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  • Paddle Monster coach, Larry Cain

Follow a Training Program and Stick to it

One of the most important ingredients to a successful season is a well-planned training program. You can do all the work imaginable, but if it isn’t properly periodized (more on that next time) and well organized there’s no guarantee that all your hard work will pay off. In fact there’s a fairly high likelihood that despite all your sweat and endeavor you’ll come up short of your goal and not perform to the level you’re capable of.

My career in spring canoeing, as both an athlete and a coach, has been pretty instructive in the value of a good training program. I was fortunate to have very good coaches writing very effective programs. Especially in the early part of my career, I was always ready when I needed to be ready. Later on, when there were a few instances where I came up flat when it mattered most, my coaches were quick to sit down with me and look at the training plan for things that we could do differently or better for next time. This generally resulted in a better performance in the very next important race.

I’ve always been fortunate to have training partners helping form a training group. Pretty much everyone in the group benefitted from training together on a daily basis in some way. However within that group there were guys that tended to do well on a regular basis and those that were much less consistent. And there were always one or two guys who crashed when it mattered most, performing well below the ability they had demonstrated in training.

Over the years, as both an athlete and a coach, I’ve made note of those who have performed to expectations or even exceeded them, and those who have not. I’ve cross referenced that information against the question, “Who has followed the training program most closely?” I can tell you there is a very high correlation between following the program and success.

I think everyone understands that if you don’t do the work, you’re not going to get the results. That, of course, is supported by my observations. Those that missed the most workouts were less likely to meet expectations and almost never exceeded them. But the surprising thing is that the keenest, most enthusiastic trainers who never missed a workout were also likely to fall below expectations if they consistently did something extra or regularly changed an “easy” workout into something more difficult in thinking that “more is better”.

The reality is that more is definitely not better if it is the wrong kind of work, deprives you of proper recovery, or has you going hard when you should be going easy. A well-planned and periodized program ensures you’re doing the right type of work at the right time of year and has a balance to it that carefully and thoughtfully manages training load and impulse. This allows proper recovery between hard sessions so that every hard session can be performed with maximal quality. More than that it allows you to progressively increase volume and/or intensity without overtraining, ensuring that you’re constantly getting better.

As your priority race gets closer, a well-planned program helps ensure that you peak properly, meaning that when it matters most you’ll perform your best.

If you’re doing too much work and not getting proper recovery between sessions your next high intensity session won’t be nearly the intensity it should be. And if this happens regularly then over time it means your sessions are never as intense as they should be and you won’t perform at the level you should.

Even worse, if you’re going hard in scheduled easy weeks (which are part of properly periodized programs), then you’re not getting proper recovery from the cumulative fatigue that hard training results in. Over time, your performance begins to flatten out due to diminished quality in day-to-day training. Eventually, if you aren’t taking advantage of the rest that a recovery week provides, you’ll end up “over reaching” in your training which is the precursor to “overtraining”. When you’re suffering from “overtraining syndrome” your performance markedly declines and it takes weeks to even months to recover.

I’ve seen athletes performing at an incredible level and then suddenly hit the wall, all due to over reaching eventually resulting in overtraining. When this happens it has a serious affect on your season. You’ll either have to take time off from your training (which will prevent you from preparing properly for your priority event) or you’ll be entering your priority event overtrained and perform far below your ability.

It’s hard sometimes to just follow the program and do no more. Generally speaking it is your work ethic that results in your becoming a good paddler in the first place. If you outwork the other novice trainers you generally beat them. But as you gain experience and learn how to train harder in each workout, that work ethic needs to be focused on following the specific instructions in each workout. It needs to be channeled into quality – you need to paddle as well as you possibly can but respect the intensity guidelines in the program. You need to resist the urge to “freelance” and do extra stuff in a session that just leads to diminished quality in the rest of the sessions that are on the program for that week.

Resist the urge to “freelance”

I’ve mentioned changing the work on the program by adding more or doing less is counterproductive and is an example of what I call “freelance training”. Although you have a program in your hand or on your computer, by changing things you’re actually just making it up as you go along. This is lethal as it ruins the balance of the program and greatly increases the chances of over or undertraining.

Worse still is not having a program at all and just randomly making sessions up every day once you get on the water. It’s surprising how many paddlers actually take this approach. At least if you have a program you have a plan, and even if you end up frequently changing it you’ll probably still benefit from having a plan in the most rudimentary way. However if you’ve got no program to follow and are just making everything up as you go you’re actually committing a far more serious form of freelancing. In this example there is no plan at all. There’s no periodization or systematic organization of your training in blocks or phases that build on each other sequentially. There’s no progressive overloading with regular periods of recovery and consolidation. There’s no calculated change in stimulus that keeps your body always adapting maximally to the work that you do. You’re basically flying blind with no plan or purpose to anything, and as a result are unlikely to get much benefit from the hard work you do, and if you do see a benefit it’s almost by accident. I can’t think of any world-class athlete in any sport that just makes things up as they go along instead of being on a well-organized training program.

Channel “work ethic” into “training smarter”

So you’ve developed the discipline to resist the urge to freelance and do extra stuff that isn’t on the program, or worse still train without a program. Yet you’re feeling like you aren’t doing enough and still have the urge to do more unchecked. What can you do?

The answer of course is to channel “work ethic” into “training smarter”. Here are a few tips on how to train smarter:

  • Follow the program. The smartest thing you can do is get on a well designed program and stick to it

  • Pay attention to little details. They add up to make big differences and include things like:

  • Proper nutrition – learn how to fuel yourself smarter. This can yield benefits not only in race performance but in recovery from training and how your body responds to the training stimulus. If proper nutrition helps you train with better quality day-to-day then it is making a daily contribution to the performance you’ll be capable of in your priority event.

  • Proper rest – channel your work ethic into the self-discipline required to get enough sleep. Most of the body’s recovery and rebuilding takes place during sleep. It’s also the time when your body produces the most growth hormone. If you’re not getting enough sleep you aren’t recovering properly. And that affects not only what you get out of the workout you just did but also what you’ll get out of workouts yet to come.

  • Recovery Strategies – channel your work ethic into learning more about recovery strategies you can actively use to speed recovery from a workout you just finished. Things like massage, hydrotherapy, saunas, stretching, etc. are all examples of recovery strategies that you might be able to employ effectively. Learn about them and experiment with them. Find ones that work for you.

  • Visualization – use visualization to help prepare for workouts before you actually get on the water. You’ll generally find that your first strokes are much more effective and you get more out of your session if you’re mentally prepared to paddle perfectly before you actually step on your board. You’ll also find that this can be a very useful method to help you consolidate technique or get better command of adjustments you’re trying to make to your technique.

  • Equipment – having a good work ethic doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with your physical preparation or mental preparation. Rather it can be channeled into being professional about your equipment by always making sure it is in optimal working order.

  • “Leave no stone unturned” in your approach to being the best you can be and you will very likely meet or exceed your goals.

Training programs can be fun to build and if you’re up to doing the research necessary to create one you should go for it. It can be a very rewarding experience and it allows you to take total ownership over your training, which can be very satisfying. However it’s not easy to do and for some can be quite an intimidating proposition. For those paddlers it’s worth considering finding a coach, or at the very least a knowledgeable and reliable friend that you can use to vet your training ideas when putting a program together.

There are lots of coaches out there who will be willing to put something together for you if you ask. Of course we do that at Paddle Monster as well with programs for all levels of paddlers that are modified and adapted through consultation with our coaches to best meet a paddler’s personal and competitive needs.

#TRAININGWORKS, but it definitely works much better when it’s done following a well planned and organized program. Get on one today and stick to it. You’ll definitely reap the benefits as you paddle down the Tennessee River Gorge this October.


Chattajack 2015

photo credit: Rodger Ling

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