All You Need to Know About Training Part 1

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a while and I guess I’ve finally gotten around to it.  It will assuredly be multiple parts but will be somewhat self limiting.  The title should be fairly self-explanatory with a caveat or two.  The reality is that many (including myself) drastically overcomplicate training.  I actually identify three phases of coaching:

  1. You know you know nothing
  2. You think you know something
  3. You realize what you don’t know

It’s usually during phase 2 that folks overcomplicate such.  In college, oh my, the complex periodization programs I’d draw up.  It was a spreadsheet exercise with pie charts and graphs and I’m sure in hindsight I had more fun drawing things up than I did actually doing the training.

Anyhow, what I’m going to do in this (hopefully) short series, is look at a post that was made a bunch of years back about the Australian Institute Sport (AIS) track cycling program; and it was written by their weight room coach so this isn’t some second hand account.  This is the guy that was coaching the athletes that were, at the time, kicking serious ass.

They aren’t as dominant now that UK Track Cycling has taken over but for a bunch of years they truly ruled the roost.  And for a country as small as Australia, that’s something.  Note: and this is for the people who claim that sports science has contributed nothing to sport, the AIS is tied in with a lot of sports science research which was being applied directly here.

One caveat, and the author mentions this at the end: this really describes elite training.  This is for guys who have learned the skills and have the technical background, have the genetics to be this successful and train full time.   It’s also for a sport with a limited number of capacities that have to be trained which simplifies it somewhat.   It wouldn’t be appropriate for a developing athlete and not everyone could survive it.   As he says, take concepts from it even if you can’t apply it completely.  This won’t necessarily apply to sports with more technical requirements.

But to a first approximation, I think this piece tells you more or less all you need to know about training.  I’ll post up the individual excerpts with my commentary as I go.  You can see the original here.


A Little Bit About Track Cycling

I’ve written about track cycling before (in the overwritten series on Olympic Lifting I did) but will recap here.  It’s a type of cycling done on an indoor track called a velodrome (an oval track with banked corners) and there are a variety of events including short sprints, medium distance events such as the kilo (1000m about 1 minute), some team time trials and some longer endurance events (including a bizarre event called a Madison where teammates sling each other back into the race).

The piece I’m going to put up focuses mainly on the sprints but mentions enduros at the end.  The sprint in track cycling is bizarre due to the nature of the sport and what it requires.  Track bikes have a single gear unlike road bikes.  Since there is no shifting, that means that the single gear has to be optimized for the highest speed part of the race.  It has to be big enough so that the cyclist doesn’t spin out and can’t keep putting pressure on it. But that also means that it is enormously difficult to get started from a dead stop.

Because of this, track cycling sprinters are notorious for having huge legs and big squats.  This is Robert Forstermann, a freakish German track cyclist with absurd legs and a huge squat (260kgX2 so 570 lbs) and he is a match sprinter.     Mind you, he has said he was born with big quads but, good lord.  They look deformed because they are.  Bodybuilders would kill for that.

Robert Forsterman Quads In his even event called the match sprint, cyclists sort of dick around playing cat and mouse for like 2.5 laps (often stopping in a track stand and not moving) and then one launches an attack from a dead stop or slow roll and it takes enormous forces to turn over that monster gear. It takes roughly 10 seconds for them to get up to full speed and then it’s 10 seconds or so all freaking out to the line.

The time trials start out of blocks and the same requirements hold although the gears aren’t as large since speeds aren’t quite as high.  But the gear still has to be big enough to accommodate the top speed which means it take huge forces to get the bike up to speed.  The start is insanely explosive.  But this type of event requires, huge maximum strength and power requirements on top of very high leg speed. Top guys will spin out at about 160 RPM (road cyclists typically roll at 95-110RPM or so) and do it with high force so it’s a combination of a couple of different biomotor capacities to really excel.

Training in AIS Track Cycling

So with that background let’s get to the post made by the strength coach of the AIS team.

1. We don’t keep any secrets from anyone, including the Poms, the Frogs, Ze Germans or the Yanks. In fact, people just generally don’t believe what we tell them, disagree or their programs (or minds) are too set in concrete to change. We invite other top riders to train with us and they get faster, but they go home and do the same old thing. The Head Coach, support staff and I are happy to tell anyone and everyone what we do. We usually just don’t get time to sit around on chat rooms or make social chit chat on E-mail, let alone write a book.

Ignoring the, at least by US PC standards, racist terminology, Good coaches know that there is more to their method than just the method itself.  Yes, coaching is an art and a science although I’d argue that the art of experienced coaches comes from experience of trying things out systematically and coming up with a heuristic for certain situations.  The best coach can tell you exactly what he does, that doesn’t mean you can do it (look at how many bastardize the Bulgarian system for example).

2. What Charlie Walsh and Gary West used to do with our sprinters when they were the Head Coaches was state of the art at the time and they are both great coaches. You will not find anyone in Australian Cycling who will question that or say a word against what they did at the time, but times have changed and those methods are not quite enough to consistently hit the top spots now, although you can still be troublesome internationally if you’ve got natural speed. The top speeds have gone to a new level and to reach that level, you have to specialise your sprint riders more. I’m sure if Charlie and Westy were still coaching the Oz team, they wouldn’t be doing exactly the same things they were doing ten years ago. They are too smart for that.

Coaching changes with time, usually as sports change.  Track cycling has gotten faster and faster, stronger guys pushing bigger gears and it’s more speed dominated. Older methods are still valuable but sport evolves over time and so must the training methods or at least the focus of the training.  This is actually true of a lot of sports, the top speeds needed on the track in events like the 400m and 800m are at a new level; if you don’t have the speed, the endurance doesn’t matter.

3. Most of what we do is based on methods and research that have been around for decades but have not been applied to cycling. It has mostly been used in athletics and we have copied a lot from that and what the French and Germans have done at various times. The Brits were formerly coached by our current Head Track Coach, so they do a lot of similar things too. What the Dutch are doing now, I’m not sure, but they were mostly all speed skaters before they were top cyclists, so maybe there’s something in that.

You can often learn from other sports although you have to take into account the differences.  The Germans, back in the days of Charlie Francis focused on top speed first and speed endurance second with the goal of maintaining that top speed for longer rather than building endurance and then trying to get faster.   Many speed skaters back in the day switched to track or road cycling and there is a LOT of crossover between the sports in terms of the training methods because the events are hellishly similar bioenergetically, muscularly and biomechanically.  It’s part of why I’ve always enjoyed reading about other sports and how they apply training within the unique confines of their sport: often you find techniques that can be applied, perhaps with modification, to something else.

4. We are constantly trying new things and changing what we do, so what we do this year will be different to what we did last year and so on. Australia is a small country and is competing with some real powerhouses in terms of talent pools, resources and money that we can’t even dream of matching, so we have to be a step ahead or we’re not in the race.

No real comment here.  When you have thousands of athletes to throw at a sport, you can grind most of them down and have a few world beater survivors.  That doesn’t work for smaller countries and you have to be a lot more applied with your coach.  Track cycling has the added element that the differences in times for first and third place are often measured in tenths or hundreths of a second these days (Chris Hoy missed a world record once by 5 THOUSANDTHS of a second, that’s 0.005).  There’s no room for error in anything in a sport like this.

5. What sprinters did 10 years ago is completely different to what most of the top sprinters are doing now. The critical factors that determine success or failure have changed. Tactics have changed and the tournament formats have changed. Training that would win 10 years ago is generally not as successful today, but every dog has his or her day and some old-school trainers still come out on top now and again, but it is happening less and less.

Ties into sports evolving as above.  Different tactics and event layouts require different approaches and coaches have to acknowledge those changes and accommodate them (while never losing sight of the older methods that may still be valid).  In the match sprint for example, it used to be that everyone would roll up to the last line before launching.  Now you get guys who launch their attack from 200m out and have the endurance to make it to the line without crapping out.  Many sports have added more rounds so even if the event is speed, you need the endurance to get through prelims, quarters, semis  to the finals.

6. Our philosophy is simple. Most events are speed endurance. To win you need to go faster for longer than the other guy or gal. Some riders are better at faster, some are better at longer, but they generally need a bit of both. To have speed endurance, first you need speed. If you can’t ride 5.0 for a flying 100m, you won’t ride 10.1 for a 200m. Speed is hard to train and takes a long time. Endurance is easy by comparison and we just chuck that on at the end.

This is a key section to this piece so far as I’m concerned.  In the old days of sport training, even for speed sports, you started with endurance worked towards speed.  But things started to shift a few decades back.    Charlie Francis was using this approach in the 80’s developing top speed first and speed endurance second (supposedly the Germans did this with their sprinters with a special flume; they would work top speed at short distances and stretch it out over time).

Because in sprint events, it doesn’t matter how long you can go, it matters how fast you can go. And speed is not only very genetic, it’s very very hard to train.  It takes constant, relentless work to get small improvements (consider that a track sprinter may train for a year to take a tenth or less off their best time).  Endurance is easy relatively speaking and you can top it off in 4-6 weeks for an event like this (certainly for long-distance endurance like road cycling this is not true).  But without the speed it doesn’t make an ounce of difference.  Charlie Francis was preaching this in the 80’s as well: to run a certain time in the 100m requires a certain top speed.  If you can’t hit it, you can’t make the time.  Speed dominates.

7. To get up to speed, you need acceleration and that means power. Power is a combination of strength and speed. The speed part you get on the track, the strength you get in the gym. Low cadence power (0-120rpm or so) we can train in the gym too, but high cadence power (120-200rpm) is too fast to do in the gym and you generally need to be chasing a maniac on a motorbike (e.g., our Head Coach) down the bank to increase that. Or at least, someone faster than you to break the wind so you can go overspeed.

On top of the need to improve speed along with the difficulty of it, you have to look at what determines speed.  In track sprinting, there is a strength component (to get out of the blocks quickly), an acceleration phase, and then the speed endurance phase.  Each is trained differently.  The same goes for track sprinters who develop start, acceleration/drive, top speed and endurance separately before putting it together into a single effort.   To prepare for a given sport you have to figure out the determinants of a given goal are and train them as needed as well as semi-sequantially.  If power is based on strength and speed is based on power you build strength first, power next and then speed.  The reverse order doesn’t work.  And you don’t train them just by doing it over and over again.  You train each segment separately and specifically before putting them together over the full distance.

8. Aerobic Capacity (VO2max, AT) is the base for enduros, strength is the base for sprinters. We do three gym sessions and two track sessions for most of the year. Road is just for recovery, to keep them a little bit lean and to keep the sprinters out of the pub and out of trouble. It is generally a max of 2hrs, but mostly only 1 and is very easy – talking the whole time.

Another key aspect that is often forgotten.  You have to consider the specifics of your sport in terms of what the base biomotor capacity is.  For all endurance sports (past about 4 minutes duration), it’s aerobic capacity. For short events (20 seconds or less) it’s strength or speed (or some combination).  In the middle, it’s a little bit of both and this is a weird gray area physiologically.  Also note that even the best sprinters do some easy aerobic work.  Key is easy, talk test keeps them at a very low intensity, I’d say 120-140 heart rate tops.  It’s EASY aerobic.  It doesn’t hamper their speed (as often claimed) and most cyclists like to ride their bikes so this serves multiple purposes.

9. When strength is the focus, we don’t care what numbers they pump out on track, just what they lift. When power or speed is the focus, we back the gym off (2/wk and easier sessions) so we can get the numbers we want on the track (3-4/wk). Generally, half the year is spent focused on strength and half on power and speed (roughly – depends on competitive calendar) although we always train a bit of everything, it’s just the proportion of each that changes. The strength work is not all done in one block. We cycle through strength, power and speed at least twice per year.

Here’s where I think it really starts to be useful.  There is a limit to how much can be improved all at once when you get to a high level.  Beginners can do it, intermediates can do it to a lesser degree but at the advanced levels, bringing up everything at once becomes impossible.  At that point it becomes better to focus on one factor while maintaining the others before switching (and doing it in an order that is logical and progresses in a proper fashion).  If you need strength to build power to build speed, you work in that order in a cyclical fashion.

Some do this as undulating periodization (2 weeks of one capacity, 2 weeks of another) and there are lots of schemes to use.   This is very different from the old linear approach to training where you developed Capacity 1 by itself, then moved to Capacity 2 then to Capacity 3 and hoped that the training from 3 months ago would hold it’s adaptations.  Which it usually doesn’t.

Frequently it takes a while to develop something so you’re looking at blocks of training (Issurin’s block training takes this approach) where you do 4-6 weeks focusing on one or two related capacities while maintaining the others and working progressively to a peak before starting over.  It’s basically just old annual linear periodization on a 10-12 week schedule.  But the key is that you never get away from the other components of the sport either.  Charlie Francis called this vertical integration, you train all aspects of performance to one degree or another.  Just with a different emphasis at different parts of the year.

And since that’s actually right about the half-way point on the original post (and because I’m running out of gas on the second half), I’m going to cut it here.

Read Part 2