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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 boring and 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’s 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 a workout only once and then the following week prescribe them something different if 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 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 skill learning involved.  For example, a workout should provide opportunities for the paddler to develop a better understanding of things like pacing, accelerating, sprinting, starts, turns, reading water, drafting, catching bumps, downwinding, paddling upwind, etc, and allow them to enhance their skill level in at least one of these areas.  Learning takes time and repetition so, if you’re going to get the most out of a particular workout, learn better pacing and develop important skills, it stands to reason that you should repeat it a few times within 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 their 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 the coach and the athlete valuable feedback.  

Just about every type of workout you do allows you to at least monitor performance, if not actively collect data about it.  If you use a GPS in your aerobic work, whether it’s on the water or on land, it allows you to monitor information about speed and pace.  Data in gym work is easy to collect whether it is weight used or number of reps done with a particular weight.  So, if you’re mindful of the data available to you, you can get a pretty good idea in any training session of the level that you are performing at.  Let’s take a look at how you can use data in different types of workouts in greater detail.  

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 have enormous impact on this type of work because they all affect speed and come into play for longer periods of time in longer workouts.  Also, because the effort is at a lower intensity changes in any of these variables can have a greater effect.  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 it is at higher levels which are closer to “all out”.  These factors contribute to this type of work being less appropriate for data collection and really meaningful comparison.  That said, if you monitor pace and speed as a habit each time you train, you end up with a very large sample size of information that allows you to begin to sift out the data from workouts where the conditions had a particularly big effect, and trends emerge.  By doing this, I’ve been able to determine over time whether my level 2 and level 3 traveling speeds are getting faster or not.  

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 that are 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 small adjustments to technique and the nuances of connection and should definitely be repeated regularly.  

That said, this type of 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.  However, use of information from your GPS in real time from one stroke to the next is different, and it can help you assess how subtle changes you make to your stroke affect the movement and speed of your board, thereby helping you figure out how to enhance the effectiveness of your stroke.  

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.  Higher intensity intervals are usually shorter in duration and so are less affected by environmental conditions.  Also, it’s easier to find sheltered stretches of water to complete these shorter distance intervals in.  Clearly, if data comparison is a priority, every effort should be made to perform the workout in a controlled environment with minimal wind, current, tide etc. However, if you do encounter conditions which might affect performance it’s easier to get some approximate idea on how much they may have affected the performance in a shorter interval.  These are the types of workouts that make sense to use as “marker workouts”.

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 monitoring data over time in lower intensity work and identifying trends can shed light on things like aerobic fitness and pacing ability, there’s a greater correlation between the data collected in a workout performance and in a race performance when the workouts are 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 some of them.  We tend to do them, or variations of them, in most weeks typical of the intensification phase.

  • 8 to 10 x 1 min, all out, 4 min rest:  This is a workout I started doing in C1 in 1980.  I believe it is just as appropriate for someone training to race SUP today as it was all those years ago when I was training to race 500m (just under 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 subsequent pieces in the remainder of workout.  Not only is it an indication of the maximum speed you can maintain for one minute, it’s also a great indication of your ability to sustain that speed and sheds light on your lactate tolerance – your ability to perform with large amounts of lactic acid in your blood as a 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 piece 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, traveling as close as possible to the same speed and covering the same distance as I did in my first piece.  Frequently I was able to paddle further than 250m in all 10 one-minute pieces.  

While developing my anaerobic capacity and lactate tolerance, this work also was exceptional in helping familiarize me with the pacing required for a world-class performance over 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 C1 500m correlate to the needs of someone racing 6 miles on a SUP?  I believe that a high lactate tolerance will help in a much longer 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.  We discussed “Race Pacing and Lactic Acid Management” in a previous post that should help shed more light on the benefits of a high lactate tolerance.

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 for longer distance races 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 10 km race as it is a lower percentage of my “maximum sustainable speed”.  I can do that 6:05/km pace with less effort than the person who’s 1 minute pace was 5:45/km.  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 as it was 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 a lot.  The idea is to go hard on the first piece, (not all out, but just a little below that) and then complete the workout at the same intensity while maintaining, if possible, the same speed.  It’s incredibly hard and, like the 10 x 1 min workout, results in the production of a high amount of blood lactate.  However, unlike the 10 x 1 min, the pieces in this workout are long enough to have a more 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 meet the energy requirements of the paddling muscles.  Because this work is done at what is basically maximal aerobic capacity it is essentially training maximal oxygen uptake or VO2 max.   

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, a higher VO2 max 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 greater than 5 km 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 with practice at pacing 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 over 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 under 12 minutes to over 15 minutes depending on the level of paddler doing them.  At this length they aren’t so long that they make performing two, three or even four quality efforts with sufficient (approximately 8 to 10 minute) rest unrealistic.  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 as fast as they can and b) be as consistent as possible from piece to piece.  Data can be collected from tests done from week to week and month to month and help the coach and paddler chart progress over a season or, for that matter, 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 and recover for a few 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 rest of the work 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.

With the advent of 200m sprint racing in SUP, time controls over this distance should be a big part of training for these races.  The idea of 200m sprint racing is to a) hit max speed as quickly as possible, b) sustain max speed for as long as possible and c) slow down as little as possible once max speed can no longer be maintained.  All of this speed information can be collected in time controls in training and, over time, help assess and ultimately improve performance.  

Time controls can be equally valuable in land-based training.  For example, 5 km running time controls were a big part of my land-based training during my Olympic canoe days and allowed me to assess my aerobic development each off-season.  

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 sufficient lower intensity workouts or rest days scheduled between them.
  • Try not to use the same marker workout for longer than one training phase.  Eventually there are diminishing returns to do the same thing over and over.  A new training phase should see new tests or marker workouts.  However, you can revisit these marker workouts if you do multiple training blocks within the same season.  
  • 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 nice when it happens but not necessarily 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 one workout provides little useful information.
  • 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 the conditions and predicting what the data collected in the workout should 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 with motivation, and allow you to chart your progress.  Give it a try!

Happy paddling.  

Larry

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