Should you always follow a training plan?

As the adage says, ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’; so a training plan is key to improved performance and greater enjoyment of your sport right? Well… maybe!?

A training plan might give you structure, motivation, new ideas, accountability, and the ability to disengage your brain and simply follow the sessions, sets and reps to reap the benefit.

Alternatively, it might stifle creativity, be completely inappropriate to your individual needs, create anxiety around sessions, omit the impact of hormonal fluctuations or previous sessions, and fail to allow for the daily changes and challenges life outside of sport can bring.

So should you invest in a training plan and if you decide not to, what knowledge do you need to effectively steer your own training?

Which training plan should I follow?

There are multiple ways to access a training plan. If cost is a consideration, then there are many low-cost plans available onlinebut they may lack specificity and quality.

The advent of smart turbo trainers and online training platforms has meant you can follow virtual plans which can dial into your current level of fitness.

Zwift has a library of training plans, but you’ll have to test and adjust your functional threshold power (FTP) so the stimulus is correct.

TrainerRoad’s adaptive training and FTP detection is an advancement which allows training to be automatically adjusted to your level of fitness and soon will join Zwift in offering run as well as cycle training plans.

Swimming remains unsupported by these systems, but FORM goggles deliver swim training sessions ‘in goggle’, allowing you to follow structured workouts in the pool. This is a nice innovation, but as yet doesn’t adjust to your levels of fatigue or fitness and comes at a significant cost.

If money isn’t a barrier, then hiring a coach to steer your training is potentially the best option. However, how you interact with the coach (virtually or face to face), what their level of knowledge is and whether it’s group or 1-2-1 coaching are significant factors affecting the quality of delivery.

Self-led coaching has the power to be the most specific and impactful, it also has the capacity to be the worst option of all, requires experience and is most effective the guidance of other athletes, alongside coaches and data.

Before deciding what training support (if any) is right for you, the following questions might be useful:

What do you want to do with your body this season?

Note here that the term ‘season’ is not intended to mean a traditional 12-month training cycle, but any length of time you choose. You might want to focus on a specific sport, event or distance for a given period.

You might wish to step back from the dedication you’ve given to training or, step up your level of commitment for a phase or change how you train to see what happens.

Asking what you want to do with your body on a regular basis is a good way to discern what type of training support is right for you at any given time.

What are the demands of your goal?

Once you know what you want to do, you need to establish what the demands are. If we don’t understand these then we may choose training plans that don’t develop the right areas.

How complex is your aim?

Assessing the demands will give you a good aim of the complexity of the task. A marathon is a significant challenge but isn’t particularly complex, so an off-the-shelf plan will be enough for many people.

In contrast, a 70.3 is a similar endurance demand, but a significantly more complex event to prepare for and so a far greater level of training support may be required.

How long do you have to prepare?

If you have longer the level of support needed might not be as overt as if you only have a short time to train your body and mind for what you want to achieve. And finally:

Have you prepared for such an event before?

If you have, then what did you learn? You might reflect that you need less input and can direct your own path based on previous lessons, or that you didn’t have enough specialist support and that you now need greater insight into your preparation.

What makes a good training plan?

A mark of a good coach is someone who seeks to equip their athletes, so they aren’t needed anymore (or are needed less than previously). Whether it’s coaching, a virtual platform, or an off-the-shelf plan a quality to look for is that it is something that you can learn from.

Don’t get entrenched; if it serves you for a time, but then you outgrow it that’s probably a good thing. Being aware that you need a new level of support shows greater self-awareness and this is a good basis for effective self-coaching.

But there is an emerging and totally different way to think about training plans which is worth considering.

Consider your reading to train

Training plans are prescriptive; ‘session is planned – athlete does session’. However, what if sessions were adjusted based on readiness to train?

Smart watch manufacturers and Training Peaks offer mathematical metrics that allow us to assess when it is right to push on again in training.

But these calculations are only as good as the data that feed them and we also need to become adept at assembling a wide range of information to properly assess what training might be optimal. To do this, ask:

  • How has my sleep, hydration and diet been over the last 48hrs?
  • How is my mental health today? (And how is the proposed session impacting it?)
  • What are my key sessions this week?
  • What is my mood like?
  • What other stresses do I currently have in my life/day?
  • Am I carrying any injuries or niggles?
  • What impact are hormones having at the moment?
  • How much time do I have available?
  • What are my priorities today?

We must learn to feel what our body and mind are telling us. The problem with a training plan is that it is not reactive to all the factors that impact our capacity to perform.

If we’re to guide our own reactive training, what else do we need to consider?

  • What are the headline aims of the training phase based on the demands of the event? This might be, ‘rehabilitate’, ‘build endurance’, ‘gain weight’, ‘rest’, ‘get stronger’ (or any number of other things). We should be clear on the 1-3, things that are most important at any one time.
  • What is the one aim of the session? Threshold, strength or endurance are simple, clear aims.
  • How can I adapt the session if I need to so that it is as appropriate as possible?
  • How can I perform this in the most enjoyable way? This is too often overlooked. Score your sessions for usefulness and enjoyment – ​​unless both scores are over 5 change the session.

What should the ideal training plan include?

Ideally, training plans should have specificity while being reactive to the athlete you are on that day.

Becoming a self-aware athlete with a good knowledge of training science should be aiming for anyone who wants high quality training, and this will probably come through a combination of personal coaching, knowledgeable training partners, a flexible training plan, great pre-session assessment and regular post-training reflection.

This seems like a lot of work, but it’s as simple as paying attention to what you’re doing. If your brain is switched off and you aren’t learning, then your plan could be better than it is.

Top image: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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