My plan was good and my coach was great, but I failed! How communication can be the downfall of your training.

A failure to clearly communicate on what training should be done is a key reason training doesn’t deliver the expected results.

Rene Borg

Imagine a running story. You paid for a good coach with proven credentials. You executed his training plan. It was well-laid-out, consistent with best practice and research and designed around a logical and gradual progression. When race day arrived, however, you fell well short of your target. You weren’t sick or injured so what happened?

Did we do what we intended?

A research paper published by Hopkins and Hewson offers a scientific clue to something I have long observed and suspected in my own practice. The researchers compared the training prescribed by 123 coaches against the training logs of their best runners. I would assume the best athletes would follow training quite well, but the opposite was the case: the association between the prescribed and completed training was poor. The runners generally followed the volume instructions (duration, miles, km) but when it came to training intensity there was a substantial difference between the planned training and what the runners did.

If you are training for a marathon but consistently doing all your runs a bit harder than prescribed, you usually end up with your energy systems more tailored to performing well in a shorter race such as a 5 km whereas your marathon specific fitness will be poorer than expected because the energy systems needed for the longer event were not stimulated to the extent your coach had planned.

Make things clear

I am not trying to blame the runners here: The Hopkins and Howes paper (rightly) shared the blame for this problem between coach and runner. They attributed the lack of accuracy to poor communication between coach and athlete. I first read of this problem in John Kiely’s paper ‘Planning for Physical Performance – an individual perspective’ and he suggests a solution called ‘triangulation’. Triangulation is a way to learn more about something by viewing it from more than one perspective (it does not have to be from ‘three’ perspectives despite the ‘tri’ in the title). I tried to solve this problem when working with my clients by having an easy way to compare ‘what was planned’ with ‘what was done’. To get the completed training to match the prescribed training, both runner and coach need clarity on these three questions:

  1. What specific work should be done? (numerical prescription of volume: reps, km, time etc.)
  2. How should it feel? (the runners subjective rating from 1-10)
  3. How should it be executed? (the specific quality: speed, power output, heart rate etc.)

When both coach and athlete are clear on these three questions for each run, we can easily see whether the completed training consistently veers away from the prescribed and Striive was designed to make this ‘triangulation’ as simple as possible. Many modern running applications provide a ‘data overload’ both for runner and coach. It is nice to have all this data as a backup for deep analysis when needed but most of the time a simple comparison of volume, intensity and subjective feeling is enough.

To improve communication between coach and runner, the feedback loop needs to work quickly. Trawling through 100 data points and complicated graphs simply to answer the question ‘did my runner do what I asked or something else?’, defeats this purpose. Striive aims for simplicity. When deeper data analysis is required other tools can be used to fill the gap but the basic platform for communication between runner and coach should put clarity first. Striive does this by focusing on a few critical data points – objective and subjective:

  • RPE (how it should feel / how it felt – from 1-10)
  • Pace and HR (how it should be executed: at what pace or at what heart rate)*
  • Duration (what work is being done – in time or km/miles)

* later releases will likely include modern metrics such as ‘power’ which serves as a form of ‘normalised pace’ and a metric that has the potential to overtake pace and heart rate as the main measure of ‘output’

In addition, detailed workout prescription is included which is necessary to describe workouts in more detail including details on repetitions and intervals and the reason behind each workout. Building on top of this Striive features inbuilt chat functionality to speed up the communication process. The timing of when we talk about issues is critical: it is no good picking up on a problem six months after the fact – long after the runner has forgotten what he did and likely too late to do much about it.

A failure to clearly communicate what training should be done is a key reason training doesn’t deliver the expected results. The best coaches are not necessarily the most knowledgeable but rather the best communicators (ideally, they are both!). Providing clear and concise prescription of ‘what should be done’, ‘how it should be done’ and ‘how it should feel’ through apps like Striive provide coaches and runners with an easy trigger for conversation when the prescribed training does not match the completed training so the course can be corrected before the training goes completely off-track.

Is this a solution to all problems with following training plans? No. There can be a lack of belief in the coach’s training plan and other factors. I will talk about these other reasons in upcoming blogs.