Coach Apr / May 2020: The evolution of coaching

Full Sus’s regular coach, Ben Capostagno discusses some of the more modern tools available to coaches these days and provides some insight in to how he and his colleagues use them to assist athletes in improving their performance.

Coaching has certainly evolved over the last decade or two, mostly due to an increase in the number of
tools a coach has in their toolbox. However, despite the increase in the tools available for coaches these days, the role of the coach has not changed: support your athletes and assist them in improving their
performance.

SPORTS SCIENCE SUPPORT

The field of sports science has certainly assisted coaches usually by answering questions posed by coaches or their athletes. “Will caffeine improve my performance?”, “Should I use a gel during a race?”, “Is this wheel-size really faster?”; all of these questions have been answered by well-conducted research trials, but the original question probably came from a coach or athlete. A strong link between sports science and coaching is imperative for the advancement of coaching techniques. In fact, the coaching process is essentially an open-ended research trial where the coach applies an intervention (training programme) to an athlete or a group of athletes, and then monitors the outcome (change in performance). Athletes may respond differently to the same stimulus, so the coach makes a note of this and then will apply a different stimulus the next time. In order for the coach to collect and monitor their data, they rely on a host of tools that allow them to keep track of their athletes’ progress and make the necessary adjustments to their plan to ensure progression.

COACHING PLATFORM

Online platforms, like Training Peaks, allow coaches and athletes who may have vastly different geographical locations to still work together. The coach can use the platform to prescribe training for their
athletes, who in turn can upload the data from their training sessions upon completion. The coach can then analyse the session and, depending on what training tools the athlete has (heart rate, power output,
etc.), can see exactly what was done during the session. Did the athlete practice good intensity discipline or did they decide that their easy day was the perfect time to go and hunt those Strava KOMs? There is also software like WKO or Golden Cheetah that allow for a more detailed analysis of the training session. Platforms and programmes like these provide coaches with the ability to monitor key variables like training load and track the progression of an athlete through key sessions which are repeated during a training block and throughout a season.

TRAINING TOOLS

Heart rate has been used to monitor training intensity since the ‘80s and the affordable nature of heart rate monitors has made them common training tools. It is recommended that you perform a maximal incremental exercise test at a recognised sports testing institute to help determine your personal training zones, because training according to arbitrarily assigned percentages of your maximum heart rate is not as effective. Training according to specific training zones, which are based on your metabolic thresholds, will improve both the specificity and quality of your training. Heart rate can be influenced by external factors such as fatigue, environment, caffeine and illness. These factors do affect the reliability of heart rate data, but heart rate is still a very effective tool for monitoring training intensity.

The most direct measure of cycling intensity, however, is power output. It is not influenced by external factors and cycling is one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing. Power meters have become increasingly more affordable and, as a result, their popularity has increased among cyclists of all levels. Using a power meter during training and racing is a great way to monitor not only intensity, but also progression. The introduction of smarttrainers, which reliably measure power output, and the online virtual environment of Zwift have reduced the boredom usually associated with indoor training and allowed cyclists to train very effectively indoors. The increased
use of power meters has resulted in many people disregarding their heart rate data, but it is important to remember that, while power output is an important measure of the external load or the work being done, it does not provide any insight into the internal load, or how the cyclist’s physiology is responding to the training. These two variables should be used in tandem for a more complete picture.

In summary, coaching has evolved and will continue to evolve in the coming years. The introduction of new tools allows for the collection of more training-related data. However, it is the correct interpretation of that data that will ultimately lead to an improved performance.

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