How hard was that session meant to be?

Voet et al. (2022) Differences in execution and perception of training sessions as experienced by (semi-) professional cyclists and their coach. EJSS.


TLDR: It's easy for coaches to assume athletes find training sessions as easy/hard as they were meant to be. In a Conti/World Tour team, there were large mismatches between how hard the coach intended the sessions to be and how the athletes perceived them. Getting this wrong over long periods of time can increase the risk of under/over-training.

Background


There are endless ways we can quantify training load...


We can use external training load metrics such as power output, duration, kJ, TSS. Or we can use internal measures such as heart rate to give us an insight into how hard training is. Another important metric that we can use is perception of effort - how hard was that training session?


Coaches can spend hours planning detailed training programmes, figuring out exactly how much duration and intensity they think is required to get a certain training outcome. But when it comes to athletes completing the training sessions, how often is there a mismatch between what the coach planned and how the athletes perceive the session?


This is what a group of sports scientists and researchers from a Conti/World Tour team wanted to find out.


What did they study?


Riders


11 Conti/World Tour cyclists (9 male / 2 female)

20 minute power (male) = 380W (5.5 W/kg)

20 minute power (female) = 274W (4.5 W/kg)


Training monitoring


The key metric they used in this study was session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE). sRPE is rated on a 6-20 scale that was developed by Gunnar Borg over 50 years ago.

Green = low-intensity

Yellow = moderate-intensity

Red = high-intensity


Between May until November, they asked the coaches to assign an intended sRPE to each training session they prescribed. After each training session, they asked the riders to rate how hard they felt the training session was from 6-20.


They then compared the coaches score to the athletes scores to see how they lined up.


What did they find?


They found that for a given coach intended RPE, there was a large range of how hard the athletes felt the session was. The graph below shows the range of athlete RPEs for a given coach RPE (10, 13 and 17).


Generally, the riders felt the low-intensity and high-intensity sessions were easier than the coach has intended them to be but the moderate-intensity sessions were the same as the coach has intended.



They found that training duration varied by up to 42 minutes between the prescribed training duration and the actual duration.


Why are there differences?


There are lots of reasons why an athlete might find a given session easier or harder than the coach had planned. Every athlete's daily readiness to train will be influenced by sleep duration and quality, nutrition, mood, social dynamics, injury/illness etc. For athletes at school/university, classes and exams can have a huge effect, and for riders with jobs, workload and stress from work will inevitably impact on their perception of how hard sessions are.


It's easy to frame these factors to think they'll always have a negative impact - lack of sleep, poor nutrition, argument with a partner etc. But it can be more productive to frame these things in a positive light - if I can better manage my workload in my job, my overall stress levels will be lower, and my perception of training will easier (and I'll likely perform better in training).


What's the impact of these mismatches?


Assuming the coach has planned training to be as close to optimal as they can for a given athlete, then large differences in the duration of training and how hard the athlete is finding that training suggest the actual training that is happening might not be optimal.


As I say to the athletes I work with, we can never know what perfect training looks like - i.e. whether we could have improved another 1% if we'd done something different, but we're trying to get as close as we can based on what we know!


There is a risk that if these mismatches persist over long periods of time (1, 2, 3+ training blocks), then athletes may be under-training (if they are finding training easier than the coach planned) or over-training (if sessions are consistently harder than planned).


What happens when an elite athlete/coach get aligned?


This study made me think back to a paper from Steve Ingham, where the research group looked at the training intensity distribution of a 1500m runner over a 2 year period.


In year 1, the monitored the training and found that the runner was running harder than the coach had planned on their easy and tempo runs. So, in year 2, they tried to adjust this intensity discipline on the easy and tempo runs.

Essentially, the athlete was executing the training the coach was trying to prescribe. And what happened?


In year 2, the athlete improved across the major determinants of endurance performance (VO2max, lactate threshold and economy) and medalled at a major Games.


Practical takeaways


So, how can we use this information to improve the training process as coaches and athletes?


Firstly, asking athletes to provide a session RPE and/or session comment is a good place to start getting insight into how athletes are finding training - and importantly, whether this is aligning with the coach plan.


Secondly, prescribing target ranges and a description of the session aim can be a useful tool to allow athletes to adjust the intensity based on their readiness to train. Say an athlete has a critical power of ~300W from a recent testing session, prescribing 4 x 10 minutes @ 290-310W gives them scope to adjust the intensity based on how they are feeling on the day.


Tired legs from a day at work - aim for ~290W. Absolutely flying after a rest day and good night of sleep - push on for 300-310W. They key point being that in both cases, the athlete will be executing a threshold session that would be perceived as 'hard but controlled'.


Lastly, if there are large mismatches between the intended and actual session RPEs, coach-athlete communication to identify why this might be happening is incredibly important. From the coaching side, there's no point continuing to prescribe the 'right' training, thinking the athlete just needs to get it done, if this is only going to lead to over-training and poor performance.


Thanks again for reading and as always, please get in touch with any questions or feedback on the article!

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