What is in this article
A framework for understanding performance training
Shifting the focus from the physiology to performance
Tools for driving performance adaptations
Every coach who aims to guide athletes to the pinnacles of sport will, at some point, find themselves humbled. Athletic performance is an art, an expression of fitness only possible at the crossroads between extraordinary physical capability and the perfect environment. Try as we might to control the variables of training with intention - we will inevitably be reminded that sport is a temperamental beast and it will rear its ugly head when we least expect it. I cannot count the number of times I’ve taken an athlete to the “next stage” in their competitive career, confident that they are ready to perform (physiologically they are!) and watch them fall short due to variables that we couldn’t have accounted for in their training.
As a community, we coaches tend to focus primarily on the physical side of training. This makes sense considering that the visceral sensations of exercise: pain and fatigue seem to originate from our physical bodies and overwhelm our experience. I know that I have often found myself agonizing over which energy-system a particular training session will target or what physiological systems I need to optimize in order to help my athlete breakthrough to a new competitive plateau - a clear focus on the physical. However, when working with high-performing athletes, I’m often reminded that it’s not about getting the training “right”, but rather about creating an environment that allows them to express what they already have within them.
To me, this is where performance phases of training come into the picture. Rather than focusing our attention internally on things like perception of effort or heart-rate zones, we focus more externally on specific “performance metrics” that we know are required to achieve their desired outcome. This requires a fundamental shift in the way you think about training your athletes during performance phases. From encouraging them to listen to their bodies and regulating their training in a way to target a specific adaptation to encouraging them to ignore or push through the pain and fatigue they’re experiencing in order to hit the speed, pace, or load demanded of them by the sport.
In last-week’s article, Max touched on a number of aspects of training that would fall under the umbrella of “performance training”. If you have not yet read that blog I’d suggest reading that for context before digging into the performance training tools I discuss below. Here I want to add some detail to the tools we haves coaches to help our athletes achieve more out of their performance training sessions.
Set the Intention
Setting the intention for the session can be as easy as communicating the focus of the training session to your athlete. Some examples of things that I communicate to my athletes before performance sessions include:
Ensure you eat & fuel yourself the way you plan to on game day
Setup your session so that there is some “dead time” between warm-up and starting the session (this can mimic a game-day scenario more closely)
Setup cameras to film the session & review (extra important for remote clients and even MORE important for CrossFit athletes)
Have a judge who’s knowledgable on the standards required in the sport and ask them to be “strict”
This list is not exhaustive but should give you an idea of the types of things that I think are important to communicate to your athletes during performance phases or sessions.
Set Performance Targets
That which you can measure - you can improve.
I think this is an often missed aspect of preparing athletes for competition, regardless of the sport. To be clear I’m not simply talking about setting an outcome goal of hitting a target time or score, but more importantly, in my opinion, setting specific targets for the elements of the test. As an example, have your athletes set goals for erg paces or a reps-per min target for burpees, tangible things that they can track and monitor. For a swimmer, this might be to hold a specific number of dolphin kicks off each wall, maintain stroke counts at or below their race-metrics, or keep all flag-to-flag turn-times under five seconds. Having the athletes focus on the elements of performance rather than the outcome can help them achieve the desired outcome, which is the PURPOSE of a performance training session.
Shift toward Specificity
The concept of specificity is widely understood in the coaching world. As an example, if you were training a cyclist, using a stationary cycling trainer can be an incredible tool for building their physiology. However, this is a terrible tool for learning the ins and outs of gear changes, drafting, and handling a bike in a road race. Both styles of training are “specific” to the sport (they’re cycling) but taking the bike out to the road captures the competitive environment to a much better degree than staying in an air-conditioned training room. The same is true of other energy-system biased sports as I’ve laid out in the table below.
Use your Tools Differently
During limiter training, tools like NIRS (Moxy / Humon) monitoring, HR zone training, and ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) can give you a degree of control over adaptations that is extremely valuable. However, during performance training when the focus is on the outcome, worrying about what HR zone your athlete is in is kind of irrelevant. Does it really matter whether someone was operating in the EN4 or EN5 HR zones when they clocked their PR 1 mile time trial? Rather than using these tools to regulate the athlete’s intensity, we can use them post-hoc to analyze their performance and learn from the tests. As an example, I’ve included the HUMON SMO2 data from two 2019 Games athletes performing Open 19.5. I’m not going to go into depth about how to interpret this (that info is detailed IN-DEPTH in the Classroom NIRS course), however, I will tell you that we used this information to dramatically improve the performance of the athlete in the top graph.
To provide some more concrete guidance regarding how to apply these tools, I’ve included a chart below. This chart details how to use the tools I described above during limiter training versus during performance training. Again, more details on using these training tools and regulating training will be provided in the Classroom.
In the end, my goal with this article was simply to shift the way coaches think about preparing their athletes during performance phases of training. The changes are simple, setting the intention for sessions, and changing the way you use your training tools is easy. Creating a sport-specific competitive environment to teach athletes how to use what they’ve already built is obvious, but so often missed. I would love to be able to help prevent fellow coaches from making the same mistakes I have in the past when preparing my athletes to compete. Unfortunately, most of us will have to make these mistakes on our own in order to learn the lesson, and that is perfectly okay in my opinion. Regardless, I hope that this blog at least sheds some light on how to better serve our athletes who trust us to help them prepare for what is quite possibly the thing that has the most meaning in their lives.
Written by Kyle Ruth