A Primer on Season Planning
Everyone wants to perform their best all the time. As an athlete, commonly this desire is even stronger. With the qualifiers for high-level competitions such as the Granite Games going on right now, the coaches at Training Think Tank continually encounter athletes that are struggling to understand that performing their best on any given day is not always possible. This is especially true for athletes who want to be able to perform optimally at a “focus” event like the CrossFit Regionals or CrossFit Games. This conflict between an athlete's desire to compete all year and the need to prepare optimally to achieve their major goals can often get in the way of optimal training. I felt that addressing this topic now was pressing as the things that you do (or aren’t doing) now can have a major impact on your ability to perform 8-10 months from now.
I think that the idea, that you should be able to perform optimally at any point in the competitive season, stems from a number of things: (1) the relative infancy of our sport and the lack of planning that goes into the timing of events relative to our championship event: the CrossFit Games Season (2) ego - in that athletes who consistently qualify for Regionals or other high level events think that they are fundamentally “better” than other athletes which may or may not be true (3) a general lack of understanding of the process for peaking athletes for competitions in our sport. Our sport has evolved quickly. What four years ago was a bunch of people getting together to throw down at one-day weekend events has transformed into a year long extravaganza of challenging 3-day competitions each with their own qualifying process. Essentially there are 4-5 major events each year that mimic the CrossFit Games but are not “championships” per-se. While this is certainly great for the sport from an exposure, community, and monetary standpoint, it also creates a culture where athletes don’t have the opportunity to take a true off season, refine movement quality, or develop skills to allow new ceilings of performance.
I think this phenomenon is common in young sports and can be seen clearly in the development of endurance sports (like Triathlon). When the sport of triathlon was in its infancy athletes would follow this same pattern of trying to compete all the time, never taking time to properly recover, and not really trying or understanding how to peak for championship events. However over time optimal training structures evolved and best practices became commonplace. I think that we are seeing the exact same thing happen in our sport right now and the best coaches and athletes will continue to be ahead of the curve.
Basic Season Structure
A basic principle in designing training programs for athletes is “periodization”. Periodization can be thought of as simply as defining “periods” of training where particular physical qualities are prioritized (like strength or endurance). By organizing training into different periods or “seasons” you can ensure the optimization of each physical quality at the right time (not necessarily at the same time!), thus “peaking” and athlete for an major event. Each phase should progressively build into the next and each subsequent phase should be be structured to maintain the adaptations made in the previous phase.
Organizing the training season with planned periods of lower and higher levels of training stress effectively reduces the likelihood of overuse injuries and burnout from overtraining. If you think critically about the volume of squatting, rebounding, bending, pulling, and pressing that is required to compete at the highest levels in this sport I think its pretty clear that without some careful planning athlete’s careers will be relatively short. Most athletes simply cannot sustain that level of volume-load for multiple years without developing mechanical issues. Planning out the training year to concentrate high-levels of mechanical stress when it is really needed (i.e. preparing for the volume of the CF Games) and lowering the stress when it is not (i.e. the off season and early season) is a must for coaches who have their athlete’s best interests in mind. This, coupled with the strategic selection of competitions throughout the training year can ensure that athletes are continually progressing toward their goals without risking stagnation or missing an essential component of their preparation.
There are hundreds of ways to break down a training year, however I’m going to lay out a really basic season structure that can be used as a general guideline to organize a training season.
-Off-Season - All sports where the training demands are high have off-seasons. For the purposes of our example, the off-season is considered to be a period of complete rest following the completion of the main competition. This time is critical to allow the athletes to recover from training stress accumulated during their competitive phases as well as an opportunity for a psychological break. The major goals of this phase are to promote tissue recovery, and allow the athlete a chance to focus on their life without the constant demands of training. Max has covered the importance of complete rest and the off-season in depth in a previous TTT blog post.
-Base Building - The first phase following complete rest needs to be a period of re-training. It is expected that athletes will loose some degree of conditioning and strength during the off-season. The base building phase is a time to redevelop their ability to tolerate training volume. It can be thought of a period of time where we are working to improve the athlete’s “trainability”. In our sport this phase will likely consist of basic-strength or basic-endurance training or a blending of these two for athletes who can adapt effectively to this type of concurrent training. The base building phase should also be layered with movement quality sessions and skill work. Primary goals for this phase could be to build training volume in lower-impact modalities (cyclical / basic conditioning) and address strength deficiencies all while optimizing mobility to ensure movement quality is preserved throughout the year.
-Specific Priority Training - When athletes have developed adequate levels of basic fitness needed to support their future training volume the content of the training program should shift or the athlete will likely reach a point of diminishing returns. The focus then becomes developing their individual priorities relative to their movement, skill, and energy-system limitations in the sport. The length of this phase really depends on the athlete’s development in the sport. Novice athletes will likely spend most of their training year in this phase while athletes on the elite end of the spectrum likely have fewer priorities and thus can focus more on subsequent sport-specific training phases. Primary goals for this phase includes maintenance of basic fitness components (strength / endurance / movement) as well as targeting improvements in their specific limitations in the sport, for example UB pressing muscular endurance or snatch repeatability.
-Competition Prep - At some point prior to the main competition the primary focus of training needs to shift from the athlete’s individual limitations toward preparing them for the specific demands of the competition. This is not to say that the individual's limitations are ignored, but rather they are integrated into sport-specific training that more closely mimics the actual competitive events. One of the major issues in developing training programs for CrossFit athletes is that the events remain largely unknown until relatively close to the competition. To work around the unknown nature of our sport we use a statistical approach to analyze previous years events to make “best guesses” about what the demands of future events will be. Competition prep training should thus be based on this event needs analysis while taking into account the individual’s specific movement and skill limitations. Primary goals for this phase include maintenance of basic fitness and specific priorities developed from the previous phases plus providing exposure to training that mimics the energy-system and movement demands of competition.
-Peaking - The peaking phase (referred to as taper in some circles) is essentially a period of planned reduction in training volume or intensity (depending on which peaking model you prefer). This can last anywhere from 3-5 days to 2-4 weeks depending on the athlete, their training age, and experience with prior peaking structures. One simplistic way to think about the peaking cycle is that you’re dissipating fatigue while maintaining fitness thus allowing your overall readiness to increase. Primary goals for this phase are to maintain fitness while providing a reduction in training load to allow athletes to recover physically and mentally to be optimally prepared for their main competition.
-Competition Season - the competition season can be as short as three days (Regionals) or as long as 5 weeks (the Open). The sole objective of this phase is to maximize the athlete’s ability to perform on game day. This is really the only time that athletes should expect to feel great and be ready to perform optimally. Obviously this isn’t the goal for MOST people: the expectations of the general exercising population SHOULD BE vastly different than the expectations of athletes, who are preparing to win a specific event on a specific date (though this has not been my experience as a coach!)
Sample Workout from Each Training Period
Athletes and coaches need to think critically about the type and timing of the competitions they choose. Competition selection should revolve around maximizing performance at your main competition (i.e. the Open / Regionals / Games for most athletes). This means assessing the time frame of the competition relative to where you are in your training season. For example choosing to compete in a high-level event qualifier during your base building phase or specific priority phase would be a bad idea as you will likely not be prepared for the demands of the events. Additionally you should take into account the level of competition you expect to be at the event, what your expectations for the event are (developing competition skills versus fighting for a podium spot), as well as how much recovery will be required following the event (for example, 3-day event will require significantly more recovery time than a typical single-day competition). All of these factors should play into the discussion athletes have with their coaches before signing up for an event.
Another important factor to take into consideration is the recent implication of qualifiers for many high-level events. We’re at a point as a sport where in order to qualify for many of the higher-level events athletes must be peaked during the qualifier in order to earn a spot at the event. If athletes desire to compete in 2-3 of these types of events throughout the year, as well as compete in the CrossFit Games season, very careful consideration needs to go into season planning and athletes need to adjust their expectations at each of those events based on where they are in their preparation. This is no different than what you see in high-levels of other performance sports like Olympic swimming. Competitions are selected carefully and athletes don’t expect to be swimming personal-best times until their championship events. For evidence of this, simply take a look at Michael Phelps results during any one of the four-year periods leading into the 2008 / 2012 Olympics.
This process differs dramatically from what I have experienced as a coach in the Sport of CrossFit™. Most athletes have no clue what events they plan on participating in and often attend events on a whim because “they were asked at the last minute”. This lack of structure and athlete discipline can derail even the best laid season plans by affecting the athlete’s confidence, result in injuries, and provide false feedback to the athlete and coach about training priorities (due to the random nature of the tests). Athletes who ignore this and continue to treat themselves like amateurs in a sport now full of professionals will wondering what happened come CrossFit Games Season.
Athletes looking to continue to compete at or break into the elite-levels in this sport will have to become more disciplined in their approach to training and competition throughout the year. This may mean tempering their desire to train with “intensity” all year or thinking more critically about which competitions they choose to sign-up for. Working with coaches who understand this process is one of the easiest ways to ensure athletes are training with the end-goal in mind. As a coach I want my athletes to be ready to compete and kick ass all year but at the same time I also recognize that to make big strides forward in a year, sometimes we have to start by taking one step backward, and addressing some basic issues that create performance ceilings for my athletes at the end of the year.