Thursday, April 7, 2011

There's no such thing as "The Only Way"

Here's an article I recently wrote for Enjoy...

There's no such thing as "The Only Way"

Recently, I read a blog post from 2-time Ironman World Champion, Chris McCormack, "Macca." The blog talked about the simplicity of his training, and he illustrated a great point, that many athletes get too caught up in numbers and data, not trusting their instincts. (The post can be read here:

Chris' blog post was motivated by a great interview with one of the top coaches in the sport, Brett Sutton, on IM Talk. I listened to the entire interview, and I agree with a lot of what Brett says, but of course the devil is in the details and he speaks in large generalizations, because he has to, each scenario is different. (Brett's interview can be heard here:

As a guy who is one of the biggest preachers of periodization, data and numbers, it might come as a surprise to find out I agree with Brett and Chris' basic concepts and beliefs. So many times athletes end up relying too much on numbers, and end up doing a numbers dance on race day, instead of RACING. Many times I see athletes who view their current power zones and think they can't surpass them. Suddenly the numbers are limiters, instead of being simply guidelines.

If you listen to Brett and Chris speak in the interview and blog, they are very critical of the use of tools, and Brett is especially critical of the idea of periodization. They call power meters and GPS devices gimmicks, toys or gadgets. To hear them, anything which seems close to periodization or provides feedback is blasphemy. I would argue they simply disagree with the common use today of these tools, and instead differ in the tools they use and the periodization model they follow.

So before every age-grouper goes and totally trashes these tools and decides to eliminate periodization from their training, I think it's important to consider the following...


Periodization simply means, "training periods." I highly doubt that Brett and Chris never change the training stimulus, and conduct the same workouts all the time. Chris even discusses the need to balance all three sports, which requires changing training stresses.

Even in the interview, Brett discusses the need to train specifically for the race demands. So basically, Brett doesn't believe in traditional periodization, and to some degree, I can agree with that. Macca the same. But it is not that they don't believe in adjusting training stress, they just disagree with how it has been traditionally done. Anytime you change the stress for a period of time, with a different focus, that is "periodization."

Though it is effective for beginner to intermediate level athletes, (even many advanced level), traditional linear, reverse, undulating and similar periodization models do not seem to be as effective for high level, elite athletes to be competitive at the top of the sport. But you need to be at a high enough level of an athlete to make a different periodization model more effective than the traditional ones. You need to be able to advance the training at a rapid rate, and at a high enough volume. This requires a very high level of commitment, which most age-groupers can't do. Brett even discusses the level of commitment required, and how long it takes.

Training Tools

When it comes to their dislike for tools and "gadgets," Macca discusses using the clock on the wall to determine an hour run, trying to be back just on feel to one hour. THE CLOCK IS A TOOL! It provides feedback to Chris as to how in touch with reality his perception and perceived exertion is. This way, when he feels like he can make a move on the run in a race, he trusts that he can do it. He's proven it in his training.

Brett says he wants his athletes to stop using tools, and doesn't use a stopwatch either at track. But Brett pulls the reins in on his athletes during their 20x800 track sessions. Guess what Brett? YOU ARE THE TOOL FOR THE ATHLETES! He is the tool the athletes use to hold themselves back and reach the goals of the workout. Brett is the measuring stick by which the athletes measure themselves. Does Brett approve of their pace, their training intensities, their fitness levels? The athletes under him have their own perceived exertion levels, but if Brett disagrees with it, then it is not in touch with reality.

Our perceived exertion levels are only as reliable and good as their connection with the reality of our fitness and capabilities. Chris and Brett simply don't like to use the common power meter and GPS or stop watch for running to determine this. The better they see the skill of perceived exertion being correct, the better feedback they get/give.

Again, even as a "data and numbers geek," I agree athletes need to RACE, and quit staring at the numbers. Athletes need to build trust in their perceptions, take risks and learn what their capable of. Chances are they are more capable than they realize of better performance, if simply break the chains of the power meter zone, or running at a set pace.

But this is an acquired skill that takes months, if not years, of development, and has to happen over the course of each season as well. Brett and Chris are guys who don't balance a full time job with coaching/training. They can conduct the sessions required to learn this skill in a much more rapid timeframe than the average age-grouper. Brett can isolate athletes in a camp and keep an eye on them on a regular basis. He does this well, and the results are clear, but that's not reality for many athletes in the sport.

What can athletes do to improve their perceived exertion? USE THE TOOLS AND GADGETS! However, conduct many workouts where you simply cover them up, and stop looking at them. When the workout is complete, look and see how you did, relative to what your perceived exertion levels were.

Probably the best aspect of using tools and gadgets is the data provides a record of what actually happened. It provides guidance and feedback for how the training is progressing, and helps sets benchmarks for athletes to review and try to exceed. In future seasons, it helps show a path, or give guidance to new training decisions.

I tell athletes all the time, "The data isn't for you, it's for me!" I'm the coach, and I need more than just you telling me, "It went well," or "It went bad." My ability as a coach to give you feedback, especially if I can't be there to see and watch the sessions, is dependent on the quality of the feedback I get from you, the athlete. Tools which provide data about the sessions are the most pure feedback there is, and when used in conjunction with athlete feedback, becomes even more powerful.

I get the sense it is better for these two to say it is all art, and not science, because then it sounds like they are the only ones capable of doing it correctly. It is certainly an art and science mix, but to say one artist's way is the only way is not something most would ever agree with.

In short, Brett and Chris are very successful, but don't believe that their way is the only way or the best for each athlete.

Coach Vance

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