Hancycles, tricycles and training for Rio

A blog by Karen Darke, Hannah Dines and John Hampshire

me_in_cycling_jersey-profileI (John) first found out about handcycles when I visited Karen in Inverness in the Autumn of 2009. Before that, like many people, I hadn’t known of their existence and although I had obviously seen a tricycle I didn’t know much about them.

I started Coaching Karen shortly after that first visit and after 6 years, including her winning a Paralympic Silver medal from London 2012 we have both learnt a lot about handcycles and handcycle racing.

Recently I was fortunate enough to become friends with Hannah Dines, who is a tricycle rider on the British Cycling Team. Karen and Hannah are hoping to go the Paralympic Games in Brazil this September and to get medals in their respective disciplines.

Handcycles and more conventional tricycles, although both having three wheels are very different. However, in a very important respect they provide an opportunity to get out and enjoy the many benefits of cycling as well as the excitement of competition up to the highest level

Apart from the obvious mechanical differences there are more challenging performance aspects to be considered and that is where I focus as a coach. I try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both equipment and riders to help each athlete be their best.

Conventionally, Para-sport has been labelled disability sport but in reality this is just a way of determining competition forums that allow people to take part on a relatively equal footing. As a 52 year old man I cannot compete against men of relatively similar fitness in their 20s and 30s, although of course I am fitter than a lot of people that age. I therefore race against people my own age and category of fitness.

My point here is that to make the most of sport and competition, the important thing is to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete individually. Comparing these to the demands of the sport. By doing this it is possible to identify where gains and improvements can be made in a systematic and logical way. It is simple to say and difficult to do but it is interesting, challenging and exciting.

Karen in labKaren says: A few days ago marked 100 days to go until the start of the 2016 Paralympic Games. My ‘Paralympic’ focus began in 2008. It seemed a crazy dream to try and get to the 2012 Paralympics in London; little did I expect to be here for another four-year cycle and having a strong chance of selection and a medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

My first ever handbike experience was whilst in a spinal injuries hospital, trying out a clip-on handbike that fits onto the front of a wheelchair. I hated it as it didn’t support my upper body and I found myself just wobbling around and struggling to go any faster than my wheelchair. However, when I tried a recumbent handbike that supported my upper back and head, I was hooked. It’s a speed-machine. With good tarmac, I can steadily cruise at over 30kmph and if feeling edgy enough, I can fly at almost three times that speed downhill! In a good climate, it feels like a sun-bed on wheels; in a wet climate, like a broken shower spraying water in all directions. Regardless, I love it because it gives me so much freedom, allows me to get my heart rate to the max, stay fit and healthy and enjoy being outdoors.

But with three-months to go to Rio, I’m feeling a focus come over me like I’ve never felt before. It’s not a conscious decision…it’s like my body on all levels is preparing me to be in the best form possible, so that I can hopefully realise the dream I have this time; of up-grading from Silver to Gold. I believe I can do it, but it’s going to be a huge challenge. It seems that there is always at least one athlete I compete against who takes on a Goddess-like status, who just seems to have Gladiator strength and power. It’s an easy habit to diminish myself into the ‘underdog’, something I’ve been all too good at in the past. I’ve been a pro at putting myself on a psychological back step…seeing my competitors as stronger, faster and more capable, but knowing John is in my team for this ‘Round 2’, that we are nailing the training and the plan as well as working on the other ‘marginal gains’; all those tiny aspects that collectively can make a big difference, gives me a confidence I’ve never had before. Roll on Rio!

Hannahin a bunch in Italy Verola 2016Hannah says: Have you got neurological disorder that makes you fall over a lot? Wobble about all over the place? Get suspicious looks on the street doing your morning errands as people try and work out if you’re drunk or on drugs while you try and zigzag, inconspicuously, past them? I’m from Glasgow, so perhaps that’s less about my disability and more about the place in which I live.

Paracycling trike racing is cycling’s biggest up and coming discipline for people with a need for speed, who want to surf the tarmac are already used to feeling unstable and are ready to experience something incredible. Like surfing and mastering those incredibly powerful waves, trike riding is terrifying but also incredibly fulfilling and respect-worthy. Mastering a downhill or a corner takes a similar strength of character to BMXers, snowboarders, surfers. Red-Bull should be all over our helmets and our kit- an extreme sport for sure!

Racing trikes first developed as a sport for typically developed, able-bodied men who were bored of the arguably easier challenge of bike racing. Trikes are harder to handle, in a lot more ways than bikes.

The trike is stable at rest and requires a lot less coordination to get onto it and get it moving than your two-wheeled ride. Once moving though, that’s where it gets fun. To reassure you though, I fall off my trike a lot less than I fall off my legs. Walking is more dangerous and painful for me. That’s why trike racing appeals to me but it’s no toddlers’ game.

It takes away the need to weight bear, you never have to unclip your pedals, you can take an hour to heave yourself onto the saddle if you need, if you get the right frame you don’t have to lift your leg high over a crossbar.

You do have to work at keeping all three wheels on the ground, shifting your body weight for every pothole, corner and camber of the road.

There are mobility trikes out there, big stable beasts for pavement riding. Then there are light-weight, flashy trike shivs that stab into the horizon in a moment and can take you miles and miles into lands you could never have dreamed about. That is what it felt like when I changed from my ‘to school and back’ trike to my Geoff Booker light-weight steel custom frame(http://www.trykit.com/) and now I'm hoping to be selected for the Paralympics to represent GB. A bit different to your average school run.

Getting your hands on a proper racing trike, just to try, without spending the big bucks is the hard part. Harder in Scotland. British Paracycling only operates in England and Wales, email about trying out riding in Manchester. There is also the Tricycle Association, only in England, that often have second hand trikes to buy. You can always hit me up for more info: .

me_in_cycling_jersey-profile

A professional endurance coach since 2009, John Hampshire has worked with cyclists and runners from all over the world to help them achieve their goals. Whether you are training for your first road race or want to win an off-road trail marathon Coach John Hampshire can help you reach your potential and be your best. John enjoys working with a wide range of athletes from beginners to advanced as well as professionals. John offers personal coaching to individuals as well as teams and groups.

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Motivation magic

5 ‘magic’ tricks to get motivated

It’s a bit chilly and the excitement of the New Year may have worn off a bit so keeping to that exercise regime may be getting difficult. This could be particularly the case if your main targets are in the summer or similarly far away in time.

If you are struggling to keep getting out and exercising or sticking to your plan, here are a few ideas you might find helpful.

1. Make your exercise part of a routine

If you make your exercise part of your daily life it will be much easier. It takes a bit of motivation at first but once you establish the routine it is just what you do. I used to run in the mornings so got into the routine of getting up, putting my kit on and setting off. On some days it was so automatic I’m sure I didn’t properly wake up until I found myself half way round my morning run route. It is also a good idea to do the same thing every day or every working day if it is a morning routine; or at least most days but always have the same day off.

Other good ideas are to call in at the gym on your way home from work or during another trip. Exercise before going shopping at the weekend; there are many ways to do it. Be creative but remember it works best if you tag onto something you do already.

Make a promise to yourself to do at least 1 month of your new routine to make it a habit.

2. Sign up to a class or exercise with a friend

This is really about making a commitment. If you sign up to an exercise class or arrange to meet your friend at a given place and time you have made a commitment and if you don’t go you will be letting your friend down.

Following on from my morning run theme, I often used to run with a friend in the mornings, meeting at an appointed place at a given time meant there was no thinking involved just a case of getting up and getting to the meeting place.

Other similar things are joining a club that meets at the same time and place each week. Once you have made a few friends there, you will enjoy it and you will also know that they may ask you where you have been if you miss a session. Just a little more incentive to turn up.

3. Think about the benefits

Remember that you have many reasons for training, you may have a goal competition coming up and most of the time you probably enjoy the benefits of your training when you get back and often while you are exercising. If you are lacking in motivation just think of these things.

You can make a list of all the reasons you exercise and train. You can do this yourself, work on the list with a friend or ask a professional such as a sports coach to help you. Put the list on display somewhere you will see it, particularly somewhere you may see it if you are having trouble getting out to train. When you see the list it will help you remember all the good things about what you are missing out on and motivate you to train.

4. Keep a diary and look at it

Keep a diary and as you see how much training you have done, how things are improving you will be motivated to keep going. When you notice a positive change you can note it down and spend a little time thinking about how far you have come from where you started.

It is quite easy to keep a diary nowadays with the smart gadgets that record your exercise: heart rate monitors, GPS watches and tools on smartphones such as Strava, Garmin Connect and Suunto Movescount. These sites also form communities that you can use to help motivate you, automatically comparing your performances with your previous sessions as well as with others who do similar routes.

5. Tell someone about what you are doing, your plans and progress and get feedback

Working and training with a friend or coach is a great way to keep motivated. Coaches are professionally trained to help you stay motivated so their skills can be invaluable, your success is also their success so both athlete and coach can work together when the going gets tough.

It is sometimes difficult to stay motivated if you are trying to do everything yourself and with no support. If you don’t want to tell people you know about what you are doing you can work with a professional coach and surprise people when you do that great competition or challenge. If you have interested, non-judgemental friends or training partners you can discuss your goals and progress with them.

Involving other people is a great way to stay motivated and also a great way to build confidence in what you are doing. Particularly if you can get knowledgeable feedback on your ideas and ambitions.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. I know the ideas and techniques have helped me and many of my friends and the athletes I work with so they definitely work.

Good luck, have fun and please let me know what you think.

John

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Getting back from illness or injury

As anyone who has been associated with sport for any length of time knows; illness, injury or otherwise getting off track can have significant impact on performance and progress. These things are more likely to strike at times of change, when things are a bit less predictable either due to external factors such as the weather or more controlled factors such as changes in training emphasis.

This time of year is very much a time of change, the weather is changing, there is less daylight in the evenings (in the Northern Hemisphere) so the types of training that are easily available in the summer months are more restricted. It is the time of year when colds and flu start to strike and also a time of year that it is easy to pick up an injury as training and racing surfaces change, racing is different and often there is a change in the emphasis of training sessions.

Care is needed to avoid illness and/or injury, maintaining a routine, getting plenty of sleep and eating well are a good start. Make changes in training gradual and don’t just jump into a new phase of training, no matter how enthusiastic you may be as you think about new and exciting targets. Being unable to do the sport you love can be deeply frustrating and upsetting. This can lead to rash decisions about training which sadly all too often results in further injury and/or illness.

If you do get injured or ill it is important not to fight it. Accept that you will have to make some changes and take the necessary time to get back to full fitness.

Although slightly out of the original context, the acronym AMP from Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox seems appropriate and is very similar to the approach described by Scott Jurek in his book Eat and Run.

AMP stands for:

  • Accept - accept things have not gone to plan; this may take a bit of time;
  • Move on - when ready;
  • Plan - having no plan will at best slow recovery and at worst lead to numerous relapses and chronic injury or fatigue that may take months or years to recover from.

Accepting you need to take a step back and re-plan things can be seen as a positive step to getting to where you want to be. If something hasn’t worked or there is an unforeseen problem the sooner you work out what to do to overcome it the better and the quicker you will be back on track to doing the things you need to do.

Planning is important for two main reasons:

  • to avoid a recurrence of the problem by identifying the cause and modifying things accordingly. The adage, if you keep doing the same thing you will get the same result is very true and poignant here;
  • if you have had more than a couple of weeks off training, you will need to take account of reduced fitness levels and build back up. Jumping straight in where you left off is a recipe for disaster and further setback.

Pay particular emphasis to accepting current fitness levels. It is no good basing things on previous training phases, just because 20 hours of training per week was right in the past doesn’t mean it is right after a period of illness or injury.

This is crucially important and it is worth taking some time to think about current fitness levels and available time and energy. This is perhaps the most common reason for failure, injury and illness in more experienced athletes trying to regain the performance levels of previous times without taking the time to build and plan properly. In this respect it is good to get an objective and non-judgmental helper, or better still to employ the services of a coach who can knowledgeably assess your fitness level and get you back on track with a solid plan for success. I personally find it rewarding to work with committed athletes who are struggling to get back from injury/illness and I have had the pleasure of seeing clients return to their original fitness and beyond. You can also find more detailed ideas about planning in my ebook chapters.

If you are injured then think around the problem and look to what you can do. You may not enjoy cross training or the gym but there are many options that you could probably adopt to maintain or even build fitness in ways that don’t aggravate your injury. Also consider remedial and preventative exercises that will help avoid recurrence of the problem as well as ensuring your new plan avoids as much as possible the cause of your injury.

In the return to full fitness things change quickly and progress is sometime fast but also there may be setbacks that must also be accepted.

If things go wrong, don’t give up, take a step back and rethink things again. There is almost always a solution and the benefits of being fit and enjoying sports are worth the often considerable effort involved in overcoming obstacles no matter how big.

I speak from personal experience in saying how amazing it feels to be able to take part once again in a sport which I had considered giving up altogether due to injury. It is wonderful to be able to help and see others get back on track and achieve successes they had never dreamed possible after so much frustration.

Have fun and please let me know what you think.

John

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Chapter 7: Think better, perform better

As with my ebook, ‘How do I get fitter, faster, better?’, this is a simple guide to practical techniques in sports psychology that can be used by athletes at any level to make real gains in performance.

Try asking yourself a couple of questions:

What proportion of your performance do you think is due to your mind?

What proportion of the training time do you commit to training your mind?

My guess is there will be a discrepancy between the two answers and in all likelihood you believe that your mind plays a significantly greater role in your performance than the proportion of time you spend training it.

In associating with a number of elite athletes and also carefully watching interviews with others it is apparent that the best athletes think differently to the norm. Many athletes focus on missed training, niggling injuries and sometimes dread racing with expectation of failure. The best athletes see competition as an exciting opportunity to find out how well they can do.

So, if you were an elite athlete how would you think?

Of course, you may be an elite athlete but even if you are I think you will enjoy and benefit from this exercise.

Think about your approach to competition. It is good to think of a specific example but if you don’t have one or you are coming up to your first competition don’t worry, just imagine a scenario.

Close your eyes and breath deeply and slowly for a few breaths then imagine yourself at a competition. Think about how you feel, what you are doing, what you see, smell, hear and feel. How are you preparing for the competition,

  • are you chatting with friends or alone?
  • are you being positive about yourself of negative?
  • are you thinking about the coming competition or what you are going to have for dinner?
  • are you happy or sad?
  • are you looking forward to the competition?
  • do you expect to win or lose,
  • achieve your goal, exceed your goal or fail?

Make a few notes and list the 5 strongest points about how you think and feel before competitions.

Now have a break, make a cup of tea or wander round a bit.

Now repeat the exercise but imagine you are the best athlete in the world at the moment:

  • are you chatting with friends or alone?
  • are you being positive about yourself of negative?
  • are you thinking about the coming competition or what you are going to have for dinner?
  • are you happy or sad?
  • are you looking forward to the competition?
  • do you expect to win or lose,
  • achieve your goal, exceed your goal or fail?

Make a few notes and list the 5 strongest points about how you would think and feel before competitions if you were the best in the world.

Now think about the differences and whether you think you could prepare differently for competitions. My guess is you could and if you did you would improve your performance and enjoyment almost immediately.

Pre competition routine:

You can use the results of this exercise to think about how to change your approach to competing.

While things are still fresh in your mind you can write a schedule of how you will prepare for competition in the future. Start by writing down how you will spend the week before the competition and then the day before, getting to the venue and what you will do 2 hours, 1 hour, 30 minutes, etc… before the start. Visualise each stage to see how if feels and whether it is realistic. You can practice the routine before a training sessions to make sure everything works.

Things you may like to consider are

  • music? do you want to use music to help you avoid distractions, if so it can be good to prepare a playlist that works for you and gets you in the right frame of mind;
  • if you are to associate with people and club mates before the competition are some people better to be around than others. People that sap your energy and confidence are best avoided and certainly best avoided before competition. It is usually better to avoid other people where possible so that you can maintain control of your environment and avoid any unexpected distractions;

After your next competition, think about how it went and how you can improve. Modify your pre competition plan if necessary and continue to improve.

Some common techniques and concepts

Negative self talk

Perhaps the most common negative influence from our minds is known as negative self talk. This is where negative statements come into our minds, either before or during competition. Before competition it might be things like; ‘you haven’t trained enough’, ‘you aren’t very fit’, ‘he/she looks much fitter than me’, etc…. In competition, say for during an endurance event, things like ‘I can’t go as fast as him/her’, ‘I’d better slow down or I won’t finish’, ‘I have no chance of making my time so I may as well give up’, etc….

It is reasonable to say that doubt comes into everyone’s mind at some point but there are techniques that can be used to turn the negative thinking round to positive.

First it is worth introducing an important concept that has many uses:

The Winning Image

The winning image is an image of success, you achieving your goal.

If you haven’t already, you can create and reinforce your winning image now.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself achieving your goal. Imagine how you feel, what you see, what you hear; be happy about your winning image.

Once you have your image in mind make it more vivid, make the colours around you brighter, the sounds more positive and the feelings of elation more powerful and exciting.

The more you practice your winning image the more powerful and motivating it will be. You can use it to help you get out training when you don’t feel like it. Feel positive about yourself during tough times and if you are ill or injured you can go back to your winning image to motivate you to do the right things to speed your recovery and get back in training.

You can also use the winning image to deal with negative self talk and to do this you can learn the Stop/Clap technique.

Stop/clap technique to stop negative self talk

First of all there is a bit of work, you need a couple of lists.

Write down a list of all the negative things that come into your head that are unhelpful to your sport. Take some time to do this; aim for at least 10 things, you can add to the list over time as you notice other unhelpful ideas that you want to change.

Now for each item on your negative list write a positive alternative. For example:

Negative

Positive

I’m not good enough to do this race.

I have trained for this race and can do my best, I can be happy with my achievement because I have done my best.

Everyone looks much fitter than me.

I have trained for this competition and everyone is a human being just like me. I do not know how well I will do but I will enjoy finding out and compete to the best of my ability.

Everyone looks like they are experts and I have no idea what to do.

I have thought carefully about what to do before the competition. I can stick to my plan and I will be properly prepared for the competition. Others may have different ways to prepare but my way is best for me.

During the competition you may be tired and want to stop. “I am tired and can’t carry on”

I have trained for this competition and I know I can finish. I can keep working hard and find out how well I will do (visualise winning image for extra motivation).

 

 

After writing these lists you will be able to start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives. This will help create a positive mindset that allows you to focus on competing and training well without the distraction of energy sapping doubt and anxiety.

It is a good idea to spend some time practicing thinking through the positive items on the list.

The stop/clap technique is a way of stopping negative self talk and replacing it with positive.

When you catch yourself dragging yourself down with negative thinking or talking; take the following steps.

  1. Say STOP, make a noise by CLAPPING or similar and visualise a big red STOP sign - this is to distract your mind and stop the negative thinking;
  2. Visualise your Winning Image - make it clear and feel happy about the success it depicts, feel the success;
  3. Work through your list of positive things, taking time to believe in each one.

After you have gone through this process you can continue your pre competition routine and look forward to a much more successful performance.

Of course, they may be times when you don’t want to clap and shout STOP or when it may be impractical such as if you are working hard in a competition trying to hang on to a given pace. At these times you can think it and say STOP to yourself before moving on to step 2.

It is important to practice this skill and the more you practice the better you will get and the more effectively you will be able to use the technique. Also, the more you practice the more you will be replacing the negative thoughts and beliefs with positive, thus reducing the likelihood of being over taken by negative self talk in the first place.

 

Other things

There are many other things that working on psychology can improve such as:

  • Excessive anxiety - can have surprisingly powerful debilitating physiological effects, some arousal is useful to sporting performance but too much can be very negative:
    • In skill based sports such as golf it can become impossible to control one’s movements due to tension and shakes;
    • In other sports debilitating panic attacks can result from overwhelming anxiety that seriously hampers performance;
    • This can sometimes be similar to or induced by negative self talk and therefore helped using a similar technique to the stop/clap approach.
  • Limiting beliefs - people are often limited by what they believe is possible. For example, it took a long time for someone to run a mile in less than 4 minutes but once Roger Bannister had broken that boundary a number of others did so and the mile record reduced more rapidly. People were not fitter they just realised that running faster was possible.
  • Fears - people are often limited by their fears. This can be a fear of failure that results in inventing excuses not to even try or reasons that something is not possible or fear of injury such as that associated with running down a difficult off road descent. In reality, fear is likely to increase the chances of failure or falling so working on these fears is likely to pay dividends.

If you find these ideas useful but have difficulty with the exercises, you can do these exercises with a non-judgemental and supportive friend who can help you be objective and affirm the outcomes of the exercises. Alternatively, a few sessions with a professional with experience in sports psychology can pay significant dividends and although not yet mainstream, hypnotic techniques can be very effective in reinforcing positive habits and thinking. We at John Hampshire Coaching have seen and helped many people think and perform differently.

Your mind is probably the most important thing for success and you have gone a long way to putting a successful mindset in place. If you don’t believe in the value of making the commitment to yourself to take part in your sport you are unlikely to succeed, in fact you may find it difficult to practice or train at all so it is good to be positive, take yourself seriously and take pride in what you are doing.

Have fun and please let me know what you think.

John

 

Chapter 6: A longer-term plan

Once you get into your sport more and more you may start to think about goals that are further in the future. For example you may have done some competitions this year and think it would be good to see whether you can do better next year. To meet these longer term goals it is a good idea to make a longer term plan for success.

By reviewing your recent training and racing over a year or more you can put together what we call a phased plan, which may span a few months, a year or more to address areas that are important. By putting together a systematic and structured plan in this way you give yourself the best chance of making big gains in fitness and reaching more challenging future goals.

As I mentioned in Chapter 1: the basic principles of training for sport are simple. Your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in.

The longer term plan, what is often known as a phased plan, is a series of steps, known as phases, to address particular shorter term goals that fit together to build your fitness for a bigger event. It works just like the things described in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 but several times in succession.

In developing the plan it is good to keep a few things in mind:

  • It is generally accepted that it takes 6 to 8 weeks to make a physiological change so it is best to work on one or two things for that period of time;
  • If you stop working on something you are likely to get worse at it so it is best to include all important elements of fitness and skills throughout the plan; changing the emphasis to target the particular phase goal. For example, if you are trying to build up your endurance by doing longer training sessions, include a few short intervals, maybe every other week, so you don’t lose your ability to do short hard efforts;
  • It is important to include sufficient recovery in the plan, so varying each phase to include both hard and easy periods is a good idea;
  • It is most effective to work on only one or two compatible areas in any phase and in fact it can be counterproductive to combine some types of training such as heavy weights and aerobic volume close together (this seems tricky but it can be worked out by leaving a rest period of say 24 hours after heavy gym sessions);
  • You can only change a certain amount so accept this and don’t over do it. Doing too much will make you much worse so it is best to be on the safe side. Set challenging but achievable targets and build your fitness over time.
  • There are many ways to success so just because some people say you should do it a certain way doesn’t mean your way is wrong. The trick is determining what is needed for success;
  • The key thing is determining and defining what is needed for success in a specific and measurable way. It is then much easier to plan and train against measurable short term goals.

What do you want to do? What is your goal?

A good first step is to review the past year or years, if you have a training diary or other training history you can look at that. Look at the positives:

  • What did you find exciting?
  • What made you happy?
  • What was a great achievement?
  • What did you enjoy and would like to do again but maybe a bit better?

Look for challenges that excite and interest you.

Spend a bit of time on this, make it realistic but challenging, there is no limit but it is important to remember that the harder the target the more sacrifices you may have to make in other aspects of your life. This can be more the case with the longer-term plan as your sport becomes a bigger part of your life.

The next steps are very much like working towards a short-term goal so you may see some similarities to earlier chapters. It is important to spend some time and make sure there is as much detail and forethought as possible.

When you are happy with your goal it is good to spend some time thinking about how good it will be when you achieve it and how success will make the undoubted set backs and efforts worth it. Sometimes it is good to discuss it with a close and non-judgemental friend who can support you as you go along. You may also want to consider spending some time with a coach to get their views either as a one off review and planning session or to provide you with support over the course of your training.

This process also helps you understand the implications of what you are planning and gives a feel for how well it fits with your life. If things don’t seem right it is good to have a rethink now rather than have regrets in a few months time when it is hard to change things.

What next?

I find it useful to make a list of weeks for the year, I have a spreadsheet for this and you can download a blank version from the members area if you want to use it. Here is an example:

Screenshot of phase plan

Then I add in the events and assign priorities, making a note of the goals for each of the most important events. Having all this information on one page makes it easier to get an overall feeling for the plan and get an initial view of how things might work and what might need adjusting.

The next step is much the same as in Chapter 1: you need a bit more detail of how you are going to be successful in achieving your goal.

That means you need to know as accurately as possible where you are now, including your recent training history (maybe over the last 6 months) and compare it to where you want to be so you can decide what changes you need.

Once you have defined your goal so now you need to know what changes you need to make to get there; it is very important that you know as accurately as possible where you are now and you particular strengths and weaknesses.

Note: A lot of people seem to forget this and I make no excuse for repeating it here. You may have been a great athlete in the past but it is where you are now that counts. You can’t start from anywhere else and it is worth spending a bit of time thinking about this. You can’t start from where you want to be if it is different from your present condition and if you try to, you are asking for trouble and almost certainly doomed to an unhappy time.

The phases

Next I break the year into phases. Each phase will be a block of training that has the objective of meeting a particular goal. Each phase goal is based on a particular need for improvement to meet the overall goal and builds on the previous phase.

Given that it takes 6 to 8 weeks to make a change it is a good idea to use periods of 6 or 8 weeks for each phase. What I do is look at the training year with the events included and fit phases of 6 to 8 weeks around that.

Another approach that can be nice to fit roughly with the calendar year is to use 4 week phases and use two phases for each physiological change. In this case you can use a 3 week build up of training load followed by 1 week recovery during each phase, making the second phase of each pair a little harder than the first.

I then add the phases into the training year plan and then think about what goals to associate with each phase. In this process it is important to consider that overall fitness will increase over the training year and therefore planning lots of long hard sessions early in the year may not be a good idea. Traditionally the first phases focus on building training volume at low intensity to develop good overall fitness, building intensity later on.

There are many ways to train though and it is sometimes good to consider the main areas of weakness first. I have recently been putting together a plan based on developing short-term speed/power (for 2 to 3 minutes) with a plan to increase volume from that higher base; which is also a plan that can work.

Remember that your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in and the goal of your plan is to build your fitness to meet your goals. It is not to build your fitness to meet some ideal that is written in a training book or pushed by some self-proclaimed expert. Therefore think carefully about what you need to be better at and how you can best meet your targets.

You should now have a good framework for the year, your main events, a breakdown of phases and an idea of what you want to focus on during each phase.

Remember it is important to work out how you will measure your progress, both towards your overall goals and during each phase. In this way you can understand how things are going, what is working and what isn’t so that you can make changes to your plan if necessary.

The table shows an example plan for a cyclist who wants to ride a 10 mile time trial in under 25 minutes. The plan starts in January to build general fitness and has two periods of racing 10 mile time trials with an interim block of longer time trials that will build aerobic fitness and speed endurance.

The plan is based on using a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor is a worthwhile investment and depending on the specification is relatively cheap compared to the price of a bike.

However, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor you can work with how you feel. Base your training on how you feel for a 10 mile time trial and then work harder for faster efforts and less hard for other efforts. If you look on the internet for Relative Perceived Exertion (RPE) you will find tables describing relative levels of effort and these are quite accurate methods of training, in fact, going by feel can be at least as good as using a meter because it teaches you to be in tune with your body.

If you refer back to Chapter 4 and the section talking about heart rate zones you will see that a heart rate of 90% of your maximum heart rate relates to a race of about 1 hour. Since the aim is to ride the race in 25 minutes you can expect to ride at something a little above 90% of your maximum heart rate. This will be individual but if you do race-pace training at 92% of your maximum heart rate and see how that goes before making adjustments it should work.

If you look at the table you will see that the plan is based on 6 phases:

  1. Build 1: in this phase you are getting your body used to training so that when you start doing harder rides you will be able to recover by having easier days. Build up gradually and ride with your heart rate in the lower training zones. However, it is best to do some harder training in all phases so including some harder work in one of your rides is a good idea. You can do things like 4 x 5 minutes at 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate with 2 minutes easy pedalling between each or 12 x 1 minute above race pace with 1 to 2 minutes between each effort.
  2. Build intensity: in this phase you are continuing the process you started in phase 1 but making it a bit harder. Use similar sessions, two per week this time with one faster than race-pace and one slower and longer, like 1 hour at 80% maximum heart rate.
  3. Build intensity 2: is a further progression in which you do more efforts in each of your harder training session and have less recovery between each effort. During this phase you should notice that you are riding faster at any given heart rate. Remember to do some of your rides at an easy pace so you keep your fitness in all training zones. Also it is very important to recover properly; remember the earlier chapters that explain how your body breaks down with training and adapts as it recovers?
  4. Race 1: during this phase you can get used to racing, get back in touch with your club mates and rivals to give yourself motivation and start to see how well you have improved.
  5. Longer TTs: are a good way of building your aerobic fitness (your heart and lung fitness). It is hard to do this sort of effort outside a race situation and therefore this section is included to give a boost to fitness that will pay dividends in the second race period.
  6. Race 2: is the main race period in which you will meet your targets. Everything is now in place so you can focus on riding your best. Make sure you are adequately rested before the races and have a good routine in place to ensure you are focused to perform at your best.

Screenshot of phase plan

Have fun and please let me know what you think.

John

 

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.

Chapter 3: The detailed plan

In this chapter we will briefly think about the psychological aspects of sport that can help you meet your goals. Then we will develop a day by day plan to reach your goal.

Sports psychology

We will devote a chapter to developing the right mind-set and dealing with any mischievous thoughts that might pop into your head trying to sabotage your plan. However, it is worth covering a few things here.

Sports psychology point 1:

Do some exercise, it is good for you

The fundamental thing about regular exercise is that it is good for both our minds and our bodies. There are numerous scientific papers and practical data documenting the benefits of exercise in helping depression, anxiety and many other psychological difficulties.

Of course there is a catch and clearly, obsessive and excessive exercise can be detrimental both physically and psychologically. Focusing on the wrong things, getting hung up on results, beating yourself up about missing a training session or being a bit over the weight you would like to be can be very negative. However, in general, if you have a well thought out plan to reach an achievable and challenging goal, sport and exercise will be of great benefit to you.

It is also worth making a habit of some things that are easily done and of fantastic benefit to both your mental wellbeing and your training.

Sports psychology point 2:

Do 10 minutes mindful meditation on your breathing each day

Spending a few minutes each day observing your breathing, “mindfulness meditation”, will calm your mind and have lasting benefits throughout your days. Have a look at my blog on mindfulness to learn the technique – if you only do one thing to train and help your mental wellbeing this is the thing, just 10 minutes each day.

Note: You can also teach this to your friends, family and colleagues to make their lives better and bring an air of calm to those that surround you – it is good to be surrounded by relaxed, happy friends. Just a thought.

Sports psychology point 3:

Develop and practice your winning image

Next, develop what is known as a winning image. This is an image of you successfully completing your goal. Spend some time on this now. Imagine yourself meeting your goal: how will it feel; what will you do; what will it sound like; what will you see and hear… spend some time making this image very clear. Make it more vivid by imagining the colours in the image bright and happy, make the smells and sounds powerful and positive and feel the happiness of your success. I bet you are starting to smile about it now.

You can use the winning image when things get a bit tough, as I’m sure they will at times. Maybe you don’t want to do your training or the last part of a session is getting tough – if you visualise the winning image you will feel motivated and realise it will be worth it. You can also use it before and during your target event to keep you focused and positive.

You now have 3 very powerful tools to help get your mind right: exercise regularly; mindful meditation and the winning image.

It can be a good idea and very helpful to spend a few minutes before each training session being mindful of your breathing, then focusing on your planned training session and then on your winning image. You are likely to find this of tremendous benefit to feeling positive, enjoying your training and getting the most out of each session.

Getting into the detail – the detailed plan:

What was your priority need to reach your goal and what was the training you planned in Chapter 2 to meet your goal? You will need to keep this in mind since it is the focus of your training.

A weekly plan

Most athletes I know and have worked with prefer to have a routine. Some don’t but most do. Even at the elite / full-time level where the daily priority is training it is often practical and useful to fit into a weekly routine. For this reason we will work with a weekly routine but the principles can be applied to however you prefer to organise your training and many people work with a two-week cycle.

The first step is to work out how much time you can devote to training and when. A good way to do this is to write down your weekly commitments. You can do this as two lists; things you definitely have to do and can’t change, like going to work perhaps; and things that you may be able to change or adjust to accommodate your training.

If you do this for each day of the week you can start to get a picture of how much time you have available and when.

For example you might have:

Monday

8am:    get up and get ready for work

8:30am to 6pm:    work, including travel to and from work

11pm:    go to bed

No doubt you will have a few more commitments but in this case, on Monday you have between 6pm and 11pm to do some training, eat and do whatever else you may need to do in the evenings – so maybe you have time for up to an hour of training on a Monday evening.

As you build up this picture of your week you can see where you might fit training in and also where you may be able to adjust your schedule.

There are lots of ways to fit training into the day. Be creative – for example many people find that combining exercise with their daily journey to work is a good way of using up almost no time from the day with many other benefits. Many offices have showers and secure bike parking available nowadays.

However:

Don’t be over ambitious with time. It is easy to be over optimistic with time.

In fact it is usual to be over optimistic with time so be careful to avoid squeezing things you really need to do and missing your training.

Now you have a good idea of your weekly commitments, how much time you have for training and how it can fit into your week.

The training plan

I like to use a table to create the plan, as usual, you can download a copy from the members’ area of the website. If you are going to have a weekly routine it is best to plan one week first and then make the others similar.

The first thing to do is put in the most important sessions, maybe you have two; the key session that you created in Chapter 2 and something that is a bit longer and more relaxed that allows you to have fun with your sport and build up some stamina.

These sessions are likely to be tiring so you need recovery before and after them. Remember the rest and recovery chart from Chapter 2. It is also best to make sure you have plenty of time to do these sessions properly so a bit of space before and after is good. Weekends can be good times to do key sessions but if you have children it may be easier at other times. Again, be creative.

Another thing to bear in mind is if you like to train with a club, it is often good to keep your key sessions a day or so apart from those sessions, unless of course they are your key sessions but then you may lose some control and the training may not be right for your goal. It is important to think about your priorities and needs.

Once you have the key sessions in place you can think about what else you might do.

In general it is true that the more training/practice you do, the more efficient you become at your chosen activity. Your body gets better at what you practice. This is of course making sure that you don’t become over-tired and that you are properly rested for your key sessions.

There are also the psychological benefits of exercise – remember Sports psychology point 1:

Do some exercise, it is good for you…

It is therefore good to fit in some easy exercise around your key training sessions. You can also add some things like stretching, and yoga is great for this as well as helping with mental relaxation.

Here is an example:

If you are a cyclist aiming to do a 10 mile time trial in 28 minutes; your primary key session may be to build up from 4 x 5 minute efforts at a bit faster than your target pace with 2 minutes rest after each one, to 6 x 5 minute efforts with 1 minute rests over a 6 week period. You may do this on Tuesday or Wednesday for example.

Your second main session of the week may be to ride for an hour at a good pace. As an aside, you may want to try and find a good group to do this since cycling with a good group that rides at a consistent pace is an excellent way to build your cycling fitness. You may do this on a Saturday or Sunday.

Alternatively

You may choose to find a midweek 10 mile time trial and ride that as specific training with a harder session of say 4 to 6 x 3 minutes with 2 minutes recovery to help build your tolerance to faster paced riding. This decision will be based on the needs you identified in Chapters 1 and 2.

So you would do one of your key sessions on say Tuesday or Wednesday and one on Saturday or Sunday with some easier riding in between if you have time and energy. Make sure you are properly rested before each of the two main sessions of the week.

There is the example of a typical week for our 5km runner aiming for a time of 25 minutes on the website.

The overall plan

Now you have planned your standard week the next step is to plan each week up to reaching your goal. A good duration for a training plan like this is 6 to 8 weeks because that is a good period of time to make a physiological change (let’s assume 6 weeks).

As you improve your strength and fitness you can make your training a bit harder but also you want to be well rested for your goal at the end of the 6 weeks. To do this you increase your training for the first few weeks and then reduce it over the final week or two to allow your body to adapt and recover for the big day.

For the cyclist we mentioned above your key session could be 4 x 5 minutes hard (a bit faster than race pace) with 2 minutes rest (in future I will put recoveries in square brackets so 2 minutes rest is [2’]) in the first week and in subsequent weeks 4 x 5’ [2’], 5 x 5’ [90s], 5 x 5’ [1’], 6 x 5’[1’] and 3 x 5’[1’] in the final week.

The second main session, the 1 hour ride at a good pace stays at the same level of effort although the pace is likely to increase with fitness. This is a secondary session and well over distance so there is no need to aim to build this further. You would miss the 1 hour ride or just do a half hour in your final week to be fully rested for the big day.

Now you have the basis of a 6-week plan that you can use to meet your goal. It is good to write this down so you know what you are doing each week. You can use the example on the website to do this, here is a screenshot:

ch3-daily_plan-image

Also bear in mind that things rarely go exactly to plan so don’t worry if things don’t quite happen how you have planned. It doesn’t mean you won’t meet your goal. If you get ill or miss the odd session don’t worry; the important thing is to be consistent. Don’t try to catch up by doing sessions you missed, but just get back on track – otherwise you are likely to get over-tired and then into the over-training condition we mentioned in Chapter 2.

Keeping track of it all, is it working?

It is a good idea to have some measures of how things are going. There are several ways to do this:

  • Keep a diary and particularly note down the results of your key session each week;
  • Take your resting heart rate each morning, you can do this by feeling your pulse and counting how many beats in a minute or there are a number of Apps that will do this with your phone if you have a ‘smart phone’; Azumio are good ones;
  • Think about how energised you feel each morning when you wake up and note that in your diary;
  • Get weighed each morning at the same time and note that in your diary;

If your heart rate is unusually high then it may be a good idea to take a rest and either postpone the days training or give it a miss.

Any sudden change in weight can be a warning sign. Losing weight too fast is not good, you are losing muscle, not fat if you lose more than say a pound a week and you won’t be able to train properly in the long run.

Other signs of tiredness are being more irritable and grumpy than usual for no reason.

If you aren’t sure about being too tired to train it is usually a good idea to set off and see how you feel. If you feel bad or can’t go as fast as planned then do less, go slower or just go home; you will benefit from the rest.

Over training is much worse than too little training so be careful

You now have a plan – get out there and start training.

Good luck, have fun and please let me know what you think or ask if you have questions by , the contacts page or add a comment below.

John

Chapter 2: How do I make my goal real?

After Chapter 1 you will have

  • your goal, (what you want to achieve at a certain time)
  • a list of things you need to achieve that goal
  • what you can do in comparison to each of those needs
  • one physical need that is a priority
  • one psychological need that is a priority

If you don’t have these things you may want to go back to review Chapter 1 and put these in place, alternatively you can go on with this Chapter but it is important to do each step in turn to get a really solid plan.

Did you remember?: “If you only remember one thing – remember this:”

Your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in.

I make no apology for repeating it here and the explanation: if you go for a run your body will get better at running, if you sit on the settee your body will adapt itself to sitting on the settee and if you play darts you will get better at playing darts. If you do too much of anything your body will do things to stop you doing it, if you train too hard or too much it will break down so you are too tired to train properly.

This is encapsulated by the three principles of training, specificity – you need to train specifically for what you want, overload – you need to stress your system to make it react and regression – if you stop doing something you will drift back to where you were (use it or lose it basically).

So let’s get started:

So what was your priority physical goal?

It is a reasonable assumption that this is physically impossible for you at the moment because if it wasn’t you could just go out and complete your goal anytime you want.

The thing to do is break it into bits and then work out how to join the bits together to meet your need.

Looking at the example in Chapter 1, you need to be able to maintain your target speed for a given time or distance.

In this example we can also assume that you can do part of the distance at the speed you need and that given enough time and maybe with rests you can complete the distance at a slower speed, even if this is over several days.

In simple terms then you can solve your problem by either extending the distance that you can manage at your target speed or getting faster at your target distance.

Let’s think back to breaking it into bits again and what you can do, this works if your only objective is to complete the distance as well but it is always best to have a target time in mind (i.e. be as specific and detailed as you can). You know that you can do some of the distance at your target speed so what if you had a rest after each little bit, you could probably do a bit more time at your target speed. If you then made those rests a bit smaller each time you do that training, say you do it once a week, eventually you could probably do the whole distance at the speed without resting. Make sense?

In training, what we usually do is vary the speed a little bit and do the faster parts a bit faster than you plan your challenge. This trains your body to get used to running a bit faster so when you put it together with no rests it can cope because the actual speed is a little easier. What we also do is build up so that the total time at your target speed is a bit longer than your target time. For example if you want to do 100 miles then you wouldn’t try to do over 100 miles in one training session but you might decide to do over 100 miles in a weekend or a week, i.e. in smaller bits with rests. The principle is the same.

Lets take our example from the spreadsheet, to run 5km in 25 minutes. If you can run 1km in 5 minutes then have a rest and then do another in 5 minutes then another you have done 3km at your target speed and you can build on that as you get fitter.

Does all this make sense?

Let’s leave that for now and think about something else

Resting and adaptation

Remember again:

Your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in.

We can now think a bit more about how this happens.

What actually happens is that when we stress our bodies, with exercise for example, if it is hard enough then we do some damage. Our bodies don’t like this so when the damage is repaired we become a little better at doing the thing that caused the damage so that if it happens again we are more able to cope with the stress.

This is really important because if we keep applying the stress and recovering we can keep getting stronger, fitter, better at what we are training. However, if we do too much without letting our bodies adapt then we just keep damaging ourselves our bodies fight back and we get ill, suffer chronic fatigue or some other debilitating condition. The key message here is it is better to be safe than sorry so don’t over do it. We can think about how to avoid that using a few measures and ideas later. The key is to have enough rest and make sure that rest is proper rest. The graph below shows the training, recovery, adaptation and regression cycle (regression is basically if you don’t train you get less fit ‘use it or lose it’) but don’t worry, it takes a long time to lose fitness, in fact I don’t think the benefits of well planned training are ever lost.

Graph of training adaptation and regression

The trick then is to do each training session when your body has adapted to be a little fitter, faster, better than it was before. The graph gives a good illustration of this. It is also useful to note that you don’t lose fitness as fast as you gain it so a bit of extra rest isn’t a problem. You can see in the Perfect training (green) curve, that leaving the next session until day 15 after the curve has turned down still gives a good improvement so having a bit of extra rest if you aren’t sure is a good thing.

Graph showing perfect training v over training

The three curves on the graph show different phases of the training, recovery and adaptation process. Train too late means that you wait until you have lost the fitness gains your body made by adapting to the previous training session, that is too much recovery. Over training is when you train before you are properly recovered, your body continues to be broken down and eventually you become ill; this shows the need for proper recovery. In perfect training, each session builds on the last and you train when your body has made fitness gains from the last session so you gradually get fitter and fitter.

There are a lot of ideas here and they aren’t really organised into a plan that you can carry out so we need to order our thinking.

Action plan

Take the list you made in Chapter 1 and for each item write down what you need to change, how you will make that change and when you will do it. If you used the spreadsheet from the website you can either add another three columns or download the updated example from the website.

Here is my example (Primary actions are highlighted in green):

Planning sheet

Now you have a goal and a way to achieve that goal. You also have details of what you are going to do to make sure you are organised and get enough rest so that your body adapts to what you are doing and gets stronger and fitter.

We haven’t considered the details of what to do each week or how to address the psychological needs that you have identified. One very important thing you can do to feel better psychologically is to do some exercise so between now and the next blog I suggest you get out and enjoy your sport and think about how great it will be when you meet your goal. This ‘winning image’ of how good you will feel when you succeed is a really important motivator and helps you feel great so you can practice it when you feel down, or I should say ‘if you feel down’ because I hope you won’t.

You can also try out a training session of how you are going to meet your physiological goal, if you have a running goal like the example, you can try doing a distance of about 500 metres at your race speed, have 2 to 5 minutes rest then try it again and see how many you can do before you have to slow down. Stop when you can’t keep up the speed and make a note of what you have done. This training session will be really helpful in setting up the detail of how you will meet your goal.

If you challenge isn’t to do with running, it doesn’t matter you can still break the goal into smaller chunks and build up until you can complete your challenge. If you’re stuck and need a quick suggestion get in touch.

Also remember you can have fun with your sport, in fact I hope that is why you have chosen to do it; if you aren’t finding it fun then that is definitely something to work on and I hope I can help there because it can be great fun. Just practicing will make you better so you don’t always have to work hard and do your primary session; you can just go out for some easy enjoyment as well. In fact this is really important physically and psychologically – just make sure you rest as well and take time to feel positive about what you are doing.

Have fun and please let me know what you think or ask if you have questions or if I can help. You can or contact me via the contacts page.

John

 

Exercise more, eat better

I think about food a lot and I am hungry quite a lot, 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.

It’s a tricky one and something I have explored a lot recently.

Over the years I have been involved in various sports, mostly endurance sports; running, cycling, swimming and triathlon. In endurance sport there is often a drive to be lighter since it is more efficient 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 endurance sport, 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.

I have always been solution focused and wanted to find how to get better at whatever I do. Consequently the ideas of optimum weight, losing weight while exercising and indeed how effective exercise is in promoting weight loss have been prominent in my mind. Relevant to my roles as someone who takes part in exercise, as a sports coach and in the field of sports psychology. A significant percentage of my clients have had concerns with food and weight to a high degree and 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 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.

So there was this weight thing going on and I started taking more interest in nutrition, weight, exercise and weight loss. I also started to use MyFitnessPal a diet tracking app; this can be used to give a good measure of calories as well as the basic nutritional groups and vitamins. It can help with losing weight in either a healthy or unhealthy way and can become an obsession or an aid. It can also give a good indication of what is happening with existing diet by tracking what is going on.

Still struggling for a solution to the exercise, exhaustion cycle, I read Anita Bean’s excellent book: The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition and found that the recommendations in the book were for a higher calorie intake than 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, it is very easy to lose muscle if calories are restricted too much and of course not recover properly so repeat the downward spiral to fatigue, depression and anxiety.

I started to concentrate on two things, proper recovery from the exercise but mainly following the nutritional guidelines. I used MyFitnessPal to do this by adjusting the goals in the App to match the recommendations in the book. I wrote a little spreadsheet to make that easier and you can download a copy from the Members Area if you like. It is quite rough and ready so make sure it works for you (I can’t guarantee there are no errors in it).

I’m convinced that this approach works and although I am also sure that the exercise, improvement, fatigue cycle has a number of other more psychological influences, implementing positive nutritional guidelines seems to make a fundamental difference to whether you can exercise more and progress in your life goals or experience debilitating fatigue. Of course, good diet and exercising more helps combat anxiety and depression too so as things stay on track the improvements are all round and promote personal confidence too.

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

Most importantly, stay healthy and have fun.

John