What Would I Do?

It seems to me that every time I read one of those articles like the ones I posted yesterday, I say to myself, “Their training program sucks! If I were their coach, I’d have them doing…” So it occurred to me that I should at least offer my unsolicited advice to all those Olympic hopefuls that are reading my blog and then some of my other readership could also benefit. So let us look at some of the training tips and routines that these articles highlight and see if we can improve them.

First there is Ryan Lochte the swimmer. What’s great about his training is that he sets small goals and is always competing against previous times or competing against his teammates.

“I love competition,” Lochte said. “I always have. That’s my idea of fun, to compete against your teammates, to compete in races, to compete against yourself.”

Competition was necessary, in fact, to keep him engaged during practice as a teenager.

“He’d coast through the easy parts” his father said, sighing even now. “But the minute I said we were going to do time trials or races, he’d be the first one in the water.”

Now, Lochte is his own best rival.

“Every day in practice I like to see if I can maybe kick an extra meter farther underwater than I did yesterday or beat something that I did before,” he said.

He also advises setting attainable goals, perhaps one of the more overlooked elements of a fitness regimen.

The article talks about his workouts in the water. Since I am not a swim coach, I won’t even comment on Lochte’s swim workouts. However the description of his land workouts leaves me thinking he could be doing better.

Now the 6-foot-2-inch Ryan Lochte turns up, if not avidly at least punctually, in the weight room at the University of Florida pool complex. “Three times a week,” he said, “for an hour and a half, two hours.”

Using free weights and machines, he concentrates on his shoulders (which have tendinitis), his legs and his back. “I was already pushing myself in the pool as hard as I could,” he said. “So I had to find another way to make pushing myself possible.”

Before every pool session, Lochte (below right) and his Florida teammates pass around the medicine ball, do multiple sets of push-ups and 500 abdominal crunches.

“Ryan does probably 30 to 45 minutes of core body exercises three times a week.” Troy said. For mortals, “20 minutes probably twice a week should be fine.”

Obviously, I would want this athlete doing CrossFit. Spending 3 days in the gym for 90 minutes doing body-part workouts on machines is a waste of time. Short intense workouts that allow him to tap into his competitive instincts will be far more productive. For core exercises, I would focus on overhead squats and how they strengthen the core while simultaneously stretching and strengthening the shoulders. Obviously that is a better move for swimmers. My guess is that an athlete that can do 75 overhead squats with 95 pounds can probably out kick most of the swimmers in the pool. Also consider a GHD situp, a far more powerful movement that would have greater crossover to a butterfly stroke than doing 500 crunches. Think about how impractical crunches and trunk flexion exercises are for a swimmer that must maintain a strong midline while kicking and stroking.

I would also have Lochte doing a large amount of gymnastics work. The reason for this is because is swimming is unique in the fact that it requires the athlete to remain horizontal and propel himself through liquid, not something that is normal to land-based mammals. Some gymnastic based workouts that focus on tumbling and swinging will help Lochte gain better proprioception and improve his body control. Think of two important moves in swimming: the dive and the turnaround. Both of these movements bare close resemblance to basic tumbling exercises that can easily be practiced and drilled on land.

My prescription for Locke is a 3 day on and 1 day off cycle of Crossfit workouts. I would spend the first 15 minutes warming up with basic tumbling and gymnastic skills and some bodyweight strength work like planche progressions, ring work or handstand holds. Then spend 15 or 20 minutes doing one full-body lift: overhead squats, power cleans, deadlifts, etc. Then do a 20 minute or less Met Con.

The next athlete is Sara Hall, a 1500 meter runner. What is great about her training is that she is spending a lot of time trying to perfect her form.

Hall kicks like a mule when she runs. She’s trying to stop. “This year, we’ve been totally focused on my form,” she said. “I tend to lean forward and I have a big back kick.” This slightly toppling stance lessens the power of her strides, and also has made her prone to being tripped up from behind during races.

Although some runners and coaches are loathe to fiddle with a runner’s stride, Mahon isn’t one of them. “Proper running form will lessen the chance of injuries and further the longevity of an athlete’s career,” he said. “It will improve running economy and allow the runner to run faster with less fuel expended.”

To help with form, “those of us in the elite-distance running community have started looking at what sprinters do,” Mahon said.

Hall has been learning a heel strike method of running which is disfavored in the CrossFit community which has adopted the Pose method. However, since I am not a running coach I will refrain from critiquing the running technique. I am sure that there are runners that have won races using both techniques. Where I find flaws in her training is in the amount of slow useless miles that she is running.

“I’m not running as far these days,” Hall said, compared with the distances she ran in high school and college. That might come as a surprise to anyone who learns that her average weekly mileage remains 85 to 90 (compared with her husband’s 140-plus). A typical training week includes easy running on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (usually twice a day). Hall, who can run almost a four-minute mile, lopes through these 30- or 50-minute workouts at a leisurely mile pace of 7 minutes. (To accurately figure her mile splits, she wears a watch equipped with G.P.S.) On Saturday, she takes a 14-mile run at a pace (5 minutes 45 seconds per mile) that is between what she runs in races and her easy days.

In my humble opinion an athlete that is preparing for a 4 minute race should not be spending 2 to 4 hours per week running at a 7-minute mile pace.

Then there are the fast, hard interval sessions at a track on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These hurt because they are supposed to. “You stress the body to get it to adapt” to the mechanical and physiological demands of speed, Mahon said. A typical Tuesday session includes two miles of warm-up, six miles of intervals and three miles of cool-down.

It is apparent that they know Hall should be doing fast workouts however only doing them 2 days per week is insufficient. This points to two important problems in her training. First, she is in poor condition. If she cannot handle more than two strenuous workouts in a week, then she is poorly conditioned. It doesn’t matter how many long slow miles she logs because those are clearly not preparing her for doing the real work, the sprints. Second, there is insufficient variety in her training. If she is spending all her time running, then she is not varying the stimulus enough to keep herself from plateauing.

How would I fix this? First, I would cut out the long slow runs. I would never have Hall run more than 2 miles at a time and I would not let her run slowly except during technique training. Second, I would try to make her strong. I would have her squatting, deadlifting, pressing and power cleaning. Finally, I would increase Hall’s work capacity. I would create a lot of short MetCon workouts that are no more than 10 minutes long with a majority of them in the 4 to 6 minute range. The idea behind the short MetCons is to increase Hall’s ability to do more work in the short timeframe of her 1500 meter run. Also doing more varied exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, push presses, thrusters, power cleans and kettlebell swings will allow for sufficient variety to keep Hall from burning out and allow her to sustain high intensity for more days per week.

Hall’s prescription would start with a 3 on and 1 off schedule. Days 1 and 3 would be about 45 minutes of strength training in the form of heavy squats, deadlifts, power cleans, etc. followed by a short MetCon. Day 2 would be focused on her sprint and speed work. I would follow that for about 2 months. Then I would take one three-day cycle and flip it and makes days 1 and 3 sprint/speed days and make day 2 the lifting day. If she is able to handle the added sprint/speed day, then eventually take the next 3 day cycle and flip it. At that point Hall will be doing 4 sprint speed days and 2 strength days.

The article on Michelle Guerette the rower is great. Again there is a strong emphasis on form. Her rowing technique and coaching and use of videotape is all great. The problem again is there is too much emphasis on long slow training and when you take Guerette out of the boat and put her on land that the training breaks down.

In addition to all the hours on the water and thrice-weekly weight sessions, Ms. Guerette spends 20 minutes a day on her abdominal and back muscles. She includes core-strengthening moves from Pilates and yoga, as well as more-traditional exercises. “It’s a mix, basically to keep everything strong and keep from getting injured,” Ms. Guerette said.

One exercise she finds very useful for strengthening the lower abdominals, crucial for maintaining good balance, are situps done on a pliable stability ball. Position the ball just under the small of your back, and take care that “your neck and shoulders are relaxed and that you’re really just contracting your lower abdominals.”

Stability ball exercises are also good for sore or injured backs, a common rowing ailment, though exercise physiologists advise proceeding with caution after an injury. “A strong core keeps the body stable in the boat,” Mr. Butt said. Also, he said, if your back feels vulnerable, “then reach more with your hips” when you go up to the catch.

Ms. Guerette typically has one day off per week and an afternoon or two. About once a week, she likes to clear her head with an hourlong steady run. One of her favorite routes starts near her apartment in Cambridge, crosses the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, then continues down Beacon Street in Boston into the heart of downtown. “Athletes don’t go out on Friday nights, but this way I can feel part of the action,” she said with a laugh. “You push yourself very hard so it’s fun to play.”

Rowing is a strength/endurance event. Long runs and stability ball crunches are of little use in training. Unfortunately her training log looks more like the runner, Sara Hall’s workout log. Lots of long slow training.

“There’s this saying that ‘Miles make champions,’ ” Michelle Guerette said. So she spends up to five hours a day on the water, doing a variety of workouts. Mix these pieces into your own sculling training:

BUILDING BLOCKS A base training session “addresses fitness, feeling and rhythm,” Charley Butt said. As with a runner, he said, what matters is “how a rower gets in the miles.” He advised rowing for 25 minutes at 75 percent of full pressure at a stroke rate of 16 to 20. Then, he said, paddle for 5 to 10 minutes and repeat. Maintaining a low stroke rate allows you to concentrate on technique.

HOLD THAT BREATH An anaerobic threshold workout helps Ms. Guerette become more aerobically efficient for her 2,000-meter races. She’ll be doing them about once a week until the Olympic Games draw near. This workout consists of three 15-minute pieces with at least 5 to 10 minutes of rest in between. For each segment, start at a stroke rate of 20. During the 15 minutes, gradually build the pressure and stroke rate. You should be rowing 30 strokes a minute at full pressure for the last minute.

ALMOST LIKE RACE DAY A race-pace workout is a “sharpening exercise,” Mr. Butt said. You want to pull full pressure at the stroke rate you intend to hit during a race — typically 30 to 34 strokes a minute in a 2,000-meter sculling event. But for the workout, go only half the race distance. For example, when training for a 2,000-meter race, do 1,000 meters four times, paddling between each piece for as long as you exerted yourself. “Race-intensity pieces hurt the most,” said Ms. Guerette, but since she and her national teammates don’t do race-pace workouts very often, she looks forward to them.

“Five hours a day on the water?” WTF?! I do not want to discount the necessity of rowing technique, but I sense that 5 hours of technique work a day is too much. My prescription for Guerette is almost the same as for Hall. I would cut out the long, slow rows and replace them with land-based strength workouts. I would want Guerette to have a phenomenal power clean as the crossover to rowing is tremendous. Since her event is the 2000 meter, I would keep the focus of her MetCon workouts in the 7 to 15 minute range and try to increase her capacity in that time frame.

What would you do with these athletes? Please post your thoughts to comments.

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