Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning for Triathlon

SPORT PSYCHOLOGY & STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING FOR TRIATHLON: INTEGRATING MIND AND BODY FOR A FASTER SWIM, BIKE, RUN

London Triathlon Show logo

Having given a talk at the London Triathlon Show Tri Experts Theatre on Thursday, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to share my thoughts in blog format for those that couldn’t make it in person. I’ve changed a few things around and expanded the talk, so it’s both a bit of a hybrid, and a bit of a beast. For that reason, I’ve included a list of some take homes at the start. If you like what you see, hopefully within my ramblings you’ll enjoy digging deeper and find something that can be of use to your training.

  • Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning can be applied to your triathlon training in two ways:
    • through direct psychological interventions or gym routines
    • through a more subtle integration via an over-arching philosophy or perspective
  • Strength and Conditioning can help you develop athleticism and become a more robust athlete – allowing you to really focus on what matters – your swim, bike run.
  • Don’t waste time in the Gym! Performance Profiling is not exclusive to Sport Psychology, but a great way to ensure you address and integrate your specific needs into your S&C. This will allow you to keep it simple and make sure you aren’t spending longer than you need in the gym!
  • Consistency is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any training routine. It is a perquisite for effective progression, overload and guards against detraining.
  • Integrating various aspects self-determination theory into your S&C training can really help promote consistency.
  • View your training as an investment in yourself as both person and an athlete.
  • Most age-groupers lives are too busy and distracted to be worried about tedium getting in the way of training, but flexibility skills can really help you remain adaptable.
  • Mindfulness – if you haven't checked this out, you probably should

I began my talk with a brief introduction of my theoretical and practical experience en route to becoming an S&C coach. A fairly standard way in which to start any talk, but one that I hoped would also serve as a parallel to theme of ‘integration’ I had also hoped to convey. In the same way that I have aligned my resources and interests to attempt to make a living, I feel that both Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning should be channelled to improve triathlon training. It can be useful therefore, to think of two levels at which Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning can be applied to training for triathlon (or training for any athletic event for that matter).

  • The direct level, whereby you might decide to employ a given psychological intervention or routine in the gym (e.g. visualisation or 5 x 5), and
  • in a Gestalt manner.

Ok, so I just totally that made up and not even sure you can have something ‘at a gestalt level’, but I’m referring to the more subtle and indirect application that influences and permeates our perspective, philosophy and wider approach to training.

Whenever you give a talk I always find it useful to seek out the wisdom of far more sensible and successful people that yourself. Having mused about his philosophy of training quite recently I decided to frame the talk with an introduction to David Braislford’s and Team Sky’s ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ or as Mr. Brailsford put it, to aim for

“that 1% improvement in everything we do”

Picture of David Brailsford
Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Clearly, as demonstrated by the success within British cycling and Team Sky it seems like an effective approach – and one that both can be seen to have worked both in terms of the direct and novel physical /psychological interventions it employed, but also the over-arching philosophy and perspective it promoted.

It is novelty associated with the direct applications of the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ idea however that I think can be somewhat of a distraction from the true reason it is effective. When I think of the success in the tour of Team Sky, the mind conjures up images of jet black & blue uber-high tech Pinarellos, changing bedding each night and frequently washing hands to avoid risk of infection, and anything else that might happen aboard the ‘Death Star’! For the everyday athlete though, this is largely irrelevant. Simply put, if you want to add up all the 1%ers to a significant amount, first and foremost, it requires a tremendous amount of consistency and focus on getting the basics right. While a lot of these interventions are themselves obviously valid, their novelty distracts us from the inescapable – there much point in worrying about your massage oil if you forget to get out and train. I’m sure my intro was far more concise than above, but I eventually go to the point that it is the consistency, that other 99%, where the application of Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning is of true value.

With the scene set, I then went on to use the acronym of SPORT (Specificity, Progression, Overload, Reversibility, Tedium) for the principles of exercise training to delve into a little more detail around how exactly Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning could be applied. I did however caveat these applications with the fact that Individuality or Individualism is another principle that is often discussed. I mentioned that I would deliberately approach things in more general terms during the talk, as without a detailed understanding of the wider context of a given individual, it is impossible to advise with any real sense of confidence – there is no one size fits all approach!

Specificity

This one is a pretty simple idea, and is effectively, what you do is what you get. For a good example, this is something Brett Sutton’s coaching methodology seems to adopt at its very core. While I’d love to be able to tell you that S&C is the MOST important part of your training, it honestly never will be. Your swim, bike and run will always come first. When it comes to Strength and Conditioning for triathlon however, that doesn’t mean your time is wasted. Time spent on your S&C can help your triathlon in one of two ways – decreasing injury risk, or improving performance. As many of you will have found, hammering your swim-bike-run with no form of self-care or preventative work often leads to the inevitable. This is often the cost of specificity - imbalance. Since you are looking to become proficient in 3 sports at the same time, you really want to have a solid and robust foundation on which to add all the sport specific volume. I sometimes think that triathletes only see half the picture. They do the ‘Tri’ bit, but forget about the ‘athlete’ – attempting to become 3 types of athlete before they are one. Spend time developing and enhancing basic movement competency and athleticism and I promise you will reap the dividends.

Strength and Conditioning for Triathlon

So if Strength and Conditioning can primarily be seen as an enabler in allowing you to train more effectively – how should you do it? Well this is the golden question. One thing I hate to see, is the well-intentioned triathlete who actually manages to get in the gym, then spends their time ‘cross-training’ on the rower or elliptical. If you want to put something like this as a short feature as part of your warm up – fine. I don’t even have any problem if you are in the gym to use the treadmill or wattbike as an actual bike or run session in their own right. But if you are in the gym to develop athleticism and strength, and turn yourself into a more robust triathlete, use your time effectively. Triathletes spend almost all their training developing their aerobic capability. When you are in the gym, do what you can’t do elsewhere. Target your limiters with some time-efficient ‘homework’ or prehab work during your warm up (15mins tops). These are normally what I refer to as the ‘usual suspects’ – lack of pelvic/trunk control, hip or thoracic mobility - ten a penny in desk-dwelling triathletes!

Image describing S&C warm up for a triathlete incorporating rehab work into the warm up
Integrate work on your limiters into your warm up for a time-effective session

During your main set, aim to build strength and athleticism through a variety of single and double arm/legged compound lifts. Not because they offer some sort of panacea, but because they offer a lot of bang for your buck. By their nature, they will also help you develop proficiency in many of the sport specific requirements of triathlon and go a good way to help stave off the reoccurrence of the ‘usual suspects’ listed above.

Most of you will definitely want to get some advice on how best to construct this, but if you are feeling brave and wish to have a go at putting something together for yourself - remember to keep it simple and be systematic. Use performance profiling to look at what your sport requires, be realistic about where you are currently and set about getting there!

Keep your training simple, and systematic.
Keep your training simple, and systematic.

As a small aside, when we consider the specificity of the adaptations we are looking to stimulate through strength and conditioning, the timing of your S&C sessions relative to endurance training can be a great ally. Because the science would seem to suggest that endurance work inhibits strength gains, but not the other way around, if you train twice a day, do you strength work second. Preferably you’ll separate your strength and aerobic sessions by at least 6, if not 12-24 hours!

Progression, Overload, Reversibility

Bottom line – execution of these three fundamental exercise principles in a training plan, requires consistency. Consistency is therefore an inescapable requirement in any effective plan. As categorical as that statement may seem, ‘just turning up’ is often easier said than done. But, we can once again look to sport psychology to help develop applications through our strength and conditioning programming that can help boost consistency. How? Well two things often get in the way of us completing our training: either life gets in the way, or we let life get in the way (we don’t really want to – i.e our motivation).

Motivation in Triathlon

Motivation is a huge topic when it comes to sport psychology, and Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Ryan is a ‘big player’ in that area. It is concerned with the regulation of behaviour (how self-determined we are) and views motivation on a continuum. At one end of the continuum is Amotivation, where an individual lacks any motivation or attempt to perform that behaviour – perhaps a triathlete who doesn’t do any strength and conditioning because they don’t understand the benefits and wouldn’t know where to start anyway. At the other end of the scale is Intrinsic motivation, the most self-determined we can get - this might be a triathlete who hits the gym just because they love hitting the gym, they don’t even care how great might be for their triathlon training. The more self-determined behaviour, the more positive the outcomes, the greater the sporting experience, attitude and most importantly, persistence! Great, so we want self-determined behaviour, but how?!

Image depicting self-determination theory continuum of motivation
Self-determination theory continuum of motivation

Well, a sub-theory of Self-determination theory is Cognitive Evaluation Theory (stay with me guys). Again Deci and Ryan wanted to find out what influenced self-determination. Lots of research and thinking later and they suggested that Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness were the three key psychological needs were crucial to culturing self-determined behaviour. These are three things I try to include in the architecture of Strength and Conditioning training to boost your chances of getting in the gym consistently!

Competence – Have 1 key exercise you pour your focus into every session. Make it a key lift that you WILL progress. This is useful especially when you’ve been hitting the gym for a while and gains are harder to come by. 1 simple goal of progression that you can achieve will improve your perception that you are able to meet your desired outcomes. Happy days!

Autonomy – In addition to making sure an athlete understands the benefits of S&C and subsequently has choosen to partake in the activity (most important), it can be useful to offer a choice of exercises to deliver a given benefit – there are many variations of a hinge movement for example. As a coach, I’d sacrifice the finer details of a programme every time, if I can consistently get an athlete is in the gym, performing roughly the right kind of exercises, with good form at the right intensity.

Relatedness – We all seem like to feeling supported and accepted by others. Gym work is well-suited to having a ‘gym buddy’, who can jump in during your rest periods and perform their sets. Find someone at your club who’s keen to progress with you and it should really help you to deliver week in, week out. Whiles ‘its all you’ when you get under the bar, it doesn’t have to be that way to get you to turn up.

The Pain Community?

With all the endurance work you will be doing, strength is going to take time and dedication to build, so it can also be useful to address your perspective with regard to Strength and Conditioning. Matt Fitzgerald’s book Iron War talks quite extensively about how triathlon can be seen as a ‘Pain Community’. How through shared experience of physical and mental suffering, we are bound together. I certainly think there is a lot of truth in this, but perhaps with a slight adjustment to the way we look at our training can get a whole lot more out of it. In a world of ‘Smash-fests’ ‘Sufferfests’ and ‘MTFU’ what is wrong with being kind to yourself? Triathlon should be something we do because we enjoy it! Yeah, sure its fun to come out the other side of a demanding workout or race, and ‘overload’ is something we are definitely looking to achieve, but what’s wrong with being a little nicer to ourselves. This is our ‘me’ time. If we see it purely as a time when we are breaking ourselves down, or punishing ourselves, there is going to be a limit to how much we can take. That’s why I advocate thinking of time in the gym as an investment. An investment in yourself as both a person and an athlete. A time when you are building a foundation for health and performance – not going at yourself with a sledgehammer. Training sessions are a bit like going to the bank. Next time you go, will you be paying in, or cashing out?

Image depicting an investment vs a smashfest
Smashfest or Investment?

Tedium

Finally we get to Tedium. This is often known as the variety principle too. Variety is important, because in many ways we want to build an adaptable, not an adapted athlete. It seems like most age-groupers lives, season plans and training schedules are WAY too busy and frantic to be boring, and so the problem is often the opposite. Its actually uncommon to see boredom as the reason an athlete fails string together a really consistent (there is that word again) and progressive block of meaningful training. Rarely is programming variety the reason that an athlete has reached a plateau, its more likely that the progression, overload and consistency is not there.

This is where developing psychological flexibility can really help. The ability to be able to take life’s curve balls in your stride is extremely useful. Since triathletes have a tendency to view things as very ‘black and white’, a small programming hiccup can often seem borderline catastrophic, psychologically undermining an entire week or month of training. Rarely are things so cut and dry. If this does sound like you, try the YES/NO exercise. Pick 5 things that you normally say YES to (e.g. filling out your Heart rate in the morning, or taking your garmin with you on a run), and 5 things you normally say NO to (a forbidden food perhaps). Choose 1 each day of each and try out the opposite. It’ll definitely feel weird, and you probably won’t like it at first. Follow it through though, and observe how you feel. Perhaps not so bad eh? (Oh, and you aren’t allowed to go back and ‘undo’ what you did in either situation. Just deal with it!)

Mindfulness for Triathlon

For the top age-groupers and pros and dedicated individuals who really are reaching a plateau due to tedium in training again, performance profiling can again help you stay on track. This will help bring a ‘meta-awareness’ and sense of purpose to each and every session. Training isn’t always fun, but deferred gratification can be a powerful thing if you manage to master it. I won’t go into depth about it, because it has been done to death, but Mindfulness practice can also be very useful for the bored athlete. Culturing a moment to moment, non-judgemental awareness can really help to reframe and bored feelings you might have. Just observing a situation will often change its very nature. I’d highly recommend Headspace app for this. They have a good free introduction to mindfulness training and subsequent premium sessions that can easily be applied to your triathlon training and lifestyle!

Slide showing picture of flexible gynmnast, and headspace logo
Psychological Flexibility and Mindfulness

Conclusion 

You made it! Although that was a far longer blog than I anticipated, I hope its been of use. Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning have a myriad of application to triathlon training, and it can be hard to know where to start. If you liked this article, please do share it, and if you have any questions please do email me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or tweet me @acbcoaching. One question at the talk was about whether I might recommend strength training year round. In short – yes! While I’d certainly periodise training in the gym and strength work around major races, you are looking to be your strongest when you race. Surely that’s the point? It therefore makes little sense to do all your gym work in the winter then be at your weakest come race day in the summer! So a definite yes to some strength training year round! If you have any more or any feedback on how you integrated any of this into your training, I’d love to hear you! In whatever ways you do try to apply Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning to your training – make sure you don’t stray too far from the S.P.O.R.T. principles and keep it personalised!

Speed training for Ultras

Do I need speed training for ultras?

Another discussion from Twitter, but one I’ve seen discussed several times online and in the ultra running community before

'Are speed intervals as part of training for an ultra necessary? All the plans I've found online don't mention speed work at all #ukrunchat'

Instead of my usual ‘it depends’, this time I’m going to set out my stall early on with a clear cut, ‘almost certainly, probably not’.

A lot of the confusion around this topic comes from the application of the word ‘speed’. If your are training for an ultra-marathon, and your coach has set you something they describe as ‘speed work’ or ‘speed intervals’, I do hope its through a mistaken application of the term, as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of what speed is.

What is Speed?

Let’s start at the beginning. Speed. What is speed? Speed = distance divided by time. Meters per second, miles per hour, kilometres per hour etc. These are all familiar measures of speed. So basic, it hardly seems worth stating.

These measures of speed are common in sport. Every tennis serve on TV seems to be recorded and displayed in the background. You’ll also most likely be able to see the velocity of pretty much every ball bowled in a televised cricket match too. This is because they are useful, sport specific performance indicators. The faster a serve is hit or a ball is bowled, the less time to react and the harder it is to play.

Unfortunately, when we consider performance in running, we adopt a subtly different perspective. We tend to look at the time take to cover a certain distance (min/miles or min/km). You might argue this is the same thing, and when you look at it like a physics equation on paper, it pretty much is. What it means for training, and how you train however, it most certainly is not.

How fast do I need to be able to run?

Lets look the fastest man on the planet - Usain Bolt. As you might imagine, when he ran 9.58 seconds for 100m, there was no shortage of analysis into just what makes him so fast and how he did it. In short, he’s fast because he has what seems to be a pretty perfect blend of muscle fibre type, an ability to recruit those muscles near maximally and efficiently, his body structure (good lever lengths), and of course, all the training and technical skill that allows him to maximize his stride length and stride frequency over 100m. On that day, and many others, all of what I’ve just mentioned meant that he was able to both reach a higher top speed, and also slow down less than his competitors over 100m. Take a look at the graph produced by the Science of Sport for a clearer picture of how that race panned out.

Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )
Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )

Ignoring the acceleration, which is also a big part of 100m performance, we can see that in a race the length of just 100m, even world class athletes are actually unable to sustain their highest velocity – in Usain’s case a ridiculous 44.72 km/h! Fundamentally this is because humans will struggle to continue to be able to maintain the required rate of energy production to do so - note the decline in 'total power production' even over 10 seconds.

Graph showing Energy Production in the human body
Energy production in the human body (Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5Eo )

Now maximum speed is pretty bloody important over 100m. But its not the only thing that is important. Speed maintenance, or the ability to endure can be seen to start to come into play. Over 200m, the latter becomes even more important, over 400m, more so. You don’t even need to stretch the race out to 100 miles to pretty much completely remove maximum speed as a limiting factor in performance.

We can look at it another way to prove the point. Take a look at what happens when you take Mo Farah, and Alistair Brownlee (two guys who can by most endurance runners standards can absolutely shift) and put them to a test of speed against a collection of other athletes.

While acceleration, technique and motivation need to be considered, both of them get completely burned by an Anthony Joshua (11.53 sec for 100m) – a man who’s sport doesn’t even involve running! I’d argue he beats them by far enough to suggest that outright speed clearly isn’t what makes Mo or Alistair good at what they do.

Speed requirement in Ultras

Ok, so by now, I hope you are beginning to see how important maximum speed might be in longer distance events (not very). But let’s really drum it home with a specific example. The initial question was posed by someone hoping to take on the NDW 100. Even though the individual’s goals were to just complete, let’s imagine he’s going for the course record - 15:44 for North Downs way. Ignoring nutrition, personal admin etc pacing etc for the sake of argument, (all huge aspects influencing the outcome of this type of event) this theoretically means you need to travel at an AVERAGE speed of 6.35 mph,10.24 kmh or 2.8 m/s over the distance. So, in terms of a speed requirement, if you can travel this fast, you have the raw speed capability to equal the course record. Why not go test it, see if you can run 100 metres in 35 seconds. I believe in you! Whether you can sustain it, is an entirely different question.

We do  know that pretty much everyone fades over 100 miles so its likely that you’ll need to be able to run a little faster than this. But let me stress again top speed is clearly not the problem. Take a look at average speeds of competitors over the SDW100 in 2012 to give you a very rough flavour of how fast people are running.

Graph depicting average speeds of runners between checkpoints during the South Downs Way 100 mile ultra in 2012
Average speeds between checkpoints at the SDW 100 2012 (Credit to Sam Robson and Centurion Running http://ow.ly/IH6tj)

So what about the need for speed intervals when training for ultras?

So this is where the term ‘speed’ is being misused when coaches or athletes refer to speed intervals. I’m assuming that most ultra-runners or coaches aren’t setting their athletes much less than 400m intervals, but even these are not developing maximal speed and should not be called ‘speed intervals’. They are developing an athletes capacity to not go slower. To endure. Not speed.  If 400m intervals developed maximal speed, Usain would be running them. Based on his self-confessed laziness being reason he hasn’t yet trained to competitively run 400m, this might just give you an indication of how much he actually runs that distance!

Don’t get me wrong, increasing your maximal aerobic capacity, your ability to utilize lactate, developing your running economy and the host of other biomechanical, physiological and psychological adaptations that can be improved from systematically running faster than race pace will likely improve your running across most distances. But I must be categorical here – they are not speed training. They are not speed training in that they do not (at least effectively) develop maximal speed. They develop your ability to sustain sub-maximal speed.

To some extent, I feel like this article has just delved into semantics, but I hope I have also made an important distinction for you, and one you can apply to your own training plans. If we misinterpret speed, we leave ourselves open to getting our training wrong too. Next time you hear or see someone stating the importance of speed training for ultras, you don’t have to disagree, but perhaps politely ask them to say what they actually mean, and not just what they think they mean. There is a BIG difference!

The best 30 day challenge for runners

What is the best 30 day challenge for runners?

So, another blog in response to a question from twitter.

What are the best "30 day challenges" for runners? I.e do I really need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds?

It depends. As ever, it depends (it really does). When you look to construct a robust training plan for a given person, ‘Individualization’, is one of the main requirements you should look to satisfy. I’d like to know a lot more about you (or any runner) before I would answer it specifically (for you) e.g:

In general terms, on your athletic journey, what is our starting point? What is the destination? Specifically - What is your biological and training age? Training history? Current training load? Health status, stress levels, ability to recover?

I don’t mention this to avoid the question, but more to demonstrate that it would be irresponsible to suggest I could offer you a decent answer without such information. I’d like to see how you move, how you run. Only then might it be possible to determine the suitability of any 30 day challenge for you. Taking that into consideration, the likelihood of an arbitrarily designed challenge is unlikely to be that useful for you.  But that doesn’t mean they are completely without benefit either.

Everything that goes into a training plan, should have a purpose. With busy lives to lead, few of us really have the time to be participating in anything that is anything less than something that is fit for purpose toward our eventual goals. Assuming that the specificity of our overall training is also not something that is mutually exclusive from the ability to enjoy ourselves, let’s evaluate the 30 day wall sit challenge in a little more depth and examine its potential benefit to runners.

Image listing the progression of the 30 day wall sit challenge
The 30 day wall sit challenge

So first things first, what is a wall sit exercise? Its an exercise that predominantly works your quads, but also glutes and calves. On the face of it, it sounds like this will be good for running. You definitely use your quads, glutes and calves for running, so thats a tick in our ‘specific for running’ box…..or is it? The wall sit exercise involves an isometric muscle action. What does this mean?  Basically the muscle length doesn’t change and the contractile force is equal to the resistive force, hence you stay in the same place! So what? Well lets look at our quads very briefly while running. They help extend the hip and knee. So actually work both concentrically (where muscle length shortens because the contractile force is greater than the resistive force) and eccentrically (where the the muscle length extends because the contractile force is less than the resistive force) during the running cycle. Ever run fast down a steep hill and had achey legs the next day? This is where your quads experience an exaggerated version of one of their main functions during running i.e. a lot of eccentric loading - (think braking/shock absorbing). As your foot falls further downwards than normal, it effectively increases the resistive forces your quads must absorb. Yet they simultaneously have to contract to stabilise your knee. No wonder they ache after this - I hate trying to do two things at once 😉 So while an isometric exercise like the wall sit this might be useful for downhill skiing or rock climbing, where the sport specific movements require extended and coordinated isometric contraction of the lower limb (holding a static position) - the wall sit does not lend itself well to the more dynamic action of running. Some form of lunge challenge might be a little more specific to a runner.

Moving on from the physical specificity of the challenge, lets look at it from a psychological perspective. I do appreciate that these challenges can be motivating, especially if there is a group of you completing it together. You have target to aim for and a simple plan to follow. In terms of how motivating it might be, take a look at how it fits with the continuum of motivation according to self-determination theory. Where might you put it?

Image depicting The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory
The continuum of motivation from self-determination theory (image from http://ow.ly/IgiS1)

The more ‘self-determined’ your motivation, or so some evidence suggests, the more positive the outcome. If you are going to do a challenge, pick one with meaning for you and your journey.  The 30 day wall sit challenge might be the one for you, but only you know that.

As for the format of the challenge, it is progressive (an important training principle). However, whether the majority of it is enough to stimulate ‘overload’, from which we ultimately adapt is questionable. There is also no opportunity for recovery in it. If it does become too hard, there is little room for manoeuvre. Hence we come back to individualisation and your current training status and ability. Say 120s wall sit was the minimum required to stimulate an adaptation at the outset, you’ve just potentially spent 11 days when you could have been doing something more appropriate to your standard. Say you find 10sec difficult at the outset, the rate of progression is unlikely to be sustainable. The arbitrary nature of the length of the challenge is a double-edge sword. Its short enough, and familiar enough within our mental models to be something that seems achievable and compartmentalised - a nice little package. But our bodies don’t physiologically and physically respond to external stimuli according to where we are in a 30-day challenge. Furthermore, if I wanted to make meaningful gains with an athlete, I’d ask them to set aside 3 months minimum. Worthwhile physical change and adaptation takes time.

For a runner, I’d probably argue 90s in a given position, providing you demonstrate perfect form is enough to demonstrate a bracing competence. After that, progress the exercise in different ways, load, position, amplitude, plane…..The body doesn’t generally work in distinct parts but as a very complex interconnected chain - it should be challenged like that.  Here is a tweet I posted last year from an online Strength and Conditioning Conference, summarising the thoughts of two coaches who know far more than I ever will about training an athlete appropriately (Vern Gambetta and Kelvin Giles) that I think sums it up quite nicely.

Image of skeletal connections linkages and interconnectedness
'Connect,sync,link,then coordinate' (Vern Gambetta) & 'Creating linkages' (Kelvin Giles) From Brendan Chaplin's Online Strength and Conditioning Conference 2014

 

The best 30 day challenge for runners?

So where does that leave us? What ARE the best '30-day challenges' for runners?  Ones that are specifically designed with a beneficial transfer to running in mind, yet appropriate and considerate of the individual undertaking them. Ones that motivate and ‘challenge’ the athlete, and ones that fit into the wider context of their journey from wherever they might be to wherever they are going. And no, you don’t need to be able to wall sit for 300 seconds. 😉

Hope that helps, and of course if you have any questions about this blog or any other general ones please write to me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or get it touch on twitter @acbcoaching.

Strength & Conditioning and Coaching Psychology

Strength & Conditioning and Coaching Psychology

At conferences and talks, its quite common to hear Strength and Conditioning Coaches reference the relative balance of 'Strength' and 'Conditioning' in their everyday work. We all follow slightly different pathways into the industry, and with those pathways come individual differences in our skills, philosophies and programming preferences. Coming to Strength and Conditioning from a background of endurance sport, my personal knowledge-base was certainly more skewed towards the conditioning side than strength.
The Intra Strength and Conditioning Coaching Balance
The Intra-Strength and Conditioning Coaching Balance

While I, and I'm sure many coaches alike, continue to work to address these imbalances, it was reflecting upon this process that led me to consider that our relative Strength-to-Conditioning-know-how-ratio is not perhaps the widest gap in most our skill-sets.

Strength and Conditioning is a burgeoning area of academic and applied research. As such, should we wish to develop our theoretical or academic understanding within the field of Strength and Conditioning, the information we might need to bring us up to speed is literally at our fingertips.  These opportunities are well publicised with any number of e-newsletters, subscriptions, workshops and seminars forming an active education sector within the field of Strength and Conditioning. If you don't know your or your MAF from your V02 - no problem.

Now of course, academic knowledge alone does not make a great S&C coach. It is just one component of the bigger picture. Any coach worth their salt knows the lab is not real life, and rarely will the latest journal protocol barely resemble what you might be able to practically implement in training. The point is, when it comes to both the science behind S&C and subsequent application of that knowledge, the field of Strength and Conditioning promotes a widespread awareness of the need for balance if we are to maximise the utility of our practical and scientific understanding.

The lack of Coaching Science in Strength and Conditioning

When it comes to the development of our coaching know-how, I feel we begin to lose that aforementioned balance. While there is clearly no shortage of coaches and organisations stressing the importance of developing our coaching ability, the constructive discourse and application of up to date research in the field is sorely lacking.
Part of the problem, can be summed up well by the predominant notion of "Coaching as an art”. Now I’m not for one second going to even try to deny the creativity, intuition and experience that undeniably contributes to making of a great coach. My issue, is that at some ways, this idea can diminish our responsibility in ascribing structure, critical thought and practice-based evidence on our journey as coaches.  Coaching is not just an art. The ‘science of coaching’, is a field of research that is as valid and as buoyant as that of S&C. Yet despite the existence of area of research that produces systematic, peer reviewed literature, it hardly seems to form a blip on the radar of most S&C coaches. I believe the longer we only mention the requirement for developing our coaching skills, yet continue to define it as some nebulous idea that comes from experience and a bit of gut feel, the wider the gap between our technical S&C knowledge and our applied coaching skills will grow.
The Art of Coaching
The Art of Coaching

The need for Coaching Psychology in Strength and Conditioning 

So what do we do about it? Iron out the inconsistencies and start treating coaching as we do our S&C knowledge - with a bit more scientific and academic rigour. I’m not saying ignore the contributions of creativity, intuition or experience on our individual journeys to becoming a better coach, nor do I wish to overstate the value of ‘scientific evidence’. But as a profession, Strength and Conditioning has a great deal to learn from fields of research that specialise in the coaching domain.

International Coaching Psychology Review
International Coaching Psychology Review
The Special Group for Coaching Psychology (SGCP) for example, was founded approximately a couple of years before the UKSCA. It was done so
"in response to concerns about untrained or poorly trained coaches, and the related need to promote improved standards of practice for the benefit of the profession of coaching, coaches, their clients and the public at large"
The potential application of Coaching Psychology to the role of a Strength and Conditioning coach is as obvious as it is (seemingly) absent.  Strength and Conditioning is a cross-disciplinary field, and must integrate the working knowledge of physiologists, biomechanists, physical therapists, nutritionist/dieticians etc on a daily basis. I think it would do well to increase its integration and with that of Psychology and in particular, Coaching Psychology. Coaching Psychology is about the practical and considered application of the art AND the science of coaching in service of our clients' goals. To consider coaching as just art, and to leave our development as S&C coaches in the hands of the anecdotal, I believe is a disservice to both ourselves and our athletes.
The Art AND Science of Coaching
The Art AND Science of Coaching
In future posts I hope to distill some of the more recent learnings from the field of Coaching Psychology in relation to S&C and would urge you, if you don't already, to consider doing the same.