Training Review Case Study 1

I recently started working with this athlete after they had struggled with fatigue and illness in the early part of the year. The athlete had reported not being able to do anything, getting too tired to train, then resting, then trying again with less training (and more rest?). Eventually they felt they would have to give up completely due to the continuing spiral of fatigue that was impacting on their work and life in general as well as leading to depression and anxiety.

 

The athlete uses a heart rate monitor and has done for some time, although doesn’t keep a regular training diary. I was able to upload the training data into a coaching tool called Training Peaks, which allowed me to get an overview of the training over the year. See the graph.

 

Training Review Graph

 

The graph may look complicated but in simple terms, the blue line represents the overall sustained training volume, the pink line shows the training at a given time and the yellow line represents the difference between the two; which is an indication of how fresh or fatigued the athlete is. For example, if the athlete trains for a long time with a short term load above the longer term load they will get increasingly fatigued and may end up in a state of chronic fatigue.

 

Looking at the early part of the season, the athlete had clearly built up a good level of training (blue line) but was almost continuously training above the level of fitness (pink line above blue line). The pink line drops below the blue line when the athlete gets ill and is unable to sustain the training load in February and towards the end of February they have to stop training completely as shown by the big drop in the pink line. The athlete was forced to spend several days in bed.

 

In order to get things back on track I suggested that the athlete significantly reduce the intensity of their training sessions, making use of the heart rate monitor to ensure the training load was as planned. I also carefully monitored the training load and asked the athlete to check their pulse each morning as well as think carefully about how they felt each day. I suggested they take a rest day if they felt at all tired or if they found it difficult to complete the planned training.

 

In this way, the athlete has been able to gradually build up training again and as can be seen from July onwards, the training volume (blue line) has gradually increased. Some short periods of rest are included as can be seen by dips in the pink line and high points in the yellow (freshness/fatigue) line.

 

The athlete has recently completed some hard races and longer training sessions and is now looking forward to some successful racing in the later part of the year.

 

Chapter 5 – Weight, diet and nutrition

The subject of this chapter involves three related concepts that are important to consider if you want to take part in competitive sport.

Whilst you won’t achieve sporting success as a direct consequence of your weight, diet and nutrition, it is certainly true that not eating properly will reduce or even negate your chances of success. It is for this reason that I have devoted a chapter of this e-book to nutrition.

A bit of philosophy

People take up sports and exercise for various reasons; some of the best athletes started out jogging to lose a bit of weight. It is also the case that people relate to sport in different ways and that the committed nature that goes with hard work and training can lead to obsessive and unhealthy behaviours; this is particularly the case when it comes to food.

It is hard to resolve the benefits of being thinner with the need to eat and fuel our bodies; there is always that nagging thought about whether being that bit thinner or lighter would be better. In endurance sport there is often a drive to be lighter since it is more efficient, i.e. it takes less energy to carry less weight, but of course we can’t perform if we are too thin because our bodies stop working.

Combined with this efficiency is the drive to look the part, particularly when wearing the skimpy clothing associated with many sports, whether that be for men or women but probably more so for women in our culture. I think this is very much a personal thing and although we may feel it inside, how we look is secondary to what we do in all walks of life.

The ideas of optimum weight, losing weight while exercising and indeed how effective exercise is in promoting weight loss are all things that are part of peoples thoughts and the media, irrespective of whether relating to competitive sport or not.

Perhaps partly for these reasons, a significant percentage of my clients have had unhealthy concerns with food and weight. As an aside, these clients have found that refocusing their energies on their sport has enabled them to overcome their debilitating anxieties relating to food and diet.

It is also very common in sport and exercise that one can exercise for a while and see really good improvements but then for no apparent reason start getting tired, be forced to take it a little easier, get more tired and end up in a downward spiral to a point of sometimes complete exhaustion. This is often a repetitive cycle, frustrating and depressing; particularly as the training and exercise is often fulfilling such an important part of the lives of those concerned. I think that this phenomenon is often at least partly a consequence of not meeting the nutritional demands of exercise in some way.

How to get it right

As with the physiological side of training it is important to establish some baseline values and some goals to work with. Once you have an idea of where you want to be it is relatively easy to take steps to get there, although this may take time since losing weight and not muscle takes time, as does gaining lean tissue (muscle) if that is what you need to reach your goals.

What is the best weight

In sport it is very difficult to establish the optimal weight. The norms of top athletes often do not match the guidelines proposed for the general public and there are a number of complex variables at play.

In general however, if your Body Mass Index, often referred to as BMI, is within the normal range (18.5 to 25) it is unlikely that you are at an unhealthy weight and this is a good starting point; although if you are concerned or those around you are showing concern you should see your GP (ideally one who understands sport) to check you are a healthy weight.

You can calculate your BMI using the tool here:

 

NHS BMI Calculator

 

If your BMI is below the healthy range you may be underweight, although many healthy endurance athletes have low BMIs. It is important to note that although others may have a low BMI it is not a sign that it is right for you and that it should be a goal to be below the healthy range. If you are below the healthy range it is a good idea to see what your GP (make sure your GP understands sports so they can make an informed assessment) or a good sports nutritionist thinks. This is particularly the case if you are feeling tired a lot and suffering from frequent illnesses. A low BMI isn’t necessarily an indication you are underweight but it is worth checking it out.

At the other end of the spectrum, an athlete with a BMI higher than the healthy range is not necessarily an indication of being over weight. Athletes commonly have more muscle mass than the general population and may have low body fat but a high BMI. Once again, use some common sense. Look at other athletes in your discipline and if you want a definitive answer, see a sports professional that can measure your body fat percentage and give sensible recommendations.

I do not recommend taking body fat percentages from machines such as weighing scales that say they give this type of data. The results are necessarily based on general algorithmic guidelines applicable to the general public and in my experience are often grossly inaccurate.

In summary then, calculate your BMI:

  • If you are within the normal range of BMI it makes sense to assume you are a healthy weight until you have an indication otherwise such as a measurement of body fat percentages from a sports professional;
  • If your BMI is below the recommended healthy range it makes sense to get it checked out to make sure you are not underweight. If you are underweight you are unlikely to perform at your best and may make yourself very ill; and
  • If your BMI is above the recommended healthy range this isn’t necessarily an indication you are over weight so use some sense checks before you make a final decision to lose weight and if you do decide to lose some weight, make sure that you lose weight slowly to avoid losing muscle mass.

If you want an accurate assessment of your best training and competition weights then see an appropriate professional to get your percentage body fat measured and accept their recommendations.

Where next?

Now you have your weight and an idea of whether you want to stay the same, gain weight or lose weight. Based on this you can calculate your nutritional needs.

I tend to base my thinking on the guidelines in Anita Bean’s excellent book: The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.

It is important to consider your nutritional needs in combination with the demands of your sport since athletes have different needs to non-athletes. This makes sense since athletes train hard and need to adapt and build fitness in response to training stimuli.

In particular, Anita Bean’s book recommends a higher calorie intake than diet trackers such as MyFitnessPal and also a much higher protein intake for people doing a lot of exercise. She also provides guidelines for weight loss and these are much more gradual than the usual norms so that body fat is targeted without losing muscle mass. It is very easy to lose muscle if calories are restricted too much and this is likely to be counterproductive. Of course too few calories will also result in poor recovery from training and possibly a consequent downward spiral to a state of chronic fatigue that can take months or even years to recover from.

Diet trackers can be used to give a good measure of calories as well as the amounts of basic nutritional groups and vitamins in your diet. Also be aware that keeping a track of your calorie and nutritional intake can help with losing weight in either a healthy or unhealthy way and can become an obsession or an aid. This can also give a good indication of what is happening with your existing diet by tracking what is going on if you input what you are eating. This helps in seeing where positive changes can be made.

I wrote a spreadsheet to make it easier to calculate your nutritional needs based on Anita Bean’s recommendations; you can download a copy from the Members Area if you like. To get MyFitnessPal to track your sports nutrition needs it is necessary to adjust the goals in the App to match the recommendations in the book, the spreadsheet, or other nutritional targets if you choose something different. Changing the goals is easy to do so don’t worry. Note that if you use any of the tools provided or recommended you should make sure the numbers make sense. The philosophy throughout this ebook is to help you take responsibility and control of your own goals and needs.

Other things

Good hydration is clearly very important and a small level of dehydration can have a negative impact on performance, both physical and mental. It is therefore important to drink enough fluids and keep an idea of how well hydrated you are. One of the easiest ways to check your hydration is to look at your urine, you can find colour charts on the internet. In general, if your urine is clear you are hydrated and if it is dark you are not.

One exception to this indication of hydration (though there may be more), is that if you spend the evening in the pub drinking alcohol after an event you are likely to have clear urine as a result of the diuretic effect of alcohol and the next day you may well find you are quite dehydrated. If you plan to celebrate with alcohol it is a good idea to hydrate yourself before you begin drinking. You may also be pleased to note that drinking alcohol is not necessarily detrimental to recovery or sports performance – use a bit of common sense and you will be fine.

Sports drinks work well in my experience, although it is quite easy to mix your own from cheaper ingredients to good effect (this is also covered in Anita Bean’s book). If you choose to use sports drinks in either training or racing then make sure you use them according to the instructions; a lot of effort now goes into the design and development of these products and to get the best out of them it is important to use them properly. Of course, some products will not agree with some people and it is therefore important to properly test that a given product works for you before you use it in an important event or training session.

Eating certain things at certain times relative to training can also help. This is a complex subject but in general it is good to make sure you take a source of protein and carbohydrate with every meal. A snack or drink containing both protein and carbohydrate after a training session has also been clearly demonstrated to aid recovery.

I’m convinced that proper nutrition is fundamental to successful sporting performance. In my experience, implementing positive nutritional guidelines makes a fundamental difference to whether you can exercise more and progress in your sporting (and life) goals.

I am not a nutritionist and therefore the details here are referenced to sources that I have tested and found to be good for me and also worked for athletes I have associated with. However, for this reason I haven’t included detailed recommendations but provided practical guidelines to help you develop and track your diet and nutritional intake. It isn’t complicated and weight, diet and nutrition aren’t the most important factors – just keep an eye on them and don’t get hung up.

I hope you find this blog useful and if I can help in any way please get in touch, leave a comment, me or fill in the contact form.

Most importantly, stay healthy and have fun.

 

Chapter 4: Keeping track of it all

You now have a goal and a detailed plan to meet your goal. You can access the earlier chapters of the ebook here if you want to review them.

In my experience it is useful for many reasons to use some measures to keep track of progress, fatigue and various other parameters. Don’t be scared if you’re not very technically minded, as it’s very easy and there are lots of free tools out there that you can use. I’m sure that you will find it quite interesting as well as a good way to make progress as effective as possible.

Here’s what we will consider

  • Keeping a training diary/log
  • How hard you are training at a given time?
  • How to measure fatigue?
  • Nutrition and eating enough of the right things

Training Diary

Keeping a training diary is a useful thing to do for many reasons and it isn’t too difficult. In fact it can be quite rewarding to reflect on how things have gone. Here are a few reasons:

  • Motivation: a record of the training you have done gives you confidence and also motivation to keep building on what you have done;
  • Progress: the record of each of your key sessions shows where you are improving;
  • Areas of improvement: if things aren’t quite going as you hoped, a review of some key sessions in your plan or some of the other recorded parameters that we will discuss may well explain why and what can be changed to get back on track;
  • Early warnings signs: by looking at trends in your diary you may be able to see that it is time to take a rest or make a change, ensuring your progress is the best it can be.

It is best at the start not to try and record too much since once the initial enthusiasm has worn off you don’t want it to become a burden. Fortunately there a number of free applications that can help track things over time and some have low price add-ons that enhance this facility further.

There are various on-line diaries that you can use. You can use a book and write things on paper or you can use the spreadsheet from my website; adding an extra row or some details in the ‘Objective’ box; many of the athletes I have worked with find this a useful way of keeping information in one place.

How hard are you training? Training Intensity?

It is often useful to measure your training intensity. You can do this in several ways such as:-

  • Recording how hard you think you are working (known as Relative Perceived Exertion – RPE). There are standardised scales for this and it can be a good idea to use one of these. An example is provided below.
  • Measuring your heart rate during exercise;
  • Measuring your running speed using GPS – this is only effective on relatively flat and even surfaces;
  • Measuring your power if you are a cyclist.

Perceived Exertion (RPE)

The cheapest of these is estimating how hard you are working based on a standard scale. This is remarkably accurate once you are used to it and before the days of heart rate monitors was what people used. I am also aware of some very successful elite (World Champion) athletes that still work with RPE, either informally or formally. Here is a common system I like, the Borg 10 point scale (note there are many scales and also other Borg scales):

Borg 10 point scale

As a guide, once you have done some training you are likely to be able to sustain a Perceived Exertion of 4 to 5 for about an hour so for the examples we have used previously, running 5km or cycling 10 miles your race pace effort would be 5 or 6. Your easier exercise between key sessions should be around 2 to 3 and your longer session if it is a secondary key target should be of moderate effort, 3 building to 4 at the end.

You cannot sustain the higher levels, 7 to 10 for a long time so Extremely Strong would be working as hard as you possibly can for a few seconds.

Heart Rate

Nowadays it is relatively easy to measure heart rate during exercise. You can use a smart phone with a suitable chest strap (many of these use Bluetooth technology), or you can use a dedicated heart rate monitor which usually gives a read out on a wrist-watch or other display unit that picks up a signal from a strap around your chest. I find the wrist-watch option most convenient for running but for cycling, other good options are to mount your phone or cycle computer on the handlebars where you can see it. Again, for triathlon, a watch is best since it stays with you through all disciplines.

To use a heart rate monitor effectively you will need to set some training zones that are personal to you and there are a number of ways to do this. The easiest is to base the zones on your maximum heart rate.

You can estimate your maximum heart rate using a rule of thumb: a commonly used method is to subtract your age in years from 220. So if you are 37 years old your maximum would be around 183 beats per minute (this is a very rough guide so if you are going to use heart rate consistently it is best to do a test to find your maximum):

220 – 37 (years old) = 183

(maximum heart rate = 183 beats/minute)

You can also do a test to measure your maximum heart rate. Find a hill that you can run up at a good pace that will take you 5 minutes to run. After a warm up, run as hard as you can for 2 minutes, have 15 seconds rest, run up as hard as you can for another minute, have 5 seconds rest and then run as hard as you can until you have to stop or you reach the top of the hill. Your heart rate should be a good estimate of your maximum and if you have a monitor that records you can read off the highest heart rate that you reached.

As you train more you will be able to adjust your maximum heart rate – for example if you see it go higher – but don’t worry, it isn’t critical to get an exact reading and as with everything our body changes all the time.

Once you have your maximum heart rate you can calculate some zones; there are many different approaches but most heart rate monitors such as Polar, Suunto and Garmin use the zones in the table below based on 10% ranges up to your maximum. The more sophisticated monitors allow you to set your own zones. Heart rate zones are just a relative measure of effort so as long as you are consistent you can use any and vary your training accordingly.

Heart rate zones - 10% zones

I will put the spreadsheet in the members’ area so you can download it and use it. As usual make sure the numbers make sense for you – you are responsible for your own training.

Other methods

Speed zones for running and power zones for cycling are a little more complicated to set up and require more specialist equipment. If you need some help setting these up then please get in touch and I will help you.

Power is definitely a good way to train for cycling and I recommend it based on considerable experience. Power zones can be used in the same way as the heart rate based zones shown and these are relatively easy to set up based on a few tests. In addition to this there are a lot of relative metrics giving insights into strengths and weaknesses that can make very significant differences in performance when used effectively.

How tired are you?

In order to get the most out of your training and also be a reasonable human being, it is important that you are not over tired. In fact you will get the most benefit from your training if you are properly rested before the session, particularly the key sessions. You can refer back to Chapter 2 to get a more detailed idea of this.

How you feel is an excellent indication of how rested you are but we can also fool ourselves and also because we want to get fit and train hard, not be lazy, etc, there can be a temptation to push too hard at the wrong time.

In order to try to avoid this path to over training, there are a number of things you can measure that will help your decisions and give an indication of how well you are recovering from your training sessions.

  • Resting heart rate
  • Heart rate variability
  • How you feel
  • Weight
  • Sleep time and quality

Resting heart rate is the most simple to measure. In general, the lower the better and once you have a few days of heart rate measurements you will have a feel for your normal resting heart rate . If there is a sudden change then it may be an indication of fatigue or illness and it may well be best to be cautious and have an easier day, postponing any hard sessions until you are back to normal.

It is best to check your heart rate at the same time each day and as part of a routine, probably the best time is on waking, before you get up.

Obviously it is cheapest and simplest to just count for a minute since there is no multiplication but the number of beats in 15 seconds (multiplied by 4) or 30 seconds (multiplied by 2) gives a good indication.

You can use an App on your phone; I have found that the Azumio apps that use the camera of smartphones are very good and convenient. If you have a heart rate monitor you can use that and some of the more sophisticated heart rate monitors now have in-built tests to check recovery, though I am not sure of the accuracy of these as yet, having spent a bit of time comparing the watch tests with other data I have collected (watch this space for further discussion and data in a future blog).

Heart rate variability is similar to heart rate but can only be measured with electronic equipment, although Azumio use this as part of their Stress Check 2 App. Since resting heart rate is a good measure it is simplest and best to stick with that for the moment. I mention variability for completeness and to make you aware of developments if you want to look into things further.

How you feel is still probably the best way to understand how well recovered you are but it is often difficult to believe yourself and that is why many athletes end up over-tired and over-trained because they push themselves when they should have rested. It is a good idea to write down how rested and energetic you feel each morning, you can use a scale of 1 to 10 or something different (perhaps you prefer ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘tired’, ‘very tired’) but it is good to use something tangible for comparison to allow you to spot trends up or down and odd things that may indicate something to take note of like sudden tiredness, which can indicate the possibility of illness coming on.

Being unusually irritable or stressed can also be a sign it is time to back off a bit. Although these things may not be caused by your exercise they are still an influence on your resilience and ability to adapt to training. If things are getting too much, it may be better to go out for some easier enjoyable training rather than force yourself to do the session in your plan.

Learning to listen to your body and mind and trusting your instincts is perhaps the most valuable skill you can develop as an athlete.

Weight is a good measure and although you may have a goal to lose weight it is important to do this gradually, have a look at the blog ‘exercise more, eat better’. Here we are interested in fluctuations in weight. If you lose weight quickly it could be a sign to be concerned. There is more on diet and eating well in the next section.

Sleep time and quality is a good indicator and also something to ensure you get enough good quality sleep and relaxation. Unfortunately, when we are tired and stressed it seems to be harder to sleep than when we are happy and relaxed – perhaps the opposite of what we need.

What do all these measures mean?

You may well be asking what all these measurements and feelings mean and how you will know when it is best to have a break? Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules and what works for one person may be totally different for another. The important thing is to build up a database of measurements that allows you to see that things are behaving as you expect and to spot changes quickly so that you can act before you get too tired and keep your training at the optimal.

This is really a major advantage of having a coach or someone who understands you and what you are trying to do that isn’t quite as emotionally involved as you are. If not a coach, then try asking a training partner, a close friend or work colleague that can tell you if you look unwell or are unusually grumpy to give an early warning sign. Be careful though and try to choose someone that understands sport and believes in your goals, not someone who thinks you would be better jacking it in and watching television every night.

Are you eating optimally?

Eating enough and enough of the right things is vitally important to success in sport, it won’t make you succeed but if you don’t eat properly you are unlikely to succeed and if you are successful in your goal then you are unlikely to be fit and healthy for very long and further success is less likely.

Again, my blog ‘Exercise more, eat better’ discusses nutrition and fatigue in more detail.

I will devote a chapter to getting your diet right later in the series rather than squeeze the details in here so I won’t discuss nutrition further at this stage, other than to reinforce the fact that you won’t be able to train hard for long if you don’t eat enough and/or you are significantly under weight.

Summary

This chapter has covered a lot, and now you can go forward:

  • training at the right intensity;
  • understanding how you are recovering from training and spotting excessive fatigue;
  • aware of the importance of eating the right amount and the right things; and
  • keeping track of training, recovery and progress in your training diary;

Good luck, have fun and please let me know what you think or ask if you have questions.