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By Coach Jorge

Anyone training for a Triathlon or a Marathon has experienced the following scenarios:

  1. You have particular session in your training plan or provided by your coach, say a long bike ride or a moderate paced run and as soon as you begin the session, your body feels “OFF” and lethargic. Your legs feel like lead or weak and your perceived exertion level is through the roof. You give your body the chance to come around by sticking to the session but as time goes by (or miles tick away) you don’t feel better but worse; the more you try sticking to your prescribed pace, the harder it feels and even if you slow down, it feels much harder than usual. In the end, you either toughen it up and complete the session or choose to cut the session short and “live to fight another day” though not without feeling disappointed.
  2. Same as the first scenario, but this time you begin your prescribed training session but this time around the opposite occurs; your feel like your body is at its best and you go through the session with ease. The pace feels almost too easy, your legs feel strong, you are “ON” and the perceived exertion level feels easier than usual; it’s like you could exercise longer or at a faster pace but you don’t because the session calls for ‘x’ intensity. In the end, you either stick to your prescribed session limiting your ability to ‘do more’ or you decide to go with the way you feel and you complete the session by doing maybe a longer duration, higher intensity or both.

Whatever option you chose in the above scenario, it isn’t important for now, but it illustrates a point: all endurance athletes will experience either situation at one point or another during their training program and that’s perfectly normal! It also demonstrates the difference between training by “Plan Pace” and training by “Day Pace” which relates to training paces (a.k.a. training zones).

You can check our YouTube channel video explaining: Training Levels  just click here. But in a nutshell, when we exercise, our body goes through what’s called “exertion continuum” which means, whether we are riding long and easy or running hard and short, it places a particular strain on our bodies at different levels through our body systems: cardiovascular, metabolic, neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, central nervous, etc.

This is important because whether you start running easy and progressively increase the level of exertion, the continuum occurs in the different levels almost at the same time. For instance, let’s say you start jogging and then you start speeding up every few minutes until you can no longer speed up and have to stop.

At the respiratory system – You inhale/exhale oxygen at a slower rate when jogging and faster as you speeding up to meet your muscles oxygen demand.

At the cardiovascular system – your heart will beat slower when jogging meeting the low demand for blood to the working muscles and steadily beat faster and faster as you speed up to meet the greater blood demand.

At the metabolic system – when jogging, your muscles will utilize fat for fuel primarily*, but as you speed up, you will rely more on carbohydrates primarily.

At the muscular system – when jogging you will utilize Slowtwitch fibers primarily*, but as you speed up, you will begin recruiting more Fasttwitch fibers to meet the exertion demand and/or as your Slowtwitch ones fatigue.

At the central nervous system level – the communication between the brain and exerting muscles will occur ‘easier’ when jogging as this may be something your body is more used to, but as you speed up the communication will become more difficult as nerve ending & /muscles fatigue

*We always use a mix of substrates for fuel; that is we never *only* use fat or carbs for energy. The same occurs with muscle fibers, whether going easy or hard, we cycle utilizing the different muscle fibers types and the intensity/duration just determines which ones contribute to do the work the most.

It gets much more complicated but you get the point; when we exercise, most systems interact in a complex way and ALL contribute at different levels to meet the energy demands of a particular activity load (duration + intensity) until we complete it or stop due to fatigue.

This is crux of training: ALL the sessions we do are to improve our fatigue resistance, and we do this by managing the load our bodies can handle a given time gradually increasing it. And we use training paces/zones to differentiate various intensities in order to maximize certain training adaptations and make training more time efficient; even though these are arbitrary man made exertion divisions.

In other words, your body doesn’t really know whether you are training at ‘x’ or ‘y’ intensity beyond how it feels for you (hard vs easy). And there are no ON/OFF switches that determine or prevent adaptations because it all happens in a continuum.

That’s why, most elite coaches or plans utilize periodization in order to break down your training into blocks to focus in specific adaptations through different periods improving gradually your fitness, avoiding doing too much too soon, addressing your weaknesses and maintain your strengths.

But back Training Plan Pace vs. Day pace – knowing that training paces are: man-made, your body works in a continuum and whether running easy or hard ALL interrelate contributing and adapting at different degrees, then it is easy to understand why as coaches, we give a variety of training paces and sessions.

Now, how those training levels are determined is another topic for another article. And you probably have heard many definitions like: VO2max, pace at VO2, Lactate Threshold, Ventilatory Threshold and much more. This can get confusing and frankly pedantic because each coach/system may preach it like their way is THE way. And that is not the case at all; as the saying goes: “there are many ways to skin a cat”.

We at E3 use field testing and estimate Critical Power or Critical Velocity because it’s very practical to apply for athletes in the field which is where we train/race, there is ample research about it and many elite coaches use it. BUT, if you prefer another way, go nuts! Regardless of how you determine your training paces, ultimately you know some sessions will be easy, hard, short, long or something in between.

And this is the important part, whether you follow a general plan, you design your own or you have a coach who personalizes one for you, a session is meant to produce training adaptions in your body. And over time, yourself or the coach will monitor what your do and how you adapt adjusting your load based on your feedback, ability to recover, etc.

BUT, even the most involved coach who tracks, evaluates and adjusts your plan based on body language, feedback and fitness markers, will NOT completely be able to predict how your body will respond on a given day. Why? Because other external factors also affect your ability to adapt/recover. This can range from your every day diet (what you eat before or after training), training fuel (what you eat during training), where you train (weather/terrain), your age/gender, your life priorities (work, family, etc.), stress levels, recovery, health (colds), etc.

For instance, even when I regularly review my athletes logs, feedback, power/GPS/HR files, and use other controls to adjust/plan their training, I can’t predict *today* how their bodies will respond: tomorrow, in a week or in a month. because they may have extra stress due to family commitments, an unexpected work project, a cold, a bad diet due to social events, a bad night of sleep, etc.

Hence when a plan has a 30 min at ‘x’ pace or ride 60 min at ‘y’ power/HR, that’s the Training Plan Pace; or what the plan/coach suggests assuming your body is adapting/recovering in optimal conditions (perfect scenario). But when the body is been affected by other factors, you must adjust your training based on how your body feels on that particular moment. And that’s Day Pace.

Going back to scenarios presented at the beginning, if you were to experience #1, instead of forcing your body to do something it is not ready to tackle *that day*, instead you could adjust it by training by Day Pace which it may be a lower/easier intensity letting you to train without further straining your body in a negative way.

On the other hand, if you were to experience #2, then you could take advantage of the extra energy and train by Day Pace completing the session at a slightly higher intensity and/or longer duration getting an even better session.

If you are progressing your training within your own limits, besides the days when you feel “ON” or “OFF”, you will have “normal” days in which you can complete the session as Plan Pace. Most likely you experience Plan and Day Pace sessions regularly. This is why a training program must be flexible and coaches/athlete need to have open communication to allow athletes or coaches to train by Day Pace when appropriate.

Having this flexibility empowers athletes by listening their bodies in order to adjust based on how they feel (no one knows your body better than yourself!). And for coaches, it builds trust with your athletes allowing them to adjust sessions based on what they see/notice/hear, enhancing communication and growing to know their athletes much better improving adaptation/recovery rates.

So next time you go onto your 4th run of the week, no matter how easy it should be on paper, if your legs feel like lead & your body/mind feels “OFF” don’t force a predetermined pace or fret because you are running slower than usual. If you adjust by day pace instead, you will let your body get what it needs and  most likely adapt better, recover faster and train more consistently.

If you really feel crappy, an easy/short run or rest day may be in order so you can come back at it tomorrow. And if you feel invincible, enjoy the session, indulge ‘a bit’ training-wise and share the info with your coach because you have achieved a breakthrough session!

Happy Training and be flexible!