Building my Triathlon Training Plan and Dodging the Pitfalls of Self Coaching

A month is a more than adequate break. Announcing plans to train seven days after Kona proved premature, aside from some hard rides punctuated by coffee stops I didn’t get beyond contemplation. After four weeks there’s no doubt I’m recovered and risking a slide into apathy if I don’t get moving.

Having set goals the missing piece is a plan. Spending hours building them for others you’d think I’d be good at it, but for some reason self coaching is harder. I’ve said all athletes lie and unfortunately also deceive ourselves. Building my schedule requires a constant reality check to avoid an impossible program derived from training PBs.

I decided the best approach was to treat myself like any other athlete I coach. Follow the exact same process and force myself to adopt an outsider’s perspective to my own training. What would I be setting a well trained athlete who’d taken a month off and experiencing run issues in his previous training block?

To start I needed a season plan, breaking the year down into phases around my events. It starts easily with a transition from sitting around to exercise before the main phase where I build the fitness I’ll refine in the peak. The peak phase of race focussed training and practice events leads to the competitive phase around the time I taper for Austria.

Defining a macrocycle is a new venture in self-coaching, the regularity of racing has previously excused me ‘just training‘. I could follow that approach, but having high level structure helps me focus on exactly how I should train. If clear macrocycle phases were a departure, putting in place mesocycles is even more radical.

The mesocycle is a block of around four weeks which targets particular areas of training and fitness. My history is built from incidental mesocycles around race recovery and tapers. I’d flirted with the idea leading to Kona having a run specific phase before a bike specific phase (partly injury induced). The next year sees me fully adopt it.

The season progresses through cycles of run focussed blocks, followed by bike focussed blocks and finally a mixed focus through the peak phase. These focuses aren’t about dropping other training, but I won’t work as hard on cycling whilst I’m focussed on running (I’m trying to keep swimming consistent throughout). There’s an element of experimentation, but I think this structure gives the best chance of delivering the run and bike improvements I need.

Planning with mesocycles is a mental crutch to stop me being led astray. I know when I plan microcycles the temptation is to sneak in more. Perhaps I could get away with it when training was built around volume, but it doesn’t work well with more precise aims. I need a constant reminder to keep my training load manageable and directed towards a goal.

Defining mesocycles also helps pull me away from attempting detailed plans through to the race. Like weather forecasts programs become increasingly inaccurate the further they are from the present. Phases of the macrocycle will largely be correct, the mesocycles might change depending on events, but I can’t precisely define a microcycle for two months time.

New for the 2011 season I’m only planning daily schedules for the coming mesocycle, roughly a month at a time. If I plan three months in advance I’ll be changing those plans a month down the line, I’m saving myself work and only considering the training I need to. As I end of one mesocycle I’m in a much better position to judge progression for the next. It works for my athletes so it should work for me!

My weekend of planning resulted in a season plan (hopefully leading through to both Kona and the ITU Long Distance Worlds) and a detailed two week plan for my transition back to training. I’ve not thrown myself into huge rides or hard sessions, the emphasis is on frequency. No attempt to be at peak fitness I’ll be happy to get myself ready to start the first run block of my build.

Once more I’m left to execute this plan. I’m certain the load is more manageable than before, I just wish the weather conditions would improve! I’ve forgotten what autumn and winter are like, my biggest challenge is leaving the warmth of my bed for the cold outside.

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  • Very interesting topic Russ, it would seem you’ve clearly identified one of the major dangers of self coaching, namely that very few of us can make a clear honest assessment of our own performance – a good example being that even the best athletes in the world still get coaching.

    By factoring in continuous feedback through your mesocycle planning, you will certainly have ample opportunity against which to judge performance, and fortunately the results you are after also leave little room for interpretation, making it harder to deceive yourself. You are either on track or you aren’t.

    Also the adaptability of your plan seems sensible in that you can change mesocycle according to demand, it would be foolish not to. The theory of the structure of the plan and the flexibility to plan accordingly therefore seems secure.

    My only concern is that whilst you address the major danger of let’s call is ‘self-deception’, the feedback mechanisms your plan has built into it, don’t necessarily ‘force’ you as you say to have an unbiased approach.

    An outsider’s perspective is what you have identified you need, but I’m not sure you can force yourself to see it. Maybe in the past you haven’t truly treated yourself like one of your own athletes because you can’t?

    Will this plan actually help you dodge the pitfalls of self coaching?

  • Andy,

    Good points and I think you raise a difficult question to really answer. The way I’m approaching the plan, in line with the way I coach others, puts in place a structure that should make it harder to be self-deceptive. I’d probably have to agree you can’t really be your own outside observer and sometimes that is what’s needed. Now whilst I do take input from others and get some outside input, there’s still the issue that I choose the advice I listen to and can be bias in that too.

    From my perspective I need to carefully follow my training data – the power, paces, RPEs and HRs for sessions. I’ve the opportunity to ensure feedback affects each coming block of training so I’ve given myself the best chance to utilise that information. Whether I take it is a question I can’t answer yet. I’ll admit I’m relying a lot on what the last few years of experience has shown me to judge the condition I’m in.

    It also raises a lot of interesting points about coaching itself. There are lots of reasons coaches can help aside from providing an appropriate plan. I know for many the fact that you report back to a (paid) third party makes them much more committed to the training. I certainly see a number of athletes who I think work much harder because they know I see their numbers.

    A coach does provide that impartial feedback on performance and what training should be done including making those difficult choices, persuading an over keen athlete to ease back a bit always being the hardest! With remote coaching there is still the opportunity for the athlete to indulge in ‘self-deception’ by not following the coach or misreporting training.

    I’m guilty of it myself in my early days when I was getting some coaching, I started doing more training than the plan. The flaw there is a failure in communication on either side and in that situation an athlete needs to tell the coach. In my self-coached example if I’m failing to follow my plan I need to seriously consider why and whether the problem is the plan itself.

    Not really an answer to your question. I suppose I think this plan will help with the pitfalls, but it won’t necessarily prevent them.

  • I like it Russ! Are you going to set yourself some measurable pre-Austria goals that you can test against at the end of each mesocycle and then use those results to tweak the coming mesocycles? Something like running 20km in N:NN with HR less than XX or biking 100km at N watts?

    I’ve been doing this via an arbitrary end of season CTL target – I can review progress at the end of each period and then plan how to get closer in the next period. This stops me from looking at the mesocycle in isolation and makes sure that each mesocycle helps build towards the end of season goal.

    (I’m not suggesting you use CTL targets, just some measure goals). Thoughts?

  • As you say, even with remote coaching there is the possibility for self-deception. But even in your case, you won’t likely be misreporting on your training, since you have public goals which you regularly report on, your making yourself accountable (in a way) to your blog-readers etc.

    The way in which you deceive yourself might be so subtle you wouldn’t even notice it – but is perhaps and area of your training you could still reap benefits.

  • John,

    I’ll be testing probably every other cycle to keep some track. I’ve a rough idea what I think I need to see in terms of being able to deliver the result I want. Really along the numbers I talked about when setting my targets for Austria.

    For swimming I’m working towards the point that my threshold pace or CSS is around 1:27 without a wetsuit. I managed that pace this morning, but having been out of the water for a long time it wasn’t my CSS!

    On the bike it’ll be power based and I will probably aim to be able to hold somewhere in the 240-250W region for a couple of hours at the end of a long ride in order to test this. I’ll also be tracking FTP and looking to raise that. Unlike swim and run not having a pace target makes it harder to know exactly what is needed for the race, I know that 190-200W got a 5:12 in Austria 4 years ago. I also know that 240-250W would be higher than I’ve managed this year by 10W.

    Running I’m aiming to be able to hold 4:16 min/km so in terms of testing I’m looking to get to the point where that’s a comfortable pace for a long run. One specific test there is my local half-marathon in March where I’m looking to go under 1:15. If I’m able to do that in March and can sustain the run fitness through to July (whilst focussing on the bike) then I should be in great shape to handle 4:16 min/km.

    I’ll tweak mesocycles based on a number of factors – results of test are definitely one, but also any noted weaknesses during the previous cycle or areas I feel need work. They’ll also be a natural progression in terms of the training load in terms of volume and intensity applied. Aside from that I’m aiming to make a trip or two on training camps where the aim will be to train a lot for a fitness boost.

    I’ll be tracking CTL too and ensuring the growth is manageable. I won’t target specific CTL because it’s hard to predict exactly where I’ll be in several months time. Hopefully going better than my current running!

  • Andy,

    Public accountability via the blog has always been one of the ways I try to keep myself focussed and working towards a goal. I have to admit I use a lot of those sort of ‘tricks’ to try to keep me on the right lines and avoid deceiving myself.

    There’s still opportunities for self-deception to creep in and I can certainly think of examples from the past couple of years. Enough I may well write a post on self-deception in training along with one on the evolution of my approach to training.

    Building my own plan I try to take from the ideas that have worked and avoid those that didn’t. You always have the issue of sample size as your own training may not be sufficient to draw the correct conclusions. I’m hoping that experience will be enough of a guide to ensure my plan follows the right principles and also that any self-deception will be subtle enough to not have a significant impact.

    It’s opened up some interesting areas to consider. Talking with an athlete I coached I commented how if I were to be coached I’d likely have a selection bias in choosing a coach – i.e. one that supported my views on training. Whether that is actually the best route is always another question, but again it’s an area that as athlete’s we may not make the optimal choice.