‘Cool Story, Bro’ – The Fallacy of Training Systems and Conventional Wisdom on Training Prescription
Let us begin with a revelation: athletes are humans not machines.
If we start with such a fundamental understanding of the nature of what we are dealing with, it quickly becomes apparent that the challenge of planning and prescribing training for athletes is not conducive to a ‘machine’ approach. Yet many in the field steadfastly cling onto a particular training system. And many of us are a slave to a spreadsheet approach to prescribing training.
We must accept that we are dealing with inherently complex and highly dynamic biological systems. Input does not necessarily equal output. Indeed output is not necessarily stable or predictable. Even the manner in which the input is perceived by the athlete can exert an important influence on training stress responses. This is not something that a training system or a spreadsheet can generally cope with.
Flaws in the Model
Even the best training system cannot be expected to cater to all individuals. Athletes do not have universal needs or characteristics. By definition there cannot be a single template that is good fit for all. This is not a one solution equation.
Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful
George E.P. Box
Putting individual differences aside, even when dealing with a single athlete it must be recognised they will not respond in a uniform way. The same stimulus will not elicit the same response at two different points in time.
Testing Key Assumptions
As identified by John Kiely, arguably the preeminent free-thinker on the topic, training systems and models for planning and periodisation rely upon a collection of shared assumptions.
Any template or model by definition assumes that the response to a particular type of training is (1) universal, (2) uniform, and (3) predictable.
Whilst this textbook account of training adaptation presents a reassuring story for coaches and practitioners, it is nevertheless quite false.
There are a host of other factors that are not considered in the textbook (or rather storybook) version of training planning and prescription. Once again, these factors are dynamic and difficult to predict, which muddies the water – and plays havoc with a neat and pretty spreadsheet. Understandably this might be an unwanted inconvenience for those seeking clarity and certainty. Nevertheless these factors collectively serve to determine how the athlete responds to training prescribed.
Despite having an extensively documented poor track record in planning and predictive tasks, simultaneously we have a demonstrated tendency to be over-confident in these pursuits
We must recognise that there are epigenetic factors that have a decisive impact upon the nature, magnitude and time course of the response to a training stimulus.
By definition, the effects of epigenetics encompass both genetic predispositions (genotype), and the interactive effect of environment and a host of other factors on their expression (phenotype). The latter include ‘legacy effects’ associated with previous exposure to the stressor and training history.
Transient Changes in State
As John Kiely has once again identified, there are also a host of ‘biopsychosocial’ factors to consider in relation to the transient state of the athlete, which will have implications for the response to a training stressor observed at a particular point in time:
- Transient biological state
- Transient psychological and emotional state
- Transient factors associated with the training environment (environment conditions, psychosocial aspects)
By definition, these transient biopsychosocial elements are constantly changing and are inherently unpredictable. Nevertheless the coach or practitioner must be aware of these aspects as they will influence the response to the training stressor on any given day.
To give an example in relation to ‘transient biological state’, even time of day can affect acute neuromuscular performance and muscle-tendon properties. On that basis, the athlete will behave differently when the same training performed in the morning versus evening, and the nature of fitness and fatigue responses will likely differ as a result. Similarly, time of day can affect anabolic hormone release, and in turn potential hypertrophic adaptation elicited by training.
Perception Influences Training Stress Response
In this excellent essay on training stress models, John Kiely describes how perception is a powerful mediator of training stress responses. This represents a hugely important (and altogether inconvenient) factor that is overlooked by conventional models of training theory.
Essentially, how the athlete anticipates, perceives and therefore experiences the training stimulus has a profound effect on the training stress response. The critical element of perception shapes the responses that are elicited post training, even at a hormonal level. This affects the athlete’s responsiveness to a training bout, and will also have implications for the athletes’ readiness for subsequent sessions.
Moreover, this perception – and in turn the stress response – is not even necessarily proportionate to the physiological stress applied by the training stimulus. This fact alone should be sufficient to blow the mind of the reader; and of course defy even the most comprehensive spreadsheet calculations.
As Kiely identifies, a host of psycho-social factors can influence the perception and experience of training, and therefore the ensuing training stress response.
Coach-Athlete Interaction Influences Perception
Another key influence is the interaction between coach and athlete. The human aspect of coach-athlete interaction is a critical element that can have a profound effect on how the athlete perceives, experiences and therefore responds to the training prescribed.
This troubling notion means that even the best programme on paper may not be effective unless presented in the right way. If the athlete lacks faith and respect for the coach the programme will be doomed from the outset. Conversely a distinctly average programme can produce results, simply because the athlete believes in their coach and their methods.
Retiring Machine Approaches to Programming and ‘Spreadsheet Thinking’
Returning to the revelation we opened up the post with, humans do not respond in a stable or predictable manner whereby input equals output. Taking a machine approach to training humans is clearly inappropriate.
The reality is that the response to training differs widely between individuals. Moreover, the training response is variable even within the same individual. Finally, training stress responses are influenced by a host of dynamic and interacting factors; all of which makes things inherently unpredictable.
At face value, most would agree it is obvious that humans should not be treated as machines. Returning to John Kiely’s writing, each athlete represents a ‘complex adaptive system’. Despite this, coaches and practitioners still commonly employ a spreadsheet approach to prescribing training. The notion that the athlete will be ready to lift 110% of their 1-RM on an arbitrary day or date simply because it was specified in advance as a ‘very heavy day’ on the programme is nonsensical. Nevertheless we see this approach practiced all the time.
Being Systematic Versus ‘having a System’
Directing the training process to achieve certain outcomes requires the practitioner to be methodical and coherent in their approach. Shotgun programming that lurches in one direction then another clearly has very little consistency or coherence and is unlikely to bring the desired outcomes, particularly over an extended timeline.
If we are clear on governing principles this allows freedom to select methods from a variety of sources and modify accordingly. Whilst this might be sacrilegious to purists and devotees of a particular system, it is possible to take the best parts without committing to any one camp.
Principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a given sport or athletic event there are a range of athlete ‘archetypes’ that the coach or practitioner will commonly encounter. For instance, there are archetypes that respond to very different approaches to training. An example of this might be a ‘work horse’ who craves and responds to high training volume, versus a ‘Thoroughbred’ who does best with quite brief high output sessions and requires extended regeneration in between.
Whilst the notion of athlete archetypes is useful, it is important to recognise that in reality this is a spectrum. On that basis, rather than assigning athletes to a pigeon hole, it is more of a judgement of where each athlete sits on that continuum between the opposite extremes or ‘poles’ of athlete archetypes. The athlete’s background and training history must also be considered, as this will inevitably leave traces, which in turn impact how they deal with and respond to the training prescribed.
Uncertainty may be uncomfortable for some, it is nevertheless a critical first step. So discard the security blanket. Cast off the shackles that come with being bound to a regimented system of operating. Freedom permits exploration and allows practice to evolve over time.
It is possible to be systematic whilst adopting an adaptive plan and a responsive approach to meet the needs of the individual and the situation at hand.
Whilst acknowledging the uncertainly, we can nevertheless outline a road map to guide planning and training prescription. From this starting point we can take a responsive approach to help navigate the unknown and shifting terrain, allowing us to steer and adapt our course as we go.
Map Origin and Destination
Devising a route begins with identifying (1) point of origin, and (2) the final destination.
The first task for the practitioner therefore is to evaluate the starting position or entry point for each athlete. The next step is to define the desired end point, and specify the time-frame (e.g. culmination of the training year or competition season).
Thereafter we must recognise that there are a number of potential routes between these two points. Likewise, whatever route is chosen initially, it is possible to divert as the need arises to negotiate unforeseen issues, secure in the knowledge we can still continue to progress towards the desired final destination.
No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy
Helmuth von Moltke
The dynamic and unpredictable nature of training athletes calls for adaptable planning and responsive programming.
As described we can establish start-point and map end-point in advance. Whilst the practitioner might sketch out the steps in between ahead of time, practically the future is unknown and the path cannot be fully anticipated.
With a final nod to John Kiely, we must recognise the topography and terrain are constantly changing. Practically, it would seem sensible therefore to restrict timelines when providing programmes in advance.
Accommodating Diversity and Individual Progressio
As noted in the previous section, the timing and rate of progression will differ between individuals. It follows that the way programmes are administered should include the facility to accommodate the time course of adaptation for individuals within the group.
All members of the group might begin the training year from approximately the same starting point and initial programme. Thereafter the practitioner administering the plan must allow for individual paths to deviate, based on how they respond. Essentially, the aim is that all members ultimately converge on the same end point at the culmination of the training year or macrocycle.
Prior knowledge and understanding of the athletes in the group may make the task of progressing training at different rates and time points more straightforward. That said, there will always be an ongoing need to monitor each individual’s output and subjective measures of training stress, readiness and recovery.
Responsive Prescription and Delivery
Responsive delivery essentially means a readiness to modify the session each day, based on observation and evaluation of the athlete when they arrive at the training facility. Taking a day-by-day approach is the only way to be responsive to the myriad of different factors at play when dealing with biological systems and athletes who are subject to a host of variable influences and stressors outside the training and competition environment.
Critical components for adaptable planning and responsive prescription similarly comprise regular feedback and review mechanisms to inform and refine the ongoing process of prescribing training. As part of this process, those athletes who possess sufficient understanding should also be afforded periodic opportunities to input on the ongoing programming process.
Managing Perception of Training Prescribed
A major part of managing how the training is perceived by the athlete is to ensure they are clear on the ‘why’ for everything in the programme. It is unsafe to assume the purpose is obvious; we must make the effort to connect the dots so that the athlete has absolute clarity on the rationale and desired outcomes.
Similarly, relating each exercise or element of the programme to the athlete’s sport or the specific demands they encounter in competition can be very powerful. Investing the time and making the effort to communicate this information – essentially presenting the case – can have a profound effect on how the athlete perceives the training prescribed.
Once the athlete has been part of the environment for a time, and attained a level of experience and understanding, it is important to allow the athlete some autonomy and input on the programme. This will allow them to begin to feel it is a shared endeavour, rather than perceiving the programme as something that is dictated to them. Being more invested in the training plan positively impacts how the athlete perceives, experiences, and responds to the training they perform.
Autoregulation demonstrates the value of provided the athlete even a limited degree of autonomy. Simply allowing the athlete to choose which of the sessions specified for that week they perform on the particular training day can have a positive impact on the training response elicited.