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Consistency versus variation in training

‘Great week of training! Let’s do the same next week!’ 

When we plan an athlete’s training there are times when we like routine, to suggest the same sessions, at the same intensity, with the same recoveries in, ideally, the same conditions.

We try to reduce all the variables.

We like it even more if the prior few days have been the same as the week before so that same session is attempted with a similar level of fatigue.

There are also times when we like to have complete change and almost nothing is the same as the prior week.

The weeks of consistency are easier for the person doing the data analysis to see progression. This might be a Performance Analyst, a coach, or you may be a self-coached athlete using any of the range of online tools.

If, on the same day each week, somebody does, for example, 1 x 20 mins on the same gear on their home trainer it is the simplest of graphs on Excel to monitor the results.

As a Performance Analyst and Lead Coach at the Track Cycling Academy I have never asked any athlete to do a weekly 20min test, by the way!

Continually varied weeks make it harder to see the progression in the same way. If you have compared the wattage of a maximum effort of 10 minutes up a 5% hill you will know how much higher the wattage result will be compared to an effort of the same perceived exertion on an undulating road following a valley floor, down towards the ocean.

We have plenty of those roads here in Brisbane.

Both training modes are worthy of being included in training, and a lot of the choices will depend on the time of year, training goals and where you live. Just because the hill sees a higher wattage score doesn’t mean the flatter location isn’t a great place to train.

One location was chosen for Shane Perkins because the scenery was nice and the coffee excellent at the end, as well as being perfect for what we wanted to achieve.

A recent conference at the Australian Institute of Sport on Athlete Wellbeing reminded its audience that ‘a happy athlete is a fast athlete’, so when working out training plans we look at the bigger picture of what each person needs to make the gains they seek.*

Variability allows the coach to keep the sessions different and, hopefully, even more enjoyable, and makes sure the athlete develops a range of physical and mental skills.

Enough variability in your training helps you know that if your opponent goes full gas from the start of a match sprint, or a rider launches an audacious early attack in a scratch race, you can confidently counter the move as it is likely you’ll have done efforts across a wide range of wattages, of cadences and recovery times.

Variability also allows the coach continually to explore what the athlete may best respond to, in the ever-evolving thoughts of what we can do to make those next gains.

It does, without doubt, complicate what appears the very simple question ‘have I improved in the last few weeks?’ as many new and different sessions in a month may not be able to be compared, but I want you to train for your goals, not my graphs!

So, not surprisingly, I use a blend of the same sessions on rotation, which allows the athlete time to work out the best approach to the session and contain enough set metrics to serve as very handy markers for progression, and varied, often quite unstructured, sessions to offer the athlete something new, to explore the roads less travelled.

*Since I wrote this I have read an interview with Annemiek van Vleuten in Cycling Weekly (Nov 7 edition). When asked ‘what is your top piece of advice for aspiring racers?’ In her reply she says ‘I always go to places where I feel happy, as I really believe that happy cyclists perform better.

Written by Michael Jordan - Performance Analyst & Lead Coach at the Track Cycling Academy