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All models are wrong but some are useful

One of the least favourite questions that I'm asked by athletes is: "what is this particular training supposed to give me?", and then I have three ways to answer. The first is based on scientific-looking physiological theories and shows that I am a competent coach. The second, my favourite one, is "whatever, get on with it" and is reserved exclusively for athletes at a high sports level. The third one is set out here :)

The human brain naturally tends to simplify things. Complex challenges are split into smaller parts that are easier to undertake. This phenomenon is described in an interesting way by Prof. Daniel Kahnemann, American psychologist and economist, co-author of the prospect theory and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. In his best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains why our minds subconsciously swap out hard questions for easy ones.

"All models are wrong but some are useful" - George Box

The most popular physiological model of endurance training is based on three main indicators: lactate threshold, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) and movement economics. Each of these can be measured, analysed and interpreted in a simple and repeatable way. By following the changes, we can assess the effectiveness of the applied training. GO BACK! By following the changes, we can determine only the influence of the applied training on the indicators. In the meantime, we have subconsciously replaced a difficult question, "how to achieve better race results", with an easier one, namely "how to improve the lactate threshold, maximal oxygen consumption and movement economics?"

Through searching for an answer, a popular system of training zones has evolved. It is an attractive system – clear, simple, full of figures, diagrams and charts – and as if that wasn't enough, it bears the hallmarks of scientificity. The flagship example is "the world's best book about training according to Runner's World," namely Daniels’ Running Formula from 1998. It depicts three schedules of quality workouts corresponding to the indicators mentioned above. Threshold runs are to increase the lactate threshold, interval training is to improve the maximal oxygen consumption, and running repeats is to advance movement economics. Each format helps to improve only one particular physiological variable, and each training session has a very specific structure connected to the specific running speeds as well as the specific time of repeats and break intervals. Between them there are the so-called "junk-quality zones", which Daniels believes should be avoided when training.
 
  jd-figure7
Source: Jack Daniels’ Running Formula, first edition
via coacheseducation.com

 
It was no accident that the years when physiologists dominated the evolution of the American training concept coincided with the biggest ever results' collapse on the other side of the pond in the 1990s. The described mechanism strongly favours training formats that fit into the physiological puzzle, while marginalising other aspects. It cannot be denied that the favoured formats are effective, but by focusing exclusively on the described model, we lose sight of other training measures. In fact, I do not have to look very far – in my coaching practice I often use Fartlek workouts, uphill running, short fast runs and running with increasing pace, which in the polarised zone system are of marginal importance. Finally, forcing coaches into dogmatic schemas stifles creativity, innovation and flexibility – and these are characteristic features that distinguish very good coaches from outstanding ones.

In sports, all theories are validated by the final result, and that is why the evolution of the described approach comes as no surprise at all. The classifications of training zones, which have been set up in recent years, usually consist of a very broad spectrum of stimuli, which is perfectly illustrated in publications about bike training with a power meter:
 
training-zones
Source: "Training and racing with a power meter", Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, PhD
via roadcyclinguk.com
 
Similarly, in subsequent editions of Daniels’ Running Formula, the suggested training formats are extended, whereas the "junk-quality zones" shrink. More and more often top athletes train based on their general well-being, and coaches successfully apply methods that are inconsistent with the physiological theories that for years enjoyed great popularity. When it comes to sports in Poland, we are still some years behind, and the physiological dogmas that have been debunked long ago are still in use today. The relatively healthy approach is often applied by older coaches who have experienced enough trends and turning points in their coaching practice to maintain the most basic thing – common sense. On the other side, many coaches at my age train their athletes according to the "modern training concept based on scientific evidence," and are always able to give a well-rounded answer to questions about the aim of a particular workout. I almost envy them :)

Somewhere along the line we have missed one question – how do the lactate threshold, maximal oxygen consumption and movement economics relate to the achieved results? The correlation is strong, whereas the cause and effect are not so obvious, but that is a topic for another article. Stay tuned :)