Training Principles

It’s a rest day, I’m on a plane heading out to San Diego, and I am bored.  I’m also still trying to workout the best way to train with my work and travel schedule as crazy as it has been.

Any training plan that I devise will need to be quite flexible and simple in order to succeed.  To do that well requires a return to the principles that I have learned about successful training approaches.

Principle #1:  Decide why you are exercising or training.

It is possible to have multiple answers to this question.  In fact, the more reasons you have, the more likely you are incorporate exercise into your life on a permanent basis.  I started exercising as part of an effort to lose weight, and it worked.  I took off 50 pounds.  I also was diagnosed with high blood pressure and my family has a history of cardiac and circulatory disease, and I don’t want to die.  These are the underlying, bedrock reasons why I want to regularly exercise.  But these have been true for my entire adult life, and they were not sufficient to motivate regular exercise until I found a way to connect in to my competitive drive.  Basically, as soon I found the Concept2 online rankings, I wasn’t exercising anymore, I was training.  Specifically, I was training to row faster.  Even more specifically, I was training to row faster than other people.

Rowing on the erg led me to rowing on the water, and that opened up new challenges, both in trying to master the technique and also new ways to compete.  Not only did physical fitness matter, but so did technique, steering, strategy and experience.

Now in addition to objectives to stay healthy, I work to be a better, faster rower than I was the year before and to try to catch up with people that are faster than I am.

Principle #2: Decide how much time you have to train.

Once you do, try to stick to it.  Be brutally honest with yourself up front.  I’ve experienced how demotivating it is to plan more training than I can do and then miss sessions and lose momentum on a training plan.  It would have been much better to set my sights lower.

Principle #3: Set specific a objective and use it to guide your training.

I choose a specific race in the future.  Right now, it is the Cromwell Cup, a 1000m sprint in a few weeks.  After that it will be the Head of the Charles, which is a 5K head race.  You need to know what you are training for to plan out how to train.

Principle #4:  Plan your training before you go to train.

This can be at different levels of specificity.  It might be much easier to decide ahead of time the exact sessions that you will be doing for the next three months, but that only works if you have very good control of your schedule.  If you schedule is erratic, a specific day by day plan won’t work.  In that case, planning a certain mix of training for the week and shuffle it around to make sure that the highest priority sessions get done.  Right now, I am in final prep for a sprint race on July 10th, so my weekly guide is:

  • 2 or 3 sessions that include racing starts
  • 1 session a week with 500m to 1000m intervals at close to race pace
  • 1 session a week with 100m to 500m intervals at faster than race pace
  • as much volume below 2.0mmol/l lactate as I have time for

Principle #5:  Hold yourself accountable.

I find this easiest to do by training publicly.  I try to define my next day’s workout the day before and put it in my blog.  I know that very few people read it, but the fact that I’ve done that makes me feel accountable to either do what I planned or explain why I didn’t.  It is important to make the distinction between accountability and rigidness.  If I don’t follow through with the planned workout, or if I don’t hit my targets, that isn’t a failure.  I just want to be honest with myself about why I changed the plan or wasn’t able to execute it.  That way I can adjust and improve.

Principle #6:  Evaluate performance objectively.

Set quantitative goals and use performance tracking to determine if they are met.  Use past performance to set goals for future workouts.  Try to do the same thing if you are working on technique.  Either use video, or acceleration data to see if changes in technique actually occur.  My ability to remember past performance and discern if I have corrected technique problems is limited at best.

Principle #7: Seek advice, carefully evaluate it and decide if you will use it

There are many people with opinions.  Not all of them are well informed.  It is up to you to figure out what advice is credible and useful and what is not.  Try to establish the quality of the source of advice.  Try to understand the principles on which the advice is based.

Principle #8: Miles make champions

Endurance is critical to all rowing competitions longer than 500m. Building a strong aerobic base is necessary to perform well. The most important factor to building endurance is the volume of training done at low intensities.

Low Intensity Training (LIT) is defined by a blood lactate level below 2.0 mmol/l at the completion of the workout. In order to maximize the effectiveness of endurance training, blood lactate level should be greater than 1.4-1.6mmol/l at the end of the session. Lactate levels should be periodically checked and as fitness improves, LIT intensity should increase to ensure that the end work criteria of 1.4-2.0mmol/l is met.

Endurance training can be continuous or interval based, constant rate or variable rate, as long as it meets the intensity criteria. Up to 1/2 of all endurance training can done as cross training.

Lactate testing is a pain in the ass, does not provide realtime feedback and is pretty much impossible to do in a boat, so an alternative method of gauging intensity is needed. The best alternative for is to use heart monitoring and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) together. By using HR in sessions where lactate is checked, a rough correlation between ending HR and lactate level can be drawn. This can be used as a limit in future workouts until another lactate test is done. The important thing to remember is that this is not a very exact thing. A little too hard or a little too easy will not have much impact on the effectiveness of the workout. The key thing is that easy workouts should be easy.

Principle #9:  If all you do is row slow, you will get good at rowing slow

High Intensity training is necessary to maximize performance at any distance from 100m to a full marathon.  There are different energy systems that are used in maximal efforts.  If these are not specifically trained, performance will suffer.  At least 2 sessions of high intensity training per week.  High Intensity Training (HIT) includes very short intervals, short intervals, long intervals, and hard distance workouts.  The key criteria of these workouts is that lactate levels well above 4.0mmol/l are achieved.  The most convenient way to measure this is to track HR and measure time above lactate threshold.

Principle #10:  You need to be able to pull hard to win races

The ability to generate high peak force on the handle is critical to achieving good speed off the line and to be able to sprint at the finish.  The more force you can exert also means that you can work at lower stroke rates with higher efficiency.  Including some kind of peak power training is useful, especially for sprint racing (1Ks, 2Ks). This can be done on the erg or in the boat with very short intervals with generous rests, or through weight training.  During sprint season, at least one session per week should include peak power training.

Principle #11:  Strength Training is useful, but not critical

This is disputable.  If you have specific strength deficits, then strength training can help with them.  Otherwise, it is mainly useful for muscle group balance and injury prevention.  Right now, I have deprioritized strength training in favor of additional endurance training within the time budget that I have set.  I know that other folks believe this should be a higher training priority.

Principle #12:  Mesocycles work, change it up.

Performance improvements will plateau after 4 to 8 weeks of training with a specific focus.  To combat this plateau, mesocycles can be used to vary the focus of training in blocks.  This can be programmed in a way to build toward a specific event and yield better results than a plan that has the same types of sessions over time.  The final mesocycle before a key event should be focus on maximize performance for the event type.

Principle #13:  The overload principle

Improvement in performance comes from the overload principle. For high intensity workouts, setting targets for pace to be slightly faster than previous results.  For low intensity workouts, increasing duration, and nudging up pace to stay in the desired lactate range over time.  Gradual overload is important.  Big steps in pace are an invitation to disaster.  Big increases in volume can lead to injury as form suffers when you are fatigued.

Principle #14:  Resting is part of training

Rest and recovery are critical to progress.  It is OK to have weeks that over load and under recovery, but these must be followed by weeks where the recovery takes place.  As a general rule taking one day of complete rest per week is vital.  By complete rest, I mean no rowing at all.  The logic behind no rowing is to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury.  Some kind of other gentle exercise is OK as long as it isn’t long duration and isn’t intense.

Principle #15:  Get a coach

A principle I haven’t been able to follow, but is holding me back.  Real time feedback on performance, especially on technique is critical to improvement.   One Caveat, you and coach need to agree on principles.

Principle #16: Training is easier and more fun if you have training partners.

Thats the thing that I miss most by developing my own training plans.

Principle #17: Lighten up.

If you are reading this, then it is more than likely that you aren’t a professional athlete. We all have jobs, friends and family that are more important than achieving perfection in the execution of our training plans. I am all for having the grit to pound out that last 500 when your legs feel like jelly. I am all for dragging my ass out of bed at 5:15 to get in a training session before work, but if life gets in the way, that’s OK. There are more important things in life than rowing a long skinny boat faster.

Principle #18: Be resilient.

This one goes along with the one before. If sports are not your number one priority, then it is likely that your life will sometime conspire to make you miss your training objectives. When it happens, and it will, just pick yourself up, honestly assess where you fitness is and make a new plan. One of the best things about keeping good training records is that you can look to see how much training you’ve missed and spot trends like regularly missing training volume plans. You can use this to make your plans more realistic or change your priorities or schedule.

Principle #19: Be skeptical.

The world is full of people that are full of crap. They use the internet to spread the fertilizer. There is a lot of good advice out there too. It’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. Here are my thoughts.
– Research is limited and flawed, but at least multiple people with lots of training in the field have looked at and critiqued it. Its up to you to figure out if it actually applies to your situation.
– Beware of plans for Olympians: I think the most important factor in race performance is total training volume. Elite athletes spend 40 hours a week training. I spend less than 10. That difference is huge and limits the applicability of anything done at an elite level.
– Beware of the “It worked for me” folks. That means you should beware of me too. The critical test is whether or not the advocate can answer the question, “Why does this work?” If it is not based on testable principles or there are not good answers to reasonable questions, then proceed with some caution.
– Beware of facts not in evidence. If someone says that they improved their 2k score by 20 seconds by doing two high intensity erg sessions a week, try to find out what else they are doing. For all you know, they might be running 10 miles every morning. If you just do the erg part, you will probably not see the same results.