Training structure, periodisation and the science of winning with Jan Olbrecht, PhD | EP#198
Jan Olbrecht is a former elite swimmer, holds a PhD in sports physiology and biomechanics, and has advised athletes who have won over 600 Olympic, World Championship, European Championship and Commonwealth Championship medals. His main drive is to translate science to the level where coaches can benefit from it, and one of the main outcomes of this drive is his excellent and highly influential book 'The Science of Winning' on periodisation, training structure, and using physiology to deliver peak performances.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Endurance training periodisation from a year or multi-year level to the microcycle (weekly) level,
- A methodology for planning out your training structure.
- How to perform lactate testing and use the results to inform training planning and workout prescriptions.
- Aerobic and anaerobic capacity and power: what are they and how should they be developed?
- Case studies of Luc and Frederik van Lierde, both former Ironman World Champions.
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About Jan Olbrecht
- I live in Belgium with my wife and two daughters.
- I was a swimmer at International level when I was younger.
- After studying in Brussels, I went to Cologne and completed my PhD in 1981 in physiology and biomechanics.
- I really like to bring scientific findings back to something coaches can use.
- I discuss swimming a lot in my book, but it also applies to other endurance sports.
The Science of Winning
- During my studies in Cologne we had a lot of debates about lactate testing in Germany as there were people who sat on both sides.
- My professor and I questioned lactate and it brought us to a different approach.
I worked this out for swimming for my PhD, but most of the principles are applicable for other sports.
- Even without lactate testing you can learn a lot of these theories.
E.g. In order to improve aerobic capacity, most people think you have to do a lot of volume at low intensity.
We found that in fact the best way to improve aerobic capacity was to do a certain volume but not too much.
Also if you don't mix easy efforts with short intensive bouts at high intensity, you will never have an optimal improvement of your aerobic capacities.
- Time to run, row, or frequencies aren't as important as long as you look for enough contrast.
Run easy, and spice it up for efforts of 30-35 seconds at high intensity - and this works in every sport.
Aerobic and anaerobic capacity and power
- People in the past considered endurance to be only based on an effort you can maintain for a long period of time.
We found that you have to make a difference between how your muscle fibres are able to produce aerobic energy, compared to how you perform during your efforts.
- If you see a car driving very fast on the highway, you will automatically make an assumption of what foreign engine the car has to be so fast.
You assume a difference between performance and what power and strength must be in the engine to create the speed.
- Aerobic capacity is a property of your muscle fibres, and then what are you doing with these capacities is power.
- We have examples where you have a marathon runner or triathletes with the same maximum oxygen uptake at the muscle fibre level, but the guy with the lowest aerobic capacity can win the race.
That's not because of efficiency, it's because the guy with the lowest capacity has better possibilities to use these capacities.
- This makes a big difference in the planning of training objectives.
If we can measure that someone has very high capacities but doesn't perform well, then we know that the problem is on the power side.
- These exercises for power are totally different than exercises improving capacities.
- Without good power to use your capacity you are at risk of overuse and over-training, which can lead to injuries.
- The coach needs to know whether the athlete needs better capacity, or better power.
In the past people have often focused on improving power without any effort to look at the capacities.
- To summarise: your aerobic and anaerobic capacity is the size of your engine, and the power is how much of that engine can you use.
- We often see in practice that you can never improve power and capacity at the same time.
You always have to plan in advance when the best time to improve capacities would be, and when you focus on power in preparation for racing.
- Capacity is for training and power is for racing.
Workout examples for capacity and power
- If you have a certain exercise that lasts 40 minutes, for aerobic capacity work at least 3/5 of these 40 minutes (24 minutes) should be easy/slow.
A maximum of 2/5 of the exercise would be at high speed.
To achieve that high speed you should work at very short efforts so as not to lose speed.
- For example in swimming, doing 9 x 200m and have all even repetitions as the first 50m high speed, the rest all being easy.
This speed is higher than your vV02max.
- In the 1970's there were studies that said if you want to trigger the mitochondria (the part of the cell where you produce your energy), you need to go to a very high intensity.
Otherwise it'll only be a part of your mitochondria that will receive a training impulse.
- Long distance at an easy pace for aerobic development will only activate your mitochondria in your slow muscle fibres up to 80-90%.
But a lot of other mitochondria need more intensive work to be involved in the development of aerobic capacity.
- This can be translated to rowing, cycling, running and other sports.
- If you want to use the same exercise (9 x 200m) for power development, you would split it to 3 x (3 x 200m).
For each block, you'd swim every 200m as fast as possible with 30 seconds rest.
After the 3 x 200m you can take a longer rest of 1-2 minutes, and you then repeat the block again at the highest possible average speed.
- You have to keep in mind that you should end the exercise at the same speed - so don't start too fast because you'll fade away.
You have to look for the intensity that you can maintain during the whole exercise.
- This is often described as VO2max training or threshold training, but these are all power exercises, they are not about capacity.
- A classic V02max workout of 8 x 2 minutes - e.g. a swimmer doing 15 x 150m, with 2:1 work to rest ratio.
This is too slow to activate all the mitochondria so it's not as good for capacity training.
- Anaerobic capacity is about producing lactate and pyrovate and this is the glycolysis - this is the main providor of fuel for your oxygen system.
If you are not able to produce enough pyrovate, it would force the aerobic system to not develop and you would have to find this fuel from other sources such as fats, or ketones.
- If your anaerobic capacity is not strong enough, that will cause problems with developing your aerobic capacity.
You cannot split them, they are working together.
- In short distance your VLAmax can be high and you will still perform well.
However if you're a longer distance triathlete and your anaerobic capacity is too high you'll have problems during the race.
- It needs to be strong enough to enable the aerobic metabolism to improve and grow.
Developing capacities and power for long distance triathletes
- This is difficult to answer because the response to a training exercise designed to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity can differ significantly from one athlete to another.
- With lactate testing we are measuring the response time to made a good estimation in the planning of how much time we need to spend in capacity or in power.
- We want to identify how much training time must be aerobic or anaerobic focused.
- A starting point would be for a short distance triathlete in the build phase you would need one exercise with short high intensity with easy rest (described above) if you're training four times a week.
The rest of the sessions that week would be at a very low, easy pace.
- For the same athlete in the competition phase, two to three weeks out from the race, you should replace these sessions more to threshold work when you maintain moderate speed for longer periods.
If you do this once as week as a amateur that will be enough.
- Most triathletes are doing too much quality work.
If you do too much at moderate intensity, you are always triggering development in the aerobic power area.
Doing too much work in this area means you lose a lot of your aerobic capacity - you will lose capacity of your engine.
It's a balance you have to make - you need to see how far you can go without losing capacity and improving the percentage you can use of that capacity.
You want the highest usable oxygen uptake during the race.
- People who do triathlon usually like to work for a long time, so most of the time their motivation is to go as fast as possible for a long period.
This is not the right attitude, you need to try and change this a little and it'll give you a tremendous advantage in competition.
Balance between aerobic and anaerobic throughout the training period
- If we don't know the athlete, we go to the one quality training session a week.
- This involves doing 2-3 weeks and increasing the volume, then replacing aerobic capacity training with aerobic power training as you get near the race.
You will train more and more threshold work and your volume will increase.
They will then take between 1-1.5 weeks to rest/taper before the race.
- In triathlon it's different because you're training three disciplines.
It's important for example to not lose too much energy swimming in an Ironman as you'll then suffer a lot on the bike and run.
- This means that volume increase in the competition preparation mainly occurs in running and cycling, but not as much in swimming.
- We also combine disciplines in the training phase, which is very different to the build phase.
- In the build phase if you're working to improve capacities each week you have one main objective in one of the disciplines.
You never make a combination of goals across disciplines within one week.
- You have to plan this in advance and take into account people's abilities in each of the disciplines.
- This is for top level, as amateurs usually don't have the time to develop this in the same way.
- If you have a week when you're focusing on swimming, all your cycling and running would be at easy pace and low volume.
- For an average triathlete, you'd do 20-25km swimming, with one and four high quality work.
They'd have 2-3 running and cycling sessions which would be low volume if the week is allocated to swimming.
The total run volume would be around 20-30km and the cycling volume around 120km.
- The principles are the same for Olympic vs Ironman athlete but the actual numbers may differ.
Olympic distance athletes need to be able to accelerate which isn't as important for long distance.
Long distance athletes need a very economic base.
- The differences will not be estimated or defined by the distance, but more by the properties of the conditioning profile.
If you have really poor capacities and you're training for a long distance event it's possible, but your volume would be lower than an Olympic triathlete that wants to be prepared for the Olympic games and has higher capacities.
- If you have really poor capacities you should be very careful with your training or you break the engine.
- We've worked with a lot of athletes who previously did more volume, and they were then amazed that by doing less they were actually faster in competition.
- Training adaptation is always first breaking something to trigger the body to build up - it is described as super-compensation.
If you never give the body the chance to super-compensate because you are always breaking it, you will just be broken.
You'll learn to suffer, which is important, but it's not the only factor.
- To have the highest return of your training load you have to look for enough opportunity to super-compensate.
- Easy running, cycling and swimming are triggers for super-compensation.
Case studies: Luc and Frederik van Lierde
- For Luc, running during the year was max about 40km a week, and there was only one quality workout in running when the week was really built for improving aerobic capacity in running.
- In the preparation 2-3 weeks he would up his mileage to 60-80km per week.
- For cycling it was around 240-300km per week in the build phase, and in the competition preparation phase it went to 600km per week.
The competition prep phase is only 2-3 weeks per year.
- Luc came from swimming so his swimming volume was relatively high because he was able to tolerate it.
- You can do more - and I'm not saying doing more is bad - but if you do more you must be sure you are getting a return on your investment.
This is why we do lactate testing.
Using lactate testing
- we use the lactate values as input values for simulation models.
These models allow us to define and describe the muscle characteristics which give us much more reliable information about capacity and power.
- Sometimes we might see that an athlete has an incremental improvement in power not capacity when we train capacity.
We then know that something is wrong between the communication of the training plan and the reaction of the athlete.
- We test athletes across 2-3 years and can then see how well or how bad they respond to certain types of training.
- You can sometimes then see that doing one anaerobic exercise session a month is enough to keep their anaerobic capacity at an acceptable level.
If you do more you could see that you expend more energy for no improvement.
- For other athletes maybe they need once a week anaerobic capacity is needed to have a response.
It's individual to each person so you need to do the tests in order to see how well they are responding to the characteristics of training.
- You can do this with lactate tests to see where the improvements lie, and see if you're getting the results from the training exercises that you expected.
You can then adjust the training programme accordingly.
- There are some general rules which you can find in my book, and the exercises described above are examples, but there are still very individual characteristics.
- With the top athletes we need an interval of 6 weeks between lactate testing.
- We also work with a mesocycle - a combination of a time period where you train hard and then you combine that with the next period where you do very little to allow super-compensation.
The working phase and super-compensation phase forms one mesocycle.
In the working phase you do more than you feel able, but the recovery phase is easy with not too high volume.
We take measurements in the first week of each mesocycle as it's the week you have the highest probability to measure the super-compensation and not the fatigue of the training.
- For very low level athletes, we work with one week of training one week of recovery.
- An average level athlete it's usually two weeks of training, one week of recovery.
- Only with very good athletes we go for three weeks hard training, two weeks of super-compensation/recovery.
- Doing more lactate tests can be helpful, but we are most interested in end points - consistent training adaptations, that we quantify to see if we're on the right track with the programme or if it needs adapting.
Using lactate for planning training sessions
- It's always interesting to quantify what happens during training so we do estimations of training intensity based on lactate.
- What's really important is how an athlete makes a difference between recovery and intensive work.
- When we make calculations of training intensity it's important to listen to the athlete.
- In our research we found that a certain lactate level is not a good reference for training intensity.
- If you work with two athletes and you give them a training set and instructions to do it on the same lactate level you will find the impact of this will be totally different.
It's not good enough to estimate training intensity at certain lactate levels.
- It is important to have an estimation of what impact a certain lactate level training can be expected on the organism.
This is a more difficult component in a training evaluation.
- A lot of physiologists don't believe lactate is reliable, but we know it is reliable it's the interpretation and use in training that is more difficult.
Thoughts on the lactate ramp test
- My opinion is that it's a good measurement for aerobic power, but you don't have all the information.
- You have no idea how strong the engine is - e.g. is that speed requiring 90% of the engine or only 70% and he can't use more than 70%.
- There's a reason why we skip that way of working, and never work with a lactate curve.
- We use lactate values and enter them into a simulation program which projects different levels of capacities to explain performance.
- Based on that estimation you can say a lot more about what is going on.
- With our models you can see for example 'it's amazing this guy can be so fast with such a small engine'.
This is important for planning the training.
- We have an example of two Olympic 10k runners who prepared for Seol.
It was a long time ago where we didn't have these simulation programs.
- Both athletes were close to each other on the 10k and we didn't know the difference between capacities and power at that time.
- We gave both athletes the same training - same volume, structure and intensity.
At the end, one of the girls was very good in Seol and the other was a disaster.
- The reason was not mental or medical - this was checked.
- One or two years later once we'd developed these models, we found that the girl who performed badly was someone who could run very fast with a very small engine.
By giving her the same volume as the other girl it was too much and she could never super-compensate.
- Both curves may overlap each other closely but at the end what generates the lactate curve can be totally different.
This is tricky and dangerous if you don't make the right interpretation, and you will give the wrong advice in training.
- We start by discussing with the athlete/coach when they want to be at top level for competition.
The better the athlete, the more peaks you can have during the season.
E.g. For someone who has achieved an International top 10, they can have 3-5 peaks a year, which means during that year you'll have 4-5 macro cycles.
- A macro cycle is from the start of the build to the main competition.
- If you have poorer athletes where you know there is a lack of capacities, it's better to plan one or two, or maybe a third small peak in a year.
- If you have a lot of top competitions, they all require a certain preparation which is power focused.
Doing too much power we know that you lose capacity.
- For athletes who have built up their capacities over years and they are very stable despite doing a lot of power work, they can afford a lot of peaks.
Your macro can be small - with 6 weeks restoring capacities and then 2-4 weeks race preparation - making a 10 week macro.
This can be repeated 3-4 times a year.
- If you're a lower level athlete, you have to plan at least 12-16 weeks for building up.
Due to the fact capacities aren't so strong, your development of power will go faster.
This means you will only need 2-4 weeks preparation inclusive of the competition, giving an 18 week macro cycle.
This means you can't have a big build up with short macros and thus can't have too many in a year.
- For average athletes, if you go for 12 weeks of build phase, it may give you 4 (2+1) mesocycles, with around 16 weeks per macro cycle.
This again means you can have around three peaks but no more than that.
- If you train in altitude you need to consider adaptations which may be slower or faster in this area.
- In triathlon you need to get points to qualify for Kona for the professionals so they often need multiple good races per year, so these cycles are really important.
It is helpful to group competitions to give more time free to work on building capacity.
This causes less disadvantage than spreading competitions out, as this destroys they periodisation.
Amateur athlete example
- Example of an amateur athlete with two peaks in the year, so they have two 16 week macro cycles - 12 week for capacity development.
- 4 x 2 weeks of work, 2 weeks recovery.
- Knowing how to split this time is about knowing how good they are across the disciplines.
- If you have a 2 + 1 meso cycle we like to start with the discipline that's the weakest for the athlete.
If you're already fatigued to a certain level it's more difficult to develop your weaknesses.
Most of the time it is swimming first because usually from a technical perspective you need to work on this and be fresh enough to do it well.
- For the second week it'll be one of the others.
- Running is usually a more difficult discipline to develop that cycling so it usually dominates the second week, but it depends on the athlete.
- The regeneration week you do all three sports but at a low easy level.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to running, triathlon or endurance sports?
- I like photography so going outside and taking pictures.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
- When I was a swimmer I would have liked to have the insight I have now as it would have improved my training.
- Who is somebody in endurance sports who you look up to and admire?
- I like middle distance athletes because most of the time their preparation is much more complex than long distance athletes. Pieter van den Hoogenband in swimming, and Nathan Kahan who was a Belgian 800m runner.
- Triathletes generally do too much quality work, and often too much volume as well.
This is related to your aerobic and anaerobic capacities, they are the limiting factors for how much you should be training.
- The number of weeks in a build up that is dedicated to capacity training is much longer - doing the power training is potentially reducing capacities.
Links, resources and contact
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