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Choosing a Training Program

What to consider when starting and choosing a training program: 

At the beginning of each season, it’s important to make sure that you have a few things in mind before actually beginning your training to make sure that you have the best chance of “success.”  The use of quotations around “success” is important to note. If at first you don’t have a destination or goal in mind, you won't actually know whether you’ve been successful upon the completion of your season. Lewis Carroll is quoted, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Although it would be great if we could apply a post hoc analysis of our season in sports to feel accomplished, our psyche doesn’t work this way and you’ll find yourself feeling uncertain and frustrated more often than not with this type of an approach. For that reason, the first and most important thing that you need in choosing a training program is an appropirate goal. 

With that goal in mind, you can then move on to search for a training program that fits your goals the most appropriately. When choosing a training program for my first marathon, I simply chose the plan that had the most miles in a week that I felt I could reasonably accomplish. At that time, I thought that to do well in a marathon meant that I would have to run a lot. Although that program helped me finish that marathon, it was lacking in so many other ways that lead me to be frustrated upon completing the race. 

The most important areas for you to consider when choosing and starting a plan are as follows: 

Pacing:

In the world of technology in sports, self pacing is a lost art. If you’ve raced before, you’ve likely seen people looking at their “smart watch” and adjusting their pace based on what the watch tells them. This is ok to an extent, but learning how to pace yourself is crucial to success, especially as the distance of your event increases. Even in track events as short as 400m the importance of understanding effort and pacing is vital to success or you'll fade toward the end of your race. Training programs should have aspects of pacing included in them, and if not included this is an aspect that should be included independent of the program. Ideally in racing you should have “negative splits” or “even splits” when comparing the first half of the race to the second half of the race. This generally assures that you’ll have the fastest possible time instead of fatiguing or “hitting a wall” toward the end. 

Intensity/speed:

Intensity and speed may seem a lot like pacing at first glance but there are several important differences. Pacing is the ability to run at a specific rate/speed for a given distance or time while intensity/speed is more focused on effort, particularly on the upper end of effort. Throughout a training week and a training program there should be changes in intensity, effort, and speed built in. The majority of free training programs have specific distances or time to run/ride/swim but often fail to mention at what intensity you should train. What people often do in this situation is to train at one intensity causing them to “settle in” to a slower fastest pace and a faster slowest pace. This is one of the primary areas that causes people to plateau in performance. Simply changing intensity during the week will help improve overall performance and decrease plateaus. 

Endurance:

There are several books and articles that have more recently proposed a “less is best” mentality, particularly in regards to marathon training. After all, the thought of giving your weekend to several hours of training can be daunting. I can’t dispute that you may be able to use this type of plan and be relatively successful, but conventional wisdom and studying the most successful distance runners shows that mileage and training frequency is important. When considering a training program and the goals that you have, it is important to take into account the length and frequency of training and be sure that it aligns with your intentions. 

Cross Training:

As a physical therapist, this is an area of utmost importance. Once of the primary difficulties in training for triathlons and running events is that those events are primarily sagittal plane activities (straight forward). What then happens is that athletes increase strength in this plane of motion while not increasing their strength in the transverse and frontal planes of motion. This is a contributing cause of the majority of overuse injuries that endurance athletes sustain. Particularly if you’re serious about longevity in your sport, cross training is essential to success. 

Nutrition:

Once again, as the distance and the intensity of your event increases, the importance of this aspect of a training program increases. One of the major mistakes that people make is training to eat as opposed to eating to train. The food and fluid that you consume is fuel to help you accomplish your goals and should be seen positively, not negatively. Not understanding nutrition and fuel needs is also a primary contributing factor to why people have difficulty losing or managing weight while training. Finally, the majority of people “bonking” or “hitting a wall” toward the end of their race is due to a failure to understand nutrition more than under-training.

Psychology

The majority of training programs fail to address the psychology of sport and training. Training programs are generally challenging, and racing can be down right frustrating. The challenge is also what so many people love about athletics! How to you adjust when things go poorly, when you're not successful, when you have a bad day, etc? How do you respond, what are you learning from your successes and failures? None of us will have good training sessions each time we train. How do you know when to push through and how do you know when to "call it a day?"  The more you're prepared for the ups and downs of a training program the more successful you will be.