Blog post by Daniel Rowland
The goal of training is to apply the right amount of training stimulus at the optimal rate to help an athlete improve their performance. Within those two variables of quantity and rate there are a huge range of possibilities for structuring and designing training. Even after considering the specific qualities of the athlete, the nature of their race, and the training that has worked well for them in the past, there are many options that could still help an athlete improve. How a coach structures and describes a training plan is the prescription of training. Once armed with the plan, it is up to the athlete to implement the plan and to do the training.
This post will look at a number of different ways to prescribe training, evaluating each method explaining when and for whom each is appropriate. The goal is to provide some ideas for planning and prescribing training for coaches and for self-coached athletes.
When the coach has delivered the plan it is equally important for the athlete to know how to implement and execute the plan. There can be uncertainty and tension for an athlete when they're not sure how best to apply a training plan. Should they always follow the plan no matter what? When should they be flexible and adjust the plan to suit their schedule? How much interaction and guidance is needed from the coach to make these decisions? When reviewing the different methods of prescribing training, this post will also cover how best an athlete should follow each plan.
A fixed microcycle
The simplest and probably the most common training plan consists of a microcycle of scheduled training sessions. The duration of the microcycle can vary from a week to 10 days to a fortnight, however, the most common duration is a week. The fixed aspect relates to having individual sessions allocated to specific days within the plan.
An example could be a week-long microcycle with the goal of completing three high-demand sessions: a set of short intervals, a tempo run, and a long run. The structure of this microcycle could be:
In this example and this type of training prescription every day is scheduled and the athlete knows exactly what to do on each day.
The athlete in this example following a fixed microcycle would decide to skip any high-demand sessions on the weekend based on the HRV feedback. There is no flexibility in the plan and there is likely to be a high-demand session early in the next week which they would need to be fresh for.
The advantages of using a fixed microcycle are:
The disadvantages of using a fixed microcycle are:
This type of training prescription is most appropriate for new athletes who need the principles to be built into the training plan and who need the uncertainty to be removed. It can also work well for groups of athletes who train together on certain days or for athletes who need training partners to motivate and push them. It is less useful for more experienced athletes who understand training and for athletes who are willing and able to adjust their training based on their sensations or other data.
In following this type of plan, I would suggest that an athlete embraces the inflexibility of the plan. If a session is missed, whether due to personal circumstances or advice from an HRV app, the athlete should miss the session and accept that it is gone forever. In this approach there is no need to reschedule or try to fit the missed session into the rest of the week. In fact, trying to do so may jeopardize other training sessions and impact the quality and intent of the other training. Missing a few sessions in a month or larger training cycle is not a problem. If the athlete misses more than that, then there is perhaps a larger issue and the training plan needs to be adapted to better match their current abilities or schedule.
A flexible microcycle
This approach to prescribing training is intended to add some room to manoeuvre and adjust the training schedule. The same microcycle approach as a fixed microcycle is followed: a weekly, 10-day, or fortnightly plan. However, instead of prescribing the training on specific days the coach provides a list of sessions and the principles necessary for the athlete to plan the microcycle on their own.
Using a similar training load to the previous example, the coach may specify the following objectives for a training week:
Depending on the level of the athlete, the coach will also need to provide a range of principles to help them design this schedule on their own. Examples of principles could be:
In this approach the athlete has a set of targets for the week, but they can place the sessions on the days that suit them best to match either their schedule or their rate of adaptation.
The advantages of a flexible microcycle are:
The disadvantages of a flexible microcycle are:
This type of training plan is appropriate for athletes with some experience of training and some initial understanding of the work required. It can work very well for busy athletes who need to adjust their daily schedules on the fly or for athletes with more flexibility who may be able to place long runs during the working week. This plan requires good coaching principles and careful initial discussion by the coach to help set it up. A flexible microcycle may not be applicable for new athletes or for athletes who just want a plan that they don't need to think about or adjust on their own.
For the athlete following this plan there are a few different options. The first is to schedule each upcoming week in a similar way to a fixed microcycle, but using the principles and the athlete's own schedule and timings. There is some room to adjust in this plan so the best practice would be to schedule the key sessions earlier in the week and with the minimum time between sessions. Using this starting point there is enough time to adjust on a day-to-day basis in the first part of the week based on sensations or HRV feedback. Another alternative is to schedule each day as it arrives depending on the athlete's sensations or other readiness input. In both of these approaches the athlete will need to prioritize the principles. At the beginning of the week if there is a missed session there is room to pivot and reschedule. However, towards the end of the week this may not be possible and in that case the athlete should accept any missed sessions and work on planning the following week in a way that is more effective to achieving the entire plan.
In this example the athlete originally had a high-demand sessions planned for Wednesday and Saturday. However, based on the low HRV score on Wednesday they shifted both sessions out by one day. The following week they would choose to make Monday an easier day and plan around that.
Here the athlete was intending to have a high-demand session Thursday, but two consecutive low HRV scores resulted in them pushing out that session to Saturday and skipping the third workout they had planned for the week.
An open-end, flexible plan
The final approach to prescribing training extends the flexibility even further from allowing the athlete to choose the sessions in a microcycle to allowing them to choose the duration of the microcycle. In this approach, the coach will provide a series of training sessions in a progression and the athlete decides when to do each session and when to progress. This approach can work particularly well if an athlete uses a metric like HRV that can guide their training.
An example in research is . The authors of the study provide a flowchart that guides the athlete to the training to do that day based on their morning HRV metric. Using the same parameters of the previous two examples, the coach may provide an ordered series of training sessions that may extend over approximately three weeks (the effective duration may vary based on how the athlete executes this training):
Similar to the flexible microcycle, the coach will provide principles that help guide the athlete through this progression. Examples of these principles could be:
Clearly in this approach there is a lot of flexibility and the demands placed on the athlete are high. However, the athlete has a high degree of ownership and can optimise their rate of progress based on their own adaptation rather than based on an assumed rate of progress.
The advantages of this approach are:
The disadvantages to this approach are:
This methodology of prescribing training is most suited for very experienced athletes and athletes who have flexibility to prioritize their training in their lives. It could also work well with athletes who have been self-coached but need some mentoring and guidance rather than a hands-on approach from the coach. It is not suitable for new athletes, athletes who need accountability from a coach, or athletes who are not in tune with their own sensations and rate of adaptation to training stimuli.
It is almost unnecessary to explain how to follow this type of training prescription as the basis of applying it assumes that the athlete is experienced and familiar with training principles. However, there are a few concepts that should be mentioned. It is important for the athlete to trust themselves and to trust the approach they take. For example, if an athlete is using HRV to guide their training they need to trust the quality of the measurement and the quality of advice provided by the app they use. The athlete needs to record review and reflect on their training to ensure that they understand and know how well they are adapting and to account for this in future training sessions. The athlete still needs to communicate and be open with the coach about how they are handling their training and they should rely on the mentoring and advice the coach provides.
In this example the athlete could follow the HRV-guided training plan without any modifications or edits until 23 January. A single low score meant that no adjustment was needed as this fell on a low-demand day. On 30 January two consecutive low scores resulted in the athlete taking a rest day on 31 January.
In this article there are three distinct methodologies of prescribing training. However, the prescription of training can use parts of each of these approaches and different prescription methods can be used at different times of the season. An athlete may benefit from the flexibility of an open-ended approach during the off-season and base period, but require more structure and directed input during the competition phase of the season. Together the coach and athlete need to decide which approach will work best to provide the athlete with enough guidance and support while remaining as practical and flexible as possible to adapt to the circumstances of their own rate of adaptation to training and the circumstances of their day-to-day life.
In following any training it is important for the athlete to be conservative and to accept that there is no perfect plan. In all the methodologies of prescribing training, the athlete should not worry about missing or adjusting and rescheduling a few sessions within a larger training cycle. If more than a few sessions are missed or rescheduled then the issue is not the athlete, but rather a mismatch between the training plan and athlete's current abilities and availability for training. In this case the coach and athlete need to work together to adjust the training plan and training prescription. It is important to acknowledge that while coaches will provide the best advice they can, the only person who can "feel" the training and assess how they are adapting to it is the athlete themselves. Working together to maximize the benefit of the coach's guidance and skills with the athlete's perceptions and development should be the priority for both coach and athlete.
 Carrasco-Poyatos, María, et al. "HRV-guided training for professional endurance athletes: A protocol for a cluster-randomized controlled trial." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17.15 (2020): 5465.
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