Coaches' Corner: How to Manage Offseason Training and Fall Fitness

Part I: Pitfalls in Structuring Training Plans
When structuring a training plan as part of a longer term goal, it is very important to always keep the big picture in mind. For coaches and athletes at both the high school and college levels, who have their championships in the Spring (around the end of May or early June), Spring must be the goal and all training and racing must be conducted with that goal in mind. For elite athletes, training and racing internationally, the championship or goal race might be at the end of the August.

Regardless of the level or timing of the yearly cycle the training must be responsive to that primary goal race. Most coaches know this, and know the basic principles behind training cycles, and many people have done enough research to know all about microcycles and macrocycles, and about what many think of as the 'scientific' basis behind training at different points of the year. Most people are familiar with terms like 'aerobic base,' 'anaerobic threshold,' and 'VO2 max,' but I'm not sure everyone completely understands how they all fit together in the grand scheme of things. It is very helpful, and even necessary, to have done a great deal of research, and crunched numbers/data, in order to learn how the body physiologically responds and adapts to various training practices, but it is arguably more important to understand the art behind coaching an athlete and creating a good training program.

I am of the opinion that training and coaching is more art than it is science. Although the body's biology and scientific processes are largely measurable and predictable, there are a great number of variables that affect training from person to person, and can even influence the same person differently in varying circumstances. Two people who have different genetic makeup and predisposition, or who have a different training background might respond to the same exact training program and workouts differently. For instance, someone might have more fast-twitch muscle and be a better sprinter, someone else might have more slow-twitch muscle fiber and have better endurance. Things like how much sleep an athlete gets and how much stress the athlete is under will affect chemical/hormonal levels in the body that will affect response to training and recovery.

Not to mention the mental aspects, which vary from person to person and even within the same individual depending on emotional state and things going on in his/her life. For example, if you are having a difficult time with your family, or school, or a personal relationship, it may affect your state of mind so as to mess with your training. As a coach, you must be aware of these variables and have a training program that can adapt, not a rigid program that requires you to know exactly what you will be doing on a Tuesday six weeks from now. How could you know exactly what the best workout will be six weeks ahead of time when you haven't seen how the athletes will respond to the training based on the influencing variables that will happen over the course of that six weeks? Maybe the training will not go well, and the athlete will get slower because of lack of sleep, sickness, or some other reason. On the other hand, there is not only the negative to consider. What if the training goes better than expected, and the athlete is further along than you originally anticipated? You must be willing and able to adapt in order to have the ideal training program and coaching methodology. Now, obviously, it is good to have a general skeleton and outline of what training will look like in the future, but to have it written in stone so as to be completely rigid and unchangeable is problematic to say the least.

There are many examples of people who don't understand the degree to which training is an art as opposed to a science. People often ask me to write a canned training plan for them, sometimes for an entire season, or training cycle, without knowing all the specifics about the athlete and their goals, or how they will respond to the training. I see and hear about lots of rowers and coaches at the high school, college and masters level wanting to follow training programs from elite national team coaches and athletes. In sports such as running, swimming and triathlon as well as rowing, I often see canned training programs published and used by the masses to prepare for that next Olympic distance triathlon or that next 5k road race. This is a problem, because these athletes are all over the place in terms of their experience in the sport, their volume of training, and their skill level/fitness in the given sport. How is it possible that there could be a one-size-fits-all training program for all ages, abilities and commitment levels? This is very troubling in the sport of rowing, where, many times, there are a variety of different experience and skill levels within the same team. This is especially true at the college level, where you might have on the same team someone who is a first year walk-on, an average second year collegiate rower who rowed for four years in high school, and a U23 national team rower. I don't believe it is possible that the same training program is ideal for each of these athletes. In my mind, this is a failure to understand all the nuances that go into structuring a good training program.

Obviously, in a team sport like rowing it can be a challenge to individualize training, especially on teams where elite athletes are in the same boats as novice rowers. So, while there is no way to completely tailor individualized training plans to individual athletes, it is good to be aware of the differences and make adjustments when possible, and, most importantly, simply be aware that different athletes can handle different things. A rower who has been rowing for seven years can physically handle more training than rower in the first year of rowing. If you don't believe this, just look at the progression in an individual rower from year to year. Pick any individual, and that person can handle more training in their second year than in their first, and again can handle more in their third year than their second. There are necessary developmental physiological steps that must be undergone, and that cannot be rushed. The more training one, does the more the body adapts and becomes stronger. For example, perhaps an average college freshman novice rower can handle up to 100-110 kilometers a week of quality training in the peak of their first season without breaking down the body too much and getting sick/injured. That athlete can probably handle 110-130 kilometers during their peak training weeks their second year and by their fourth year handle up to 160-180 kilometers a week.

Now, some people might debate that, and argue that rowers can handle whatever volume and intensity is thrown at them. I don't believe that. Sure, anyone can do a large amount of volume in terms of performing every task in weekly training and logging the mileage, but is that training actually quality training? Is it necessary for them to go as fast as they are going? Could they be going as fast or faster with less volume? I think there are plenty of people who log lots of volume, but because it isn't structured right, they don't get all the benefit of it and end up underperforming relative to their potential. I don't think enough coaches pay attention to this. However, I am not asking anyone to baby young athletes.

Part II: Fall Training Regimens 
When it comes to Fall training, the focus should be on building strength and aerobic base. I always like to analogize building aerobic base to building a large, strong foundation for a house. However, it must be realized that once the house is built to its peak, it can only stay up for a short time, before it begins to crumble. In other words, one can only hold a peak for so long, so timing is important. Before you can build the superstructure of your house, which must be completed just in time for the Championships (and not too soon) you must build the stable platform and foundation. The foundation is built on aerobic strength and fitness.

How do you build aerobic strength? Volume, with the appropriate amount and type of intensity. Volume should be comprised of quality mileage based on what the individual athlete can handle. Quality mileage refers to mileage which the athlete can handle without going so slow that it becomes 'junk mileage,' and without suffering from too much technical deterioration. Junk mileage refers to simply going through the motions in order to inflate volume. There must be sufficient aerobic stimulus. More specifically, junk mileage is mileage done at 'recovery,' pace which is roughly less than 60-70% of maximum heart rate, when recovery is not necessary. Recovery paced workouts are only necessary when the body has really been pushed to a point at which it can't recover well in 24-48 hours without backing off.

There must also be intensity when building aerobic base. A common mistake in attempting to build a strong aerobic base is exercise with little to no intensity. Many times, I hear of people building aerobic base who simply try to log low intensity miles as much as possible. All this is going to do is make the athlete slow and lethargic, with no top end speed. It is important to train all systems, to a certain extent, throughout the year. Don't completely ignore higher heart rates and intensity just because you are in the offseason, and are training to expand your aerobic base – just be careful with the type and frequency of intensity in the training program. Obviously, a national teamer who has been rowing for 7-10 years can handle a lot more training volume and intensity than a first or second year high school rower. This is because experienced rowers' bodies are stronger, so they can tolerate more training volume, but it is also because they can recover from workouts much faster than their younger, less physically mature, and less experienced counterparts.

This phenomenon can be seen when looking at the following example: let's take a novice collegiate male rower who is capable of a 6:15 2k on the erg when rested and at maximum, and a fourth year collegiate male rower who is also capable of a 6:15 2k when rested and at maximum. If these guys were doing a hard interval session with a good amount of volume on the erg, say 6x2k or 6x1k with 3 minutes rest, I would bet that in most cases, the experienced rower would be able to do better on the interval workout than the novice rower, even though they are both in the same shape for an all-out 2k. Part of this may have to do with the veteran rower being more mentally prepared for the pain and difficulty of a hard session like that, and part of it has to do with the ability to recover and ability to handle more volume than the younger rower. It may be appropriate for the novice rower to do only four of the intervals where the senior rower should do all six.

Now, many coaches would be hesitant to do this because they would think if they were both of the same 2k ability they should both do the exact same workouts. However, by forcing the novice rower to do more than he can handle to match the fourth year rower, it might have negative physiological repercussions for the novice rower in the days and weeks to follow. If the novice rower blows up on the workout, he might take a lot longer to recover than the fourth year senior. This will be a big deal if the two athletes are in the same boat, or the same training program, and must two days later do a set of race pace intervals at 2k pace, because asking the novice to do this when he is still a day or two away from being recovered will send him into a fatigue induced funk that could prevent him from hitting his highest peak that season, or could generally dull the razor's edge to prevent him from optimal performance on race day.

If you race too hard and too much in practice, you run the risk of being too tired on race day. Coaches must be able to monitor their athletes, and know who needs more, and who needs less. Avoid painting all athletes with one brush.

-Justin and the RR Team

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