Leveling up:

Short term rewards on the way to long term athletic development

Alan Couzens, M.Sc.(Sports Science)

"The elevator to success is out of order. You'll have to use the stairs... one step at a time" - Joe Girard

The first full-time coaching job that I had was with one of the top junior swim development programs in Australia. The 'secret' to the success of the program was, in my opinion, their uber-impressive feeder system from learn-to-swim to the development squads. A big part of this process was breaking the long term development pathway up into short manageable steps with regular short term rewards along the way. So, what were these magical rewards that inspired these swimmers to stay the path all the way from ditching their arm floaties to making National teams? Money? Free ice cream? :) No, the secret was much simpler than that - little tiny pieces of colored plastic!

In most swim programs, even in the swim obsessed country of Australia, there is a leap from the learn-to-swim programs to the squad programs: A decided jump in the level of seriousness of the swimmer from "not drowning" to pursuing swimming as a sport. This represents a big step for the little swimmer and their family. The magic of the program that I was involved with was that it broke this transition up into smaller, much more manageable "graduations" along the way. Between learn to swim and the junior squads were these short term, low frequency quasi-squads & the transition from learn-to-swim to these quasi squads was almost automatically decided - you guessed it, by these colored tokens. When a little swimmer had completed the requirements of the first learn to swim program, they were given a little piece of colored plastic, indicating they had 'leveled up'. When the kid goes running to their parents excited about the reward that they have been given, what parent isn't going to 're-up' to the next level program! It was truly a brilliant system and it resulted in a lot of talent being fed through the system.

Importantly, this was happening frequently. At one point, my sole job was to work my way around these squads, every day, with colored tokens in hand looking for the next kid to level up. Every month or 2, a kid could expect to be rewarded with one of these little colored tiles and the positive reinforcement that they were doing a good job. This left a big mark on me as a coach &, frankly, as a human being. There's nothing quite like having a job that is all about handing out the joy that comes with a job well done to kids on a daily basis!

Long story short, the power of short term rewards on a long term journey was driven home by this experience and it was something that, there and then, I resolved to incorporate in my coaching approach moving forward. Well, that was almost 30 years ago, now, but it is a principle of my coaching system that stays with me to this day & it's not just for kids!

Endurance sports are a long term game, especially for those training for the ultra-distance events. For athletes starting (or starting back) from ground-zero, we're talking about a multi-year journey. This fact can be hard to swallow, especially for athletes who may have been fit in the past. This, understandably, often leads to unrealistic time frames and, capitalism being what it is, leads to coaches, apps, programs who are more than happy to reinforce these unrealistic time frames for the low, low price of only.... :)

Real development begins with an honest appraisal of the journey and the steps along the way. In this spirit, I utilize a "levels" system with the athletes I work with that affords periodic short term "graduations" on the way to high levels of performance. The levels are as follows...

Level 1 - Health & Fitness (CTL<45)

The entry level for an athlete on my program. I typically see starting VO2max values in the 30-50ml/kg/min range, with an AeT in the 100-150W range (for an average size, middle aged male). This is probably the most important (& for some, most challenging!) level of all. With a focus on establishing the consistency of a sustainable and stable exercise routine and a broad health base. Loading weeks are typically in the 5-10hr range, with an almost exclusive focus on developing basic skills, mobility and the low-end aerobic system and establishing a strong metabolic (& habit!) base. I cannot overstate the importance of this phase in establishing a solid routine of training within the athlete's life. All decisions are made with this goal in mind, i.e. to not compromise or risk consistency. Because the athlete is just starting/starting back, this amounts to a very conservative approach with a firm intensity cap, no intensity floor and a simple focus on consistently "getting out the door". I don't recommend any competition during this phase of development.

Level 2 - Recreation (CTL ~45-75)

The first "graduation" - athletes have established a routine and a baseline level of fitness and are generally starting to "feel like an athlete". Loading weeks move up to the 10-15hr range. VO2max numbers for a typical athlete are in the 50-55 ml/kg/min range, with AeT of 150-175W. Longer "steady" sessions at or slightly above AeT are included in an effort to improve fat burning and widen the AeT->VT1 gap. A short specific prep block may be included at the end of this phase, however, the emphasis of the phase as a whole continues to be very heavily biased towards aerobic/metabolic & basic strength development. We may include a lactate test &/or a couple of short-middle distance races at the end of this period (I don't recommend any full Ironman racing at this level) to 'check in on' the higher intensity zones, however, since we've done very little specific endurance work, these are raced "a gear down", i.e. ~threshold effort 10K (~50-55min), ~steady effort half Ironman (in the ~6:00-6:30 range). The emphasis is very much on using them as a training day & participating for 'fun'

Level 3 - Developmental (CTL ~75-105)

This level might be the toughest of all. It represents a significant step up in the athlete's commitment, however the load is not generally high enough just yet to be truly competitive. Therefore, this represents a 'developmental' level - a necessary stepping stone on the way to somewhere else. VO2max numbers are nudging 60ml/kg/min, with AeT numbers for the average sized, middle-aged male in the 175-200W range. Loading weeks in the base period are in the 15-20 hour range. The emphasis continues to be on the training & specifically on pushing out the aerobic endurance, however, by the end of this level, the athlete usually has a pretty solid aerobic/metabolic base established & a sufficiently wide AeT->VT1 gap to include some "moderate" aerobic work, so I will consider including a slightly longer, more focused, specific prep phase with races up to Half Ironman. For an avg sized, middle aged male, these will typically be raced in the 5:00-5:30 range. An Ironman may be completed at the end of the phase, however, for most athletes, it's a "gear down" easy-steady race & very much a "complete" rather than "compete" level of Ironman fitness. That said, a low pressure, successfully paced Ironman can be a very important 'take away' from this phase of development.

Level 4 - Competitive (CTL ~105-135)

This represents a "front pack" level of performance, where the emphasis moves to focusing on learning how to race competitively. VO2max for our avg size male is up in the 60-65ml/kg range, with AeT in the 200-225W range. With appropriate specific endurance training, by the end of this phase, the athlete may be starting to eye a Kona slot. Training load *averages* 15+ hrs/wk, with the base loading weeks generally in the 20-25hr range. All race distances and training intensities are usually included within the season plan, with a focus on maintaining a balanced development as the load increases. A dedicated 'Race Preparation' phase with some "BIG Days" approaching Ironman duration and race pace simulations are included within the plan, with a focus on beginning to dial in optimal race stategy. At this point, the sport makes up a significant part of their life and a disciplined effort must be made to fit training & proper recovery within the context of a working athlete's life.

Level 5 - Top Amateur (CTL ~135-165)

By the end of this level, VO2max for a top AG male is up in the 65-70ml/kg range, with AeT power of 225-250W The athlete is typically racing for amateur podiums in the 4-4:30 range for a flat half and the 9-9.5hr range for a flat Ironman & is very likely to Kona qualify. The athlete is beginning to specialize training and racing towards a target distance. In the case of Ironman, often racing multiple Ironmans within the year. Training load averages 20+hrs/wk, with the biggest weeks in the 25-30 hour range. Accommodations to fit in the training are typically being made within the athlete's greater life, i.e. some vacation time is used for training camps, the work schedule may be changed to permit a second big day within the week etc. The line between amateur and professional is starting to become a little blurry at the very top of the age-group ranks.

Level 6 - Elite/Pro (CTL ~165-200)

At this point, the athlete is essentially a full time athlete, training 30+ hours in their big base weeks. VO2max values are north of 70ml/kg/min and AeT power is in the 260-300W range (for an avg size male). For an Ironman specialist, race performance is typically under 8:30. The year alternates between big training and race preparation blocks. The rest of their life is built around creating a stable platform for sporting excellence.

You can see these progressions in some more depth in the following Benchmarks table..

Weight (kg):
Training Response:Low ResponderHigh Responder


If all goes according to plan (assuming sufficient time availability and "life space" for appropriate training and recovery), each level will typically take 6-12 months - with the more advanced levels taking longer periods as they will usually include more time for race preparation and racing. Most levels (with the exception of the first & possibly the second, move through all phases of preparation within each level - General Prep (Base), Specific Prep (Build) Race Prep, Competition and Recovery. Though, the time spent in each of these phases will vary over the course of the athlete's development (longer specific and race prep phases for more advanced athletes)

In my experience, this "macro" period of ~6 months is a good bite-size chunk that's sufficiently long to make significant fitness in-roads, but short enough to keep the athlete's eyes on the (short term) prize. For athletes following my training plans, I keep the athlete's current level front and center each week so that they can know exactly where they are on their journey and, admittedly, to give them (& me!) that little short term dopamine reward that comes when they see themselves "levelling up" :-)

Graduation day!🧑‍🎓

Hello Lvl 2!😊

In my first coaching gig, we'd hand out tokens to promote kids to the next squad. Seeing the excitement when you told them they're 'leveling up' was priceless!

Even for us big kids, short term rewards on long term journeys are a great motivator pic.twitter.com/rSqUSotq6d

— Alan Couzens (@Alan_Couzens) May 6, 2022

Train smart,