Training the Whole Athlete

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I started bike racing in 1989 and while there was some training technology at that time, it was largely limited to Polar heart rate monitors which at that time, was like wearing a desktop computer on your wrist! Since that time, we’ve been blessed with substantial increases in technology both in terms of real-time data as well as technology to analyze this data. Things such as power, heart rate, aerodynamic drag, VO2 max, 3D motion analysis, lactate threshold… and even blood sugar can now be assessed and analyzed to get the most out of an athlete. The plethora of training tools is amazing and no doubt can help an athlete train smarter and more precisely than ever before. However, with all of these technological advances, it can be very easy to solely rely on this technology from a programming point of view and forget about training the whole athlete.

“Focus on the Patient, Not the Machine”

I can remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1997, my last semester of college and I was in the third week of my internship at a hospital-based cardiopulmonary rehab unit. I was taking a patient’s blood pressure when I heard the EKG machine alarm start blaring. I looked at the EKG monitor and saw based on the patient’s (we’ll call him “Bob”) heart rhythm, he was likely in ventricular fibrillation (Vfib), a potentially deadly situation.

I identified the patient based on the number on the treadmill and the associated EKG and saw him talking normally to the person next to him – hardly a sign of someone in Vfib. Despite this, I ran and grabbed him off of the treadmill and in the process, likely scared the sh#t out of him! As I was sitting him down and peppering him with stupid questions, I saw out of the corner of my eye, the supervising nurse walk up to the EKG monitor and give it hard slap – at which point the patient’s heart returned to a normal sinus rhythm.

She then came over to me and asked if everything was OK and then pulled me aside. While I won’t go into all of the ‘fun’ details of that conversation (which yes, I still remember!), the gist of the conversation was that while the monitor did say that Bob was in Vfib, since he was having a conversation, he clearly was not in Vfib. Therefore, my action of freaking the F out was purely due to solely reacting to the monitor and not the patient. The lesson that the nurse told me was always assess the patient first, then monitor second.” Point taken.

Not a Robot

While my ‘experience’ noted above is a bit dramatic (and cringe worthy!), it drives home the point that despite the amount of data available to you – no matter how important it is, you MUST first pay attention to the athlete and then focus on the data… not the other way around. As an example, while our UESCA coaching certifications are quite robust and involved in respect to training metrics, we stress the need to place the athlete as whole first and data second.

At the end of the day, it’s critical to understand that humans are just that… humans. We’re not robots and thus things are not cut and dry in regard to actions and performance. There are so many variables that a software program will never be able to take into account. For example, even if a training program algorithm evolves to the point where all technical data could be correlated and assessed to the point where it eliminates all guess work (a likely impossibility), it still cannot take for example, an athlete’s motivation into account.

So long as an athlete doesn’t get sick, doesn’t lose motivation, has no ‘bad’ days and their life largely stays the same in regard to scheduling and stress, a training program is very easy to create and effectively implement. However, when life happens, things get a bit more complicated. This is where having a relationship with an athlete where they feel that they can be open with you about what is going on with them and how they are feeling is very important. Because at the end of the day, a program that you create for an athlete will only be as good as the feedback that you get from them since the two are intertwined.

Role of a Coach

The role of a coach is a multifaceted one. Interestingly, the role that is most important is also the one that is often the most overlooked. This role is that of asking questions and REALLY listening to the athlete’s answers. All too often, coaches do all of the talking in respect to what an athlete should do versus asking questions and then shutting up and letting the athlete respond. As noted above, an athlete is not a robot and therefore the factors that may influence their performance, desired goal selection, etc… are many. Below are some of these factors that are often left on the sideline.

  • Asking the athlete, “How are you feeling?”
  • Rating an athlete’s motivation levels
  • Sleep time/quality
  • Work schedule/stress
  • RPE levels of workouts

The reality is that training is just one aspect of an athlete’s daily and weekly commitments and focus areas. Things such as work, family and friends are likely more important to your athlete. For example, if you sense that your athlete is getting burned out of training and needs a mental refresher, it would be advised for them to take some days off to relax and hang out with their friends and family versus shoving workouts down their throat – even if they are on the schedule.

As a coach, you must meet the athlete where they are and make decisions based on them as a whole, not just them as an athlete.

Role of RPE

Despite all of the fancy training tools, gadgets and software programs, there is arguably no better assessment tool than good ole’ rate of perceived exertion (RPE). This is because it takes most all of the factors that are hard to quantify in respect to hardware/software into account. While you can certainly correlate other training metrics (ex: heart rate, power, etc…) with RPE, if using one stand alone metric, you’ll be hard pressed to find something more useful than RPE – both in terms of prescribing workouts as well as the assessment of them.

Summary

Coaching is often described as the intersection of art and science. While this is a perfect analogy as to how a coach should approach the training process with an athlete, it is also how an athlete should approach training themselves. While ‘science’ is the hard data and quantitative metrics that we use to prescribe and analyze workouts, ‘art’ is how the science is utilized and implemented on an individual basis. This is where the whole athlete comes into play. If you don’t take the whole athlete into consideration, then the ‘art’ aspect of coaching is absent and thus, the coaching and training process is significantly marginalized and incomplete.

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Rick Prince is the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running, ultrarunning and triathlon coaches (cycling coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.

Click on the one of below links to learn more about our certifications and to get $50 OFF the purchase price!

Click here to download the UESCA Triathlon Course Overview/Syllabus

Click here to download the UESCA Running Course Overview/Syllabus

Click here to download the UESCA Ultrarunning Course Overview/Syllabus

Click here to sign up for information and launch alerts for the UESCA Cycling Certification

Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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