Toolbox: Managing and Monitoring Interval Training
As we Northern Californians look forward to the prologue at the Amgen Tour of California this weekend, in many parts of the world February is the just the start of more serious training for the season kick off in March, April, and May. As you begin to ramp up your training intensity let’s consider a few criteria that will help you continue to make progress, track that progress, and communicate that progress to your coach.
By Matt McNamara
Make Continual Improvement
Intervals are hard. It doesn’t matter if they are short, high power efforts or longer tempo and threshold efforts; they require your attention, diligence, and heart. There are many great models you can use to build your intervals. From the elegant Maximal Aerobic Power model Thibault espouses, to Peak Power, the Critical Power approach, or even a simple time based approach. Pez has written more than a dozen articles on Interval training in the last few years alone. If you haven’t read them do a quick search for ‘intervals’ and you’ll read some really sound science. But there is more to intervals than modeling.
For starters let’s talk about pacing of your intervals. Time and time again athletes approach their intervals as if their lives depended on it. Whether it’s a one minute non-aerobic effort or a 30minute tempo/threshold effort it is fairly common for athletes to approach these attempting to keep the dogs at bay by overreaching in the first half and struggling to hold on towards the end. You click that timer and Ding! – your brain goes into overload-attack mode.
In 2005/06 Charles Howe wrote about using Perceived Exertion and Negative Splits, among other things, as pacing strategies employed in World Championship, Olympic, and World Record running performances since 1911. His meta-analysis provides a real-world stratagem that you might consider for your training efforts, especially longer tempo and threshold level workouts (over 5 minutes).
His write up noted that roughly 66% of world class 10,000 meter performers used a Negative Pacing strategy; that is energy expenditure is higher in the 2nd half of their race than the first. The difference was typically expressed in the range of 50.1 (+/-0.64)% split in times, so it’s not a big difference in your pace, just a slightly different effort at outset. For example, on a 20 minute cycling effort, Howe recommends to pace approximately 10% below target power for the first minute, building to an average of about 95% of average target power by the 5th minute and 97.5% by the half way mark. This will push you towards the goal of a 49/51 split on the interval in total.
Charles Howe also put forward a slightly modified Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Typically most of us use Borg’s RPE (scale 6-20), or else a modified version ranging from 1-10 for our efforts (Table 1). Howe and others have a slightly amended version of a 1-10 scale that I think is quite appropriate (Table 2). What I like about the modified version is that it tries to more explicitly lay out and differentiate different sensations of fatigue.
Gunnar Borg’s classic 6-20 Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale
Functional responses to perceived exertion levels during moderate to high-intensity training – proposed by Howe.
4: Workout easily completed. Chosen intensity or duration were either too low (easy) or too short, respectively, such that average power rose (or could have been raised) substantially throughout workout, or else power/duration were intentionally set low due to training status, recent layoff, illness, etc.
6: Workout finished with some difficulty towards end of session; completion somewhat, but not seriously in doubt. Intensity/duration about right, as power/speed remained steady or gradually increased thoughout, and could not have been sustained much or at all beyond end of workout.
8: Extreme difficulty and serious doubts about ability to finish encountered during middle and latter stages of session. Intensity/duration too high/long, or else recovery inadequate, since speed/power either faded during latter stages of workout, or workout was not quite completed.
10: Workout terminated well short of goal (early or middle of session) due to illness or accumulated fatigue, or intensity/ duration not being sustainable (unrealistically high/long).
No No Mr. Roboto
It is important that the athlete does not become simply a mindless robot in the process of training. Rather, it is incumbent on the athlete to manage their efforts throughout both the interval block in question and their current training phase as a whole. As an example let’s say your coach recommend the classic 2×20 minute threshold intervals at 300W (or 95% of your recent 20 minute test at 315W). By simply going out and trying to hit 300W with no regard to the perceived intensity of the workout you run the risk of either working too hard, and being unable to complete the workout as prescribed, or too easily, and missing the essential training benefit. If you apply the perceived exertion criteria to the workout you may find that instead of being a 6 or 7, the workout was more akin to an 8 or, if your pacing was wrong, a 10! Clearly your ability to replicate the workload has been compromised because you didn’t apply an internal measure to your stress. Learn to self-evaluate and you will be a better cyclist.
Track Your Progress
Once you have a handle on managing your intervals you need to track those efforts across time. Certainly you’ll want to track the raw data of your workout. Knowledge of workload, speed, energy expenditure and duration are easily managed with either a simple spreadsheet or one of the common ‘analysis’ software packages currently on the market including WKO+, PowerAgent, Polar, and others. With the development of power measurement systems more and more athletes simply rely on the numbers to explain what happened in their race or workout.
While the numbers are a wonderful tool, they do not address EVERY element of your training and racing. To that end it is important that each of you create and maintain some sort of training log. There are many useful online resources you can choose from, but you still want to apply a structured approach to inputting the information. I’d like to borrow an effective and common model from the medical community, the SOAP Note. The acronym SOAP stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan. By grouping your information into these simple categories a SOAP note provides an easy to use format and a variety of helpful information that you can reference for future workouts. Divide your SOAP note as follows:
S – Subjective: Your impression of the workout, ride or race. Though seemingly straight forward it is also a great place to record some of the nuances of your workout. Did you feel tired at the outset? Did you eat right during the workout? How was the weather? Try to avoid conclusions about the workout, that comes later.
O – Objective: The hard data summarized for your later recall. Rather than having to go back in and look at the power or Heart Rate file for the workout record the critical information here. Duration, distance, energy expenditure, average and normalized power for the ride and any intervals within the workout, Intensity Factor, etc. Some also include their daily metrics like hours slept, intake calories, and general rating of mood. Again, just the facts here!
A – Assessment: Given your responses to S and O, how was the workout overall? Did you meet your goals? This is where you analyze the workout. What shortcomings did you experience? What would you do differently in the race next time to correct any tactical problems? Was the interval pacing correct, too high, too low? In some cases your coach may wish to complete this section as well (they may also have their own version)
P – Plan: Now that you have a good overall view of your workout what will you do next time? “Next Time” typically means the next time you attempt this workout. Will you increase/decrease the watts requirement? Change your fueling strategy? Should you have more warm up? Plan can also include specific recommendations for the workouts to follow in sequence. This is typically planned a bit farther out than the day before, but if you, or your coach, are tightly managing your workouts it can provide some needed structure for subsequent days.
What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate!
Having all the tools in the world means nothing if the information is merely collected instead of being used. I’ve had athletes who routinely pay for my coaching and promptly fall off the planet until the next time they need a schedule. Still others have multi-thousand dollar power meters and can’t seem to download the information after each ride. In essence this gives them a really expensive speedometer!
At the other end of the spectrum are the athletes who lack the “succinct gene.” They ramble on and on for paragraphs at a time about their work, the weather, and other general stresses that, while contributory to my understanding of them as a whole person, don’t generally move the ball forward with regard to performance. So, what do coaches want to know? Clearly every coach is different and uses different metrics to track their athletes progress, but I think the following 5 elements are a good baseline.
1. Did You Do The Workout – Think of this as a simple yes/no question. If yes, provide more details later. If no, why not?
2. Do You Have Data For Me – Think of this as the Objective part of our mutual SOAP note. I want the data, I need the data, I can handle the data. Even if you can only manage to download/upload it once a week, it’s better than nothing. If you don’t have ‘pure’ data it’s ok to estimate – so long as your estimate is based in reality. If it is similar to another workout that you DO have a file for, then send that file and let me know that it’s a proxy.
3. How Did You Feel/How Did It Go – simply dropping a power file in the (e-)mail is a simplistic approach. I want to know what you thought of the workout. Was it easy or hard? Were you able to complete the entire workout as described? This is the Subjective part of our mutual SOAP note.
4. Macro-View – You should have a grasp on where you are in your current training cycle. How does this workout fit into the big picture? For example if you are on an endurance phase and you overdo it on Tuesday will it impact your ability to ride long the next three days?
5. Health and Wellness: – Keep it simple but let me know if your life stress is impacting your training or vice versa. Are you sleeping? Do you eat enough? Has your cough gotten worse? We want to be ahead of the curve on quality of life issues. It only helps you race better to keep your life in balance.
The variety of interval formats, structures, and theories is nearly unlimited. In addition to the traditional ‘numbers’ based approach athletes should consider using perceived exertion and negative pacing strategies in their training to try and maximize reproducibility within workouts and in future efforts. In addition to using subjective measures like perceived exertion athletes should consider maintaining a consistent training log. This log can be organized around the SOAP Note model. This provides the athlete with a template upon which to record the subjective and objective elements of training, as well as tracking the assessment of the workout and planning for future workouts. Athletes working with coaches should consider a minimum of five elements as fundamental to their communication: completion of assigned workout, a subjective review of said workout, any relevant training files, and macro and whole life views of their current training and life situations.
1. Howe, Charles – Integrating perceived exertion and intensity data – a key to optimal training. Velodynamics.net – Published article
2. McGregor, Stephen – Intervals, The Silver Bullet To Target Specific Adaptations. Presentation 2006 USAC Coaches Symposium.
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.