Friday, August 12, 2011

Law of Diminishing Returns

After seeing so many different athletes and coaches come up with so much success with a vast array of different training philosophies, I decided there must be something more than just the philosophy that leads to that success. The converse was true as well in seeing coaches and athletes copy what they had seen work for others and fail to come even close to matching the results. If tempo runs aren't the answer, if mileage isn't the answer, if quarters aren't the answer, what is the answer? The first step was to try an experiment with my own running and those that I coach. Some may hypothesize that after having a team win a national championship with one type of training, that I had found the secret... that was the only training scheme I should ever use. My hypothesis was different, however. If there were principles behind that training scheme that made it work, then following the same principles while changing the workouts themselves would continue to produce results. In fact, by changing the workouts, I was actually following the principles behind that season's success more than I would have if I had repeated the workouts. Read that again, is your mind blown? Here is where coaches and athletes fall into the the catastrophic plateau and crash cycle. By repeating the same training schedule multiple seasons or years in a row, they are actually violating the principles that allowed them to succeed off of that training schedule. But how can this be?
There are several reasons why frequently changing training plans is of value to a runner. I try to boil them down to certain fundamental training principles that, when understood, can produce a myriad training schedules, each markedly different from the last, and all effective when executed properly. These include the SAID Principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand), the principle of supercompensation, and the principle of progressive overload and most importantly, the law of diminishing returns. I believe that with a mastery of how these principles apply to runners in general, but more importantly how they apply to specific athletes, a coach or runner can follow almost any general running philosophy and not only improve but excel. Without going through an entire lecture right here, the principles can be summed up as
1) SAID - Each athlete responds to training in a specific way. He or she will have a physiological reaction to a training stimulus that might be partially predictable through basic physiology but will also be unique to that runner. A coach's first job is to understand how each athlete responds to each aspect of training. We have already lost over 50% of coaches and I hate to say possibly over 75%.  In the last year alone I have talked to over five coaches who insist there is little variability among runners in response to training modes. This is truly a shame for their athletes.
2) Progressive Overload - Progressive overload is the obvious tenet that in order to improve, you need to do more than you have done before. To get better, stronger, faster, you need to gradually - read that again, gradually - increase the amount of workload from what you are used to. In referring to SAID, this will have a predictable effect on you. You don't simply get stronger or faster from the work though. You actually initially get weaker and then stronger with proper recovery. This leads us to our next principle.
3) Supercompensation - This is the reason why training works. Any time you do more than you have been used to, you have introduced a new training stimulus to your body. This stimulus will have a specific effect on you that may or may not be the same as other runners on your team (see SAID). Your reaction to this stimulus will initially be fatigue; if you allow yourself to recover you will then not only compensate (regain strength) but SUPERCOMPENSATE from that workout. To supercompensate means to rise above in strength, speed, flexibility, or whatever from where you were before. You don't just recover to where you were before, you get better. This seems like such an obvious idea but it is so often misunderstood. So much can go wrong with this principle right here. If your stimulus is too hard - not progressive, you will not recover. If you do not recover from the initial stimulus either because it was too hard, or because a subsequent stimulus was too hard, or because another hard stimulus was applied before supercomensation took place, you will not improve. This is why we don't run workouts for the sake of running workouts. If sick, injured, burnt from a long hard week/month, etc., you will not be able to even compensate, much less supercompensate from a workout. That's right, training could make you weaker! If you can master Progressive Overload, SAID and SUPERCOMPENSATION, you don't even need a training schedule. If you truly have those three principles down, you can come up with workouts day by day and do better than any schedule by any coach would get you. (It's takes years and years and hundreds of athletes to truly master those principles, however, so for roughly 99% of runners and coaches, a schedule is still necessary.
4) Law of Diminishing Returns is the monkey wrench in the whole idea of repeating your successful schedule season after season. This is where the recurring schedules get all screwed up. If you know what a workout will do for you, if you know how to time your workouts so that you recover and then get better and then do another one, you are probably going to have a good season. Now, you go back to the drawing board and get ready for your next season. If you think, like many athletes and coaches, that you will stick with what worked, you just might have killed that season. After six months or so of doing a certain type of work, you will not have the same adaptation you did before. Progressive Overload says you need to gradually build different systems in your body at a higher intensity or volume than you did before. When these systems are being stressed for the first time, they will quickly respond and require little stimulus. When they are used to being trained, they will need far more stimulus for far less benefit. The supercompensation curve on a well trained VO2 is virtually nil. Tragically, VO2 changes little after a single season of working it to capacity. Your SAID has actually changed! Now all of a sudden you are in a corner. You either get no improvement from the work you do or, in order to get improvement, you need to risk burnout or injury in order sufficiently overload a system already working at near capacity. This is why repeating the same schedule season after season or year after year doesn't work. This is also why new training plans, often no matter what they are, seem so good at first. They work because they are new. They are operating on a system you haven't bled dry yet. Progressive overload combined with the law of diminishing returns says that you should overload a system you haven't overloaded recently. This is why you hold to the principles above but apply them with completely new training schedules. Stress systems you haven't stressed, or minimally stressed before. Did you just do great off of  series of 100 mile weeks? Awesome! Now cut it to 60 and work some different intensities, or even cross training. Or perhaps you just dropped your mile repeats time by 30 seconds over the course of a season by doing them every week. Awesome! Now stop doing them. Run longer repeats slower, or shorter repeats faster, or stop doing repeats altogether for six months. The bottom line is whatever you have just made really strong will stay pretty strong for far longer than you think. It will also not get much stronger once you have near maximized it and to make it stronger your risks far outweigh your benefits.

Now I am not saying you will stay fast if you stop running. I am saying that once you have great endurance, you will keep that endurance with far less volume than it took to get it.  I am saying that if you have great speed, you can maintain most of that speed with far less intensity than it took to get it. When you hear of athletes plateauing  and burning out, it is usually not because their training in any given season was no good. It is because they failed to change that training in order to combat the law of diminishing returns. And probably once they stopped improving, they pushed the supercompensation principle too hard and failed to recover. When I see how little American runners have improved on a macroscopic scale in the last 30 years or so, I attribute it to this. Not that thirty years ago all the guys were talking about law of diminishing returns, but that they were so much more flexible with their training. Runners today are too uptight about holding to a specific rigid schedule and it's killing them. The flexibility of the past helped runners race more often and more successfully and improve many more years than they do now. So once a schedule has worked, banish it for at least a year. Try something completely different and see what happens. So long as you keep with the first three principles, and respect the fourth, it could be the best year of your career.

1 comment:

  1. I'm living proof of these principles. Under the workouts prescribed by coach Oviatt I went from dragging workouts that I had been doing for two years, that were getting worse by the day. One workout I actually ran a 15 minute mile, I was in in burnout from doing the same thing over and over. Coach designed a training program for me and soon I was training in the low 6's and high 5's when prescribed. My 5k went from the low 19's to a 18:31 !