Season Planning – Part III: Determining Load Structure

In the last two articles of this series I’ve offered some thoughts on setting realistic performance goals for the coming season and how to go about coming up with some checkpoints to let you know that you’re on track.

If we were charting things using Tudor Bompa’s well know periodization model, our information to this point may resemble the following example.

That is, we have…

  1. A good, solid prediction of the performance level that we should be able to achieve based on a retrospective analysis of last year’s training and performance.
  2. A good idea of how we expect performance to progress over the course of the year.
  3. Identified some checkpoints along the way that will let us know if we are on track to hit the end of year performance goal and also if there are any particular weaknesses that may affect the nature and duration of the training phases and emphasis periods.

However, this chart does not yet tell us anything about the “input” variable, that is, training load. What we do know from the first analysis that we did on last years training, though, is what chronic training load it should take to achieve a given performance. If we transpose this athlete’s personal CTL:VO2 score relationship on the above chart we’re left with the following information as to the requisite CTL to hit this athlete’s performance goals.

Basically, this athlete will likely need to build to CTL numbers in the range of:

  • 100 by the end of March
  • 130 prior to the mid year break in July
  • 160 by the end of October prior to taper for Ironman Arizona

But what does this mean in terms of actual daily load?

CTL, or Chronic Training Load is, as the name implies, an exponentially weighted average of the training load that you have completed over a long period of time. There is often confusion over how long a ‘long period is’, and while it varies slightly with the constant numbers used in the formula, most athletes will require approximately 6 months of loading at their target CTL before their CTL is actually reached.

For example, if I want a CTL of 100. I will need to undertake 100TSS/d of loading for approximately six months to get to that point. Because the formula is exponentially weighted, the athlete can get relatively close in significantly less time than that. In the above example, 50% of target (50TSS) within one month, 75% within two months, 87% within three months and 94% within four months. The practical point being that if you’re targeting a particular chronic load, your acute (day to day) load will need to exceed it.

Looking at the case study example in this context, we could say that in order for the athlete to hit the CTL targets listed above within three months, the athlete’s actual TSS/day will need to be approximately 13% higher:

Jan-Mar 113TSS/d (~790TSS/wk)
Apr-Jun 147TSS/d (~1028 TSS/wk)
Aug-Oct 180TSS/d (~1260TSS/wk)

This would represent one loading option. The athlete could simply resolve to undertake 113TSS/day of training from January to March. Then increase the load for April, etc.

The two primary disadvantages of these long cycles are:

  1. The load that the athlete is undertaking is very challenging when they are at ground zero fitness but quite easy towards the end (hence the tapering off of the fitness benefit)
  2. There is quantitatively greater “bang for the buck” to be had by polarizing the training, i.e. training quite a bit harder than CTL for a short period then recovering for an even shorter period to re-gather energy reserves before hitting it again.

For this reason, it’s preferable to break goal CTL down even further to monthly increments and plan weekly TSS accordingly, allowing for both a loading phase (digging the hole) and a recovery phase. In this example, for the first loading month (February) the CTL goal is 75, starting from a CTL of about 50.

A good rule of thumb when figuring end CTL from a loading cycle for a person with “normal” constants is (0.5 x load) + (0.5 x starting CTL)
So for someone starting with 50:
75 = (0.5 x load) + (0.5 x 50)
75 = (0.5 x load) + (25)
75-25 = 0.5 x load
50 = 0.5 x load
Target Load = 50/0.5
Target Load = 100TSS/d for that block

By subtracting CTL from load this will also indicate the TSB floor that this load will elicit and can be used as a reality check of whether too much by looking back at the athlete’s TSB floors from the preceding season. For example, in this case 75-100 = a TSB of approx -25.

When looking at long cycles, I suggested that as the athlete gets fitter he is in a better place to handle more load. This is also true of short cycles. For this reason, it’s often preferable to ‘stair step’ the loading sequence so that if 700TSS/week is the desired 4 week average, the weeks may be 750/800/900/350. Ideally the recovery week will be at least a “TSB’s length” below the CTL in order to regain neutral freshness before beginning the following block (in this case 75-25 = 50TSS/d or 350 TSS for the week)

By looking at the goal CTL and using the methods above to plan the preceding load sequence accordingly, the coach/athlete can come up with a tentative plan of TSS load targets over the season (shown below).

Of course, the plan will be tentative and structuring may change in accordance with both calendar items (as shown above) and how the athlete is developing/handling the load, but by using the principles above we can at least come up with a draft of some of the nitty gritty details on the annual plan in a way that is both realistic with respect to, and in harmony with, the season’s performance objectives.

In the next installment I’ll take it a step further and take a look at what these funny TSS numbers mean in terms of the actual hours and intensity of training and take a look a more in depth look at phasing and identifying exactly how much intensity I want in the athlete’s program.

Until then…
Train Smart

Categories: Planning

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Alan Couzens

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