burnout or all three will occur. The above are all seemingly contradictory – over the coming months I will try to elaborate upon these areas in smaller more manageable chunks rather than create a mini war and peace here (which I think this is starting to turn into!).

Knowledge is power but this does not necessary guarantee Wisdom – In short, I try to be as knowledgeable and as well read as possible, I look to other sports and see how they may approach similar problems in different ways – be a coaching magpie (copy, adapt – nothing is original). Do the simple things well (no brainers) and seek out the cumulative effect of marginal gains where ever possible. I try to talk with experts and gain an understanding of their methodologies but I try not be afraid to ignore or adapt their advice to suit my sport (based upon evidence). Above all, I try to make informed decisions, to question the status quo but at any cost I do not follow the dogma of “well my coach did this before” or “we’ve always done it this way”. If it worked establish why.

My Training Concepts

When I say ‘my’ I actually mean – these are the ones I use, I certainly didn’t invent them – remember I am a coaching magpie!

Measurement of Performance is a Tricky Thing!

Measure stuff – Analyse the demands of the activity and match to current standards – this means we must quantify performance. Try to establish anaerobic and aerobic components and how much each contributes at various points of the event, if you are finding it difficult to work this out look to other sports of similar time duration or intensity. Once this has been established assesses how you stack up to this by consistent testing. If strength, muscular endurance or power is important test yourself and schedule repeat tests at strategic points in the year. The key decision is to whether to train to your strengths or train to your weaknesses – be honest with yourself, training to our strengths is more enjoyable however, training to our weakness yields greater results. Look at your training programme and honestly appraise if you are pushing outside of your comfort zone and actually training to weaknesses?
Do not be afraid to show your weakness, they will be outed at some point, usually in competition. Face your fears, commit to the time trial when you are not fully fit (not through injury or illness however), train with a different group who is faster than you, do not hide – there is an honesty in pushing one self irrelevant of outcome. Ultimately, we learn more when pushed in unfamiliar / uncomfortable situations.

The Plan

Set a goal and work back. Start with perfection and adapt! look to future events and work backwards counting how many weeks are available to train (this would be commonly known as a Macro cycle). Most training plans work off a range of smaller or larger cycles (period of time) – texts often site traditional durations for these but is better to thing more along the lines of which lasts longer. If you only have six weeks this would be your biggest cycle (Macro) or if you are working along an Olympic cycle the Macro cycle would be four years long! Effective plans have a focus which often work over four weeks (Meso cycle – meaning to sit in between) – this might be a specific focus in the gym e.g. getting bigger muscles (hypertrophy) or speed training (anaerobic power). Within each Meso cycle are smaller units of time usual a week long (Micro cycle) and this provides us with  the actual training sessions. There are alternatives to the four week cycle, some can be as long as six weeks but most are four starting with a development week, moderate week, hard week and recovery week. I sometimes find it easier to establish how many sessions I would ideally like to train and to then adapt this with what is ‘actually’ feasible. For example, I set an ideal training plan of 12 sessions for the Team and ask them what do they feel they can achieve on a weekly bases, both realistically and ideally. I now have a  minimum number of sessions which we meet regularly and an ideal which, if met, is a bonus. Once I know how many sessions can be done I priorities sessions accordingly. It is important to factor in life demands (as mentioned above) – remember stress is cumulative, we do not training in a vacuum.

Strength and conditioning is for everyone!

We don’t need to look like Mr Schwarzenegger, becoming stronger in the gym is vital in terms of injury prevention (it is well established that swimmers and endurance runners gain substantial benefits from gym work). Importantly, if improving speed off the beach or catching runners is a key area of development then power is important. To improve power we need to improve strength first, to improve strength we need to improve motor unit recruitment (get better at sending signals to the muscles at the right time, in the right order, with the correct information) – notice I didn’t say get bigger. Hypertrophy (growing muscle) does link to becoming stronger (more muscles equals more strength) BUT this is not always necessary – one look at the skinny gymnasts bouncing around on the floor or suspended from parallel bars or rings provides good evidence for what is called neurological adaptations (signals to muscles).

Work Anaerobically all year round.

Every athlete requires some form of anaerobic training – the question is how much? Every race has a frenetic start, or a change of pace at some point, running up hill requires power, chasing runners requires power, making a break from a group requires additional power all of which comes from anaerobic processes (initially). It is not for the want of additional oxygen (we already have plenty of that) we simply want to move faster and the quickest method to do this is to use anaerobic processes. The benefit of including elements of anaerobic training is not just physiological (dealing with that nasty lactic acid) but again there is a neurological element. By learning how to increase stroke rate we are learning how to fire very specific types of muscle fibres (fast twitch – type 2a, b and even c!) at the right time, in the right order etc. Russian swimmers used to be towed along swimming pools in slings back in the 70’s at faster than world record pace. Sports scientists realised that these elite swimmers already possessed the physiological capacity to swim above world record pace but had not learnt how to coordinate their muscles fibres to fire at the right time in the right order (motor units). It was estimated that these swimmers broke world records six to 12 months earlier because of this type of training. I have even seen the Hungarian K4 crew being towed behind speed boats – I’ve also seen the K4 tow the speed boats! but that is another story.

Become more efficient and build an engine.

Going slow at the right time will ultimately make you go faster! By doing so allows us to focus upon the efficiency of the stroke – technique is everything, without it we are simply becoming fitter to expend more energy without moving any quicker. The additional benefit of moving slowly is that very specific training adaptations occur – the body will literally grow more blood vessels (increase capillary bed density) which in turn enhance the body’s ability to deliver oxygen but to also, remove other by products. Alternatively during summer months these longer slower sessions provide a welcome respite from higher intensity training helping to both flush out lactate and promote restocking of fuel (glycogen). Equally as important they also provide valuable technique re-training and a welcome psychological break.

Anaerobic power is king but Aerobic capacity will see you through.

A journal article in the early 2000’s followed an anonymous athlete over five year period. This female British athlete was on the cusp of world dominance in marathon running – what is really interesting is that despite the gradual decline in her ability to utilise oxygen (measured as VO2max) running speeds increased? This is a little complicated so I will try to keep to simplified terms. Firstly, researchers established that she had improved her running economy (despite her nodding head) but she had also improve her threshold level. Its this last bit ‘threshold’ that is a cause for controversy and I will write a separate article on this however. What this essentially means is that like a car VO2max is the size of your engine but we do not work at maximum for any extended period of time instead we work at a percentage of our engines capacity. For example, like a car, we do not drive with our foot flat to the floor (unless your 18) we instead only use a fraction of the engines capacity (in physiological terms our VO2max) when driving through town say, or a village. However, driving on the motorway we may well have the foot pinned firmly on the floor. In physiological terms this is known (by some) as our threshold. Essentially, how much of our aerobic capacity (VO2max) we are using. In short, if we can use more of our capacity (move at faster speeds when we reach threshold) the faster we will go. So how did Paula, sorry, our anonymous runner continue to improve aside from being increasingly more efficient? she increased her threshold ultimately using more and more of her capacity (VO2max).
What is even more interesting is that this ‘threshold’ is like a gold zone for aerobic athletes – we gain our greatest aerobic training benefits by training in or slightly above this zone (which could be linked to speed of running, paddling or even heart rate). In addition, researchers have shown that knowing a persons threshold is a more reliable indicator for predicting performance than knowing a persons VO2max in events of up to 90 minutes.

Finally, I believe in the collective – together we are stronger. It takes an exceptional person to train and excel on their own (I can think of only one) – by training with our peers, sharing ideas, motivating each other and pushing boundaries in a collaborative process is both advantageous to the individual and the group but it is a far a more fulfilling experience.

The End – make of it what you will!

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