by Matt Dixon
Ed. note—Matt Dixon, owner and head coach at Purple Patch Fitness, is one of the most successful triathlon coaches working today. With a Master's degree in clinical and exercise physiology and his background as an elite swimmer and professional triathlete, Dixon understands deeply the practical and theoretical aspects of our sport. He coaches (among many others) Wattie Ink. pro Sam Appleton, and joins us today for the first of four pieces, discussing an evergreen topic—achieving your goals when you're short on time. He's the author of several books, including the recently released The Fast Track Triathlete. Never one to stop charging, he just launched a podcast, The Purple Patch Podcast, which aired for the first time on January 2nd of this year.
While Purple Patch is known for its squad of professional athletes, including Wattie Ink. athlete Sam Appleton, the majority of our athletes who we work with are far from elite. In fact, our niche tends to be focused around performance-driven people who live challenging, time-starved lives. Most of our athletes face the challenge of integrating sport with the demands of work, family and—we hope—the semblance of a social life. As a coach I love this challenge, and am always keen for athletes to pursue lofty goals in sport while at the same time improving their performances in work, life, and health. If you are a time-starved athlete you may wonder how we go about planning and managing training within the context of such challenge—so let me outline our approach.
There are four processes we encourage athletes to go through in planning and executing training in a time-starved life:
- Assess your life landscape. We must first understand a reality-based vision of your weekly life. Only then that we can craft a sustainable and effective training program that can complement this framework.
- Develop an "obsession schedule." We will ask you to identify key parts of the season that require "appropriate obsession," but also periods of the year during which we will still progress, but with slightly lower training demands.
- Weekly Hierarchy: part three would be to establish the key specificity in training. We will determine, in any given week, which sessions are key and which play supporting roles. This structure empowers self-management of the program by the athlete.
- Manage the heck out of the program. We develop the athlete's mindset to manage training as life inevitably ebbs and flows in its chaotic manner.
By following these stages of planning and execution, we create sustainable specific training the athlete can manage within his or her busy life. This sustainable program— along with supporting habits around fueling, nutrition, recovery and strength—facilitates ongoing performance development—but let’s dive into each to help you on your way.
Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin
Too many athletes register for an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 and begin mapping their training believing success requires 18-22 hours of weekly training. Who really has 20 hours weekly to apply to training? Certainly not most working professionals who have families! Instead, I encourage you to approach the planning challenge from the other side of the equation. Let's go through a process we call always, often, sometimes.
Always: identify blocks or times of a typical week in which you can nearly always train. You'll put your key sessions in these periods of the week.
Often: next, carve out secondary blocks which typically allow you to train, but may be influenced by life commitments. These may be end up being secondary or evening sessions, or that extra weekend-day workout.
Sometimes: lastly, we may leave a grey block out for times that you can place extra training if you are lucky and life stress ebbs a little, leaving extra training capacity.
Once you have completed this process, give it a stress-test. Is it realistic? Is there enough time for sleep? Did you plan some downtime for yourself and family? If not, give the exercise a second crack. Instead of utopia, target a pragmatic and realistic baseline of weekly training opportunities.
Now comes the fun part. With the life landscape in place your mission is to optimize your performance yields given the time you have. That time may be eight weekly hours, ten, 12, 16. Now we integrate training into those hours. If we imagine you had ten baseline hours of training, don’t make the mistake of thinking you will always train those ten hours. If life gives you capacity then you may add load; if life tightens its grip, you need to be equipped to scale load back.
Going up a level (establish your "Obsession Schedule")
Now that you know your baseline training schedule, let’s pause and go up a level and review your commitment over the course of an entire year. The magic behind progression is a specific program applied consistently. With this fact in mind, don't fall into the trap of becoming an over-obsessive triathlete 52 weeks a year. In advance of getting cracking too far in your preparation, I would suggest engaging the appropriate stakeholders (family, boss, employees) around your training plans. For the six to 14 weeks prior to your key race you can expect your focus and training demands to be higher, so plan for it. If you have a family, choose two, three, or four weekends in that block in which you can all agree that you will focus on your training. In balance, commit to not spend every single weekend out riding for 5 hours on a Saturday, then swimming and running all Sunday morning. Preventing turning the sport into the enemy by chopping the weekend in half every week would be a good thing for your longevity in the sport—and in your relationship. With the agreed key weekends in place, and an acknowledgment that these months might have a little more focus on training, the periods outside of this time do not need to be about absolute obsession. Carve out a little more time per week for family, downtime, and social commitments, while retaining the key elements of the program you identified in part two (your "always" blocks)
Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin
Give your weekly training a hierarchy
Variance is a key element of performance gains, but to execute a smart plan with great specificity, the time-starved athlete requires laser-like understanding of the key elements of training.
Any given week of training should have KEY sessions, which are the most specific and target sessions that your training week is built around it. In support of these most specific sessions are what we call SUPPORTING workouts. Supporting workouts provide general endurance, skills development, recovery from or preparation for key sessions. They are highly valuable, but not the most central and specific sessions of the week.
Establishing key and supporting sessions of the week is the optimal route to executing the program as intended. Doing so prevents the athlete from going too hard in the easy sessions, but also empowers her to manage training within a chaotic life.
Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin
When it hits the fan (learning to manage the program)
If you have a smart and appropriate plan, understand which parts of the year demand more focus, and have a weekly landscape of key sessions, you are in a good place. You still, however, need to manage the program. Life rarely holds the shape we project for it, and learning mature flexibility can often mean the difference between successful sanity and stressed-out frustration.
Within the context of a time-starved life, your primary mission is to retain as much of the KEY training as possible. These are the sessions that can be moved around, but must occur. If life makes greater demands, avoid skipping sleep and adding even more stress by doubling up and forcing unrealistic training. Adjust the key sessions to when you can train, and be willing to scale or eliminate some of the supporting training. The basic rules of adjusting or scaling are:
If you are deeply fatigued (from training, work etc): remove or reduce much of the intensity and intervals in a training session. Focus on feeling good, and don’t obsess about metrics. You can also reduce load by scaling back the duration of the session. This reduction is typically better emotionally and physically than simply cutting.
If you are time-starved for any training day: retain as much of the main set (the specificity) as possible, but eliminate or scale the warm up and pre-main sets. You will always need to warm up for a main set, but reduce as you can to retain the meat and potatoes of specificity.
I encourage athletes to retain a big picture lens, and to understand that results never emerge from a day, week or even month of training. Your preparedness to perform arrives from the fabric of a sustainable plan, executed well, over many months. After all, 20 weeks at ten weekly hours is still a platform of 200 hours of training. If that training is effective, you are going to be very fit. You may not be ready to beat Jan Frodeno, but you will have a great chance of performing within the context of your life. You should also expect to be healthy, to be able to excel at work, and to bring the best version of yourself to family and friends.