Marker Workouts and the Value of Regularly Repeating Workouts in Training

In my experience, one of the most important things you can do in training is regularly repeat certain workouts.  Though there are some that think repeating workouts is a sign of lack of creativity in a training program, I disagree for a couple of reasons.

First, I believe there is a lot to be said for repeating workouts until you “get them right”.  Typically the first time an athlete does a workout it is a bit of a learning experience.  In particular there’s some initial uncertainty about intensity and pacing that prevents the workout from being done with optimal quality.  It often takes a few attempts at the workout for the athlete to really nail the pacing and get maximum benefit from the workout.  So why have the athlete do the workout once and then the following week prescribe them something else?  They haven’t yet learned how to get everything out of the workout you’ve just given them.

In a sport like stand up paddleboard racing, workouts shouldn’t just be concerned about achieving some physiological objective.  It’s a complex sport with a vast array of skills that need to be mastered.  There should always be some type of learning involved.  For example, the workout should provide opportunities for the paddler to develop a better understanding of things like pacing, sprinting, starts, turns, reading water, drafting, catching bumps, downwinding, paddling upwind, etc. and allow them to enhance their skill level in at least some of them.  Learning takes time and repetition, so if you’re going to get the most out of a particular workout and develop important skills, it stands to reason that you should repeat it for at least a few weeks in a training phase. 

The other reason I highly advocate regularly repeating workouts is that they can be used to provide feedback on the athlete’s progress and response to the training program itself.  Certain workouts lend themselves to this very well and data collected in them can provide the coach and paddler with really solid, quantitative information about the athlete’s progress and the effectiveness of the training program.  I like to call these “marker workouts”, and highly suggest that they be repeated regularly at certain times within a training block to provide both coach and athlete valuable feedback. 

Certain types of workouts lend themselves better to collection of meaningful data than others, so while I believe there is great value in regularly performing a wide range of workouts, there are only certain types that I really think of as marker workouts.  I touched upon collecting data in a blog post last summer called “Using Data to Analyze your Performance” (https://paddlemonster.com/2016/07/using-data-analyze-performance/).  It might be worth rereading that when done with this post.  I also recently blogged about the dangers of obsessing over data you collect in “Using Data without Falling into the ‘Comparison Game’ Trap” (https://paddlemonster.com/2016/12/using-data-without-falling-comparison-game-trap/).  It might be worth a reread as well as it might help keep things in perspective once you start going over the data you collect.

Long, low-level base training

These workouts are the type we typically see in the accumulation phase of a training block.  They’re long in duration and low in intensity, usually performed in the level 2 and occasionally level 3 range.  I believe there is great value in repeating these workouts so that the paddler can learn each time to better pace him or herself for the prescribed time or distance. 

This type of training does not lend itself well to data collection however.   Variations in environmental conditions like wind, current, water temperature and depth, etc. have enormous impact on this type of work because the conditions come into play for longer periods of time and because the effort is at a lower intensity.  In my experience as an athlete I’ve found it’s harder to exactly replicate intensity at lower levels of effort from one workout to the next than at higher levels.  These factors contribute to this type of work being less appropriate for data collection and comparison.

Technical focus training

Some workouts are designed not so much to address physiological objectives but to provide an athlete with a chance to experiment with or consolidate technique.  Frequently in Paddle Monster programs I include technical focus workouts based on some variation of “X” x 1 min with 1 min rest.  The objective of this type of work is entirely about learning.  It’s about experimenting with and consolidating elements of technique being performed optimally.  Superior technique isn’t something that is developed easily in one or two workouts.  It requires years of refinement and consolidation for a paddler to develop technique that is optimal for them.  Without repetition and the learning that comes with it, this process would be seriously impeded.  These technical focus workouts allow the paddler to really tune into the board’s response to what they are doing with the paddle and definitely should be repeated regularly. 

Technical training does not lend itself well to data collection either.  While a paddler might feel that they can qualitatively compare how well they’re paddling from week to week, there is no point in collecting data.  Intensity is not rigidly controlled and sometimes the paddler goes easier and sometimes harder when experimenting with technique.  Moreover the focus is on technique, not speed.  To me it seems foolish to try to collect data about performance (most notably speed) when it isn’t even the focus of the workout.  Use of information from your GPS in real time is different, and it can help you assess how subtle changes you make to your stroke affect the movement of the board, but there is no point in collecting data for comparison from workout to workout.

High intensity intervals

In my opinion, the higher the intensity, the more effective it is to try to collect data.  Variations in intensity tend to decrease the harder an athlete goes.  Intervals are usually shorter in duration and so are less affected by environmental conditions.  It’s easier to find sheltered stretches of water to complete these workouts in.  Clearly, if data comparison is a priority every effort should be made to perform the workout in a controlled environment with no wind, current, tide etc. but if you do encounter conditions which might affect performance it’s easier to get a handle on how much they may have affected the performance in a shorter interval. 

The other reason I like to use high intensity pieces as marker workouts is quite simply that they’re more relevant.  We race at high intensity.  While collecting data over time in lower intensity work can shed light on things like aerobic improvement, there’s a greater correlation between data collected in a workout performance and a race when the workout is done at intensities approaching race level effort.

Here are some of my favorite marker workouts.  If you’re training on a Paddle Monster program you’ll recognize them.  We tend to do them, or variations of them, every week in the intensification phase.

  • 10 x 1 min, all out, 4 min rest:  This is a workout I started doing in C1 in 1980.  I believe it is as appropriate for someone training to race SUP today as it was all those years ago when I was training to race 500m (approximately 2 minutes) and 1000m (approximately 4 minutes) in C1. 

The idea in this workout is to do the repeat, all out, one-minute efforts back and forth over a marked course.  Alternatively you can use your GPS to measure the distance paddled in each piece.  The objective is to go as far as you can go in the first couple of pieces, then come as close to that distance as you can in each of the pieces in the remainder of workout.  Not only is it an indication of the speed you can maintain for one minute, it’s also a great indication of your lactic tolerance – your ability to perform with large amounts of blood lactate, the result of anaerobic energy production.

When I was competing in C1, I’d do this work on a marked 250m course.  Since we never had the benefit of using a GPS (they didn’t exist way back then), we had our coach record our time when we passed through the 250m mark.  Typically I’d do a 52 to 53 second 250m in my first one and go between 30 to 40 meters past the 250.  From there my task was to try to do each successive one as fast as I could, with ultimate success being able to complete more than 250m in all 10 one-minute pieces. 

While developing my anaerobic capacity and lactic tolerance, it also was exceptional in helping familiarize me with the pacing required for a world-class performance in 500m.  It was my favorite workout and I always felt unbeatable when doing it.  No wonder I chose to do three of these one-minute pieces in an extended warm up before my 500m final at the 1984 Olympics. 

So how does a workout designed for someone racing 500m C1 correlate to someone racing, on average, 6 miles in SUP?  I believe that a high lactic tolerance will help in a long race by allowing a paddler to pay less of a price for sustained high-level bursts throughout the race.  These bursts might occur at the start, allowing the paddler to get a more favorable position in a draft train, or throughout the middle of the race as required to establish a better position by passing someone, jumping to a new draft train, or catching up after falling off the wash.  I wrote a blog post last summer on “Race Pacing and Lactic Acid Management” that should help shed more light on the benefits of a high lactic tolerance (https://paddlemonster.com/2016/06/pacing-race-lactic-acid-management/).

I think the other way in which this workout helps with SUP racing is by helping to build a “sustainable speed reserve”.  Simply put, if you have the ability to sustain a speed significantly faster than race pace consistently for up to one minute in duration, then sustaining your typical race travelling pace should become easier. 

Put another way, if I can maintain a pace of 5:10/km for 1 minute while someone else can only maintain a 5:45/km pace, it should be much easier for me to sustain a pace of 6:05/km for an entire race as it is a lower percentage of my “maximum sustainable speed”.  I can do that 6:05/km pace with less effort.  Furthermore, if I pace my race correctly, I should have much better speed to put towards a finishing kick at the end of the race.

Collecting data in each workout allows you to see trends in your speed development and ability to sustain that speed in the presence of high blood lactate.  Over time you should see improvement through the data.  Data going in the wrong direction can indicate the need to rest or change the training stimulus, and can often be an early sign of over-reaching in training. 

  • Aerobic Power (4 min, 3 min, 2 min with 2 min rest):  This is a workout I didn’t do a lot of as an Olympic canoe athlete but probably should have.  I’ve picked it up as a coach and it’s been one of the cornerstones of Mark Oldershaw’s (Olympic Bronze Medalist in C1 1000m in London, 2012) training over the years.

Typically an advanced level paddler is doing 2 x 4 min, 3 x 3 min and 4 x 2 min all with 2 min rest.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but if performed at level 5 (basically 95% effort), it is quite enough.  The idea is to go hard on the first piece, (not all out but just below that) and then complete the workout at the same intensity while maintaining speed.  It’s incredibly hard and like the 10 x 1 min workout, results in the production of a high blood lactate.  However unlike the 10 x 1 min, the pieces in this workout are long enough to have a significant aerobic component to them, and completing it regularly helps the aerobic system develop greater capacity to continue to produce energy at high intensity without the body needing to resort to anaerobic metabolism to help meet the energy requirements of the paddling muscles. 

The development of aerobic power is critical in SUP, allowing the paddler to go harder and still be working aerobically.  It’s an aggressive training method to raise the paddler’s anaerobic threshold. 

Using this as a marker workout involves collecting data about the speed or pace that you travel in each piece.  You should see, over time, the ability to travel faster in this workout from start to finish, indicating improved aerobic power and a higher anaerobic threshold.  Similarly if you see a decline in performance through the data collected, it is a warning sign that changes to the pattern of training and/or rest should be considered.

Time controls

Time controls are essentially paddling tests in which you cover a specified distance as fast as you can.  I don’t advocate doing long distance time controls regularly as they will require a longer period of recovery.  I’d suggest that “training” or “B level” races take the role of providing the paddler practice at pacing etc. for longer, race specific distances.

To me, the most practical time controls that we can perform in SUP are in the 2 km to 5 km range.  Personally I prefer doing 2 km or 2000m time controls as they are long enough to provide relevant information about the paddler’s level of aerobic fitness and ability to paddle a sustained pace for a longer distance, but short enough to still have some anaerobic component and require the paddler to manage the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic work. 

2000m time controls can take anywhere from about 12 minutes to over 15 minutes depending on the level of paddler doing them.  At this length they aren’t too long to allow the paddler to perform two, three or even four quality efforts with sufficient (approximately 10 minute) rest.  Collected data in each of the multiple efforts allows the paddler’s ability to sustain high level work over time to be assessed.  When doing these 2000m time controls paddlers should strive to a) go fast and b) be consistently fast in each piece.  Of course data can be collected over time and help the coach and paddler chart progress over a season or even from year to year. 

I’ve found in my own preparations that this workout is excellent in preparing for something like Chattajack, where I want to go extremely hard for the first 15 minutes to establish position in the top group, then sit on a wash for the next 10 minutes before being prepared to take the lead again. 

With sufficient rest between each piece and no more than 45 to 60 minutes of total work, this marker workout can be repeated weekly during the intensification phase provided the training program is properly balanced, with the work around it in the program respectful of the demands of this workout.  I’d also suggest that the total work for this workout be cut in recovery weeks or the workout even be dropped altogether, depending on the level of cumulative fatigue the paddler appears to be showing.

Some tips for including marker workouts in your program

  • Have a periodized training plan.  Using marker workouts randomly is less effective and can increase the potential for overtraining.  As part of a rational plan they can provide you with great motivation and give you data you can use to assess your progress and the effectiveness of your program.
  • Balance the training program so that if there’s more that one marker workout per week there are lower intensity workouts scheduled between them.
  • Try not to use the same marker workout for longer than one training phase.
  • Don’t obsess about the data or put excessive pressure on yourself to always do personal bests.  That’s unrealistic.  Improvement from one workout to the next is not what you’re looking for.  Improvement over longer periods of time – weeks, months and years – supported by data is what we’re after.
  • It’s all about sample size.  The more data you can collect over time the more meaningful it is.  Data from just one or two repeats of a particular workout is just numbers.
  • Do your best to control the environment your marker workouts are performed in.  Look for sheltered water with minimal wind, current etc.  Don’t skip or change the workout if you can’t find acceptable conditions in which to collect data.  The work is still important.  Just take the data you collect with a grain of salt.  Try to make note of the conditions if you can.  With some experience on water you’re familiar with, you can get pretty good at looking at conditions and predicting what the data will say.
  • Use the data you collect in marker workouts to help you set goals.  These should be performance-based goals which are developed from solid, well-understood data that you’ve collected.  These are always better than goals set without the benefit of such information.  I like to see paddlers say, “Last year I could sustain a 6:40/km pace for 10 km.  This year I’d like to sustain a 6:30/km pace.  If I can drop my 2000m time control pace from 6:30/km to 6:20/km I think that is realistic.”   This is a far more rational way to set goals than to say, “I want to be on the podium in all my local races this year.”

If you’re not following a structured program that a coach has prepared for you, you should give some thought to setting one for yourself that includes marker workouts.  They make training more interesting, help provide you motivation, and allow you to chart your progress.  Give it a try!

Have fun.  #TRAININGWORKS

Larry

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  • Ed Naggiar

    You hit the nail right on the head with this article. Setting quantifiable goals based on facts and not speculation is what success in paddling (and in life) is all about. I have been doing these marker workouts since the inception of Paddle Monster and I know that nothing is short term. I know that I will have years ahead of me to get faster; I already see a difference in my ability to sustain high levels of intensity during races; this year I’ll work on my traveling pace but, as you stated in the article, the traveling pace increases as a direct result of your body being able to “suck it up” at higher intensities. Makes sense! Take care.

    Ed

  • YedBawon

    Hi Larry,
    Great article as ever. Markers or staple workouts are great to measure improvement.

    Will try out these in the coming weeks- GPS and Garmin type watches are very good to record these sessions and review them.

    I would ask a few questions on target times for 1KM, 2KM and Mile repeats. I am heading towards 13min/mile pace for repeat efforts with recovery and then 13min45sec/mile pace for continuous effort over a 4-5 miles.
    Given my paddling is a weekend to weekend occurrence and the bulk of my work is cross-training and Paddle Monster Strength work is this on the right track given I am 245lbs and in good physical nick?

    YB

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