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Whether you train for fitness or for racing, you’re likely doing structured workouts consisting of some type of alternating intervals of work and rest.  Unlike just doing unstructured paddling, structured intervals can more effectively address the specific elements of the fitness required, both for good health or successful racing.  

We’ve talked in previous posts about periodized training and the structure of a periodized program so we’re not going to delve into that here.  Rather, we want to look at the pros and cons of two different approaches to doing work within a periodized program – variety or repetition.  

Variety is the spice of life

I can remember going to a National Team training camp back in the 1980s and sitting down with the fairly inexperienced coach, who was basically learning on the job, to try to figure out how we’d incorporate the work my personal coach had prescribed for me into the team training. 

I can still see him looking at my program and hear him saying “there’s not enough variety in this work”.  It was funny because I was, at 18, already the best in Canada and 5th in the world.  My coach and I had developed a very successful training plan that had helped me improve dramatically in a very short period.  I’d won two gold medals at the Junior World Championships, was regularly in the top group at the World Cup races, and already had my sights set squarely on the podium at the 1984 Olympics.  Yet, to this coach, my training program lacked variety and so wasn’t effective.  

I didn’t push him on the issue.  I knew that for the 3 weeks I’d be in the training camp, I was far better off using my teammates for a push in workouts than I was doing my own training alone.  So, I was very prepared to be flexible.  As long as the work the National Team coach set matched the work my coach had set in terms of the objectives, it really didn’t matter to me what the exact intervals were.  Paddling in a training group has great value and, besides, doing something a little different can be fun.  

The three weeks turned out to be very productive and the training enjoyable.  Still, I was happy to break camp and get back to my own program, with my own coach, in my home environment.  

As it turned out, the National Team coach’s main concern was that “the lack of variety” in my program would make training boring, and that if I was bored from training, the workouts wouldn’t be done with the same quality.  Though I was only 19 and still a young athlete, I felt sorry for him when he said that.  In my opinion he was clearly out of his depth making that statement.  

While it’s true that a little variety in life can keep you from getting bored, just how bored is a world class athlete going to get by repeating certain workouts for three to four weeks within a training cycle?  Isn’t it possible that repeating workouts could actually make the training more interesting?  

The case for repeating certain workouts

There’s a number of reasons why regularly repeating certain workouts within a training phase or cycle is not only acceptable but desirable. 

Practice makes perfect, or, don’t underestimate the value of learning.  

Have you ever noticed that the first time you do a workout that you’ve never done before there is some uncertainty with regards to how you should do it?  Perhaps you’re unsure of how hard to start the workout because you’re concerned about pacing your way through it and don’t want to “die” with half the workout still left to do.  In this case, you’re likely to find towards the end of the workout that you’ve gone too easy for most of it and have more energy left than you should.  Or, maybe it’s the opposite.  Perhaps you end up going too hard at the start of the workout, leaving too little in the tank to do the second half of the workout properly.   

In either case, the workout isn’t done perfectly.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a “mulligan” and could do it over, better the second time?  You’d get far more out of your second attempt.  

The fact of the matter is, everything we do in our training is a learning experience.  Whether it is perfecting pacing over a given distance, sprinting with some semblance of control to your technique rather than spinning your wheels, or figuring out how to better attack a piece of work of a given distance or time, it takes time and repetition to learn.  There is no way you’ll do new workout you’ve never done before perfectly the first time, and it is almost certain that you’ll do it better each successive time you do it.  

Not repeating workouts because you fear that lack of variety will lead to boredom is silly.  All you’re doing is depriving yourself of the chance to learn new lessons, apply them, and then learn some more.  In many ways, the training environment is like a laboratory.  You’ve got to experiment by trying different things and comparing the outcome to past experiences.  If there isn’t enough repetition in the program, there’s not enough use being made of the training lab and, ultimately, too few lessons are being learned.  

Repeating certain workouts from week to week within a training cycle gives you ample opportunity to experiment and learn how to do the workout better, and these lessons are ones that can then be successfully applied when racing.  

Having goals for your workouts makes them more interesting.  

Goals aren’t just something that you set for the season, or for part of it.  They aren’t just about your next race.  You should be setting goals for your workouts as well.  Having clear objectives for each workout and specific goals you want to achieve in them makes them both more interesting and productive.  

Consider how easy it is to set a goal for a workout that you just did last week.  You can take pretty much any data from that workout, whether it is speed, pace, time over a distance, cadence, command of technique, heart rate, etc. and set new, realistic, goals in each area for the next time you do that work.  This process can be repeated from week to week within a training cycle in which you repeat that work.  If you’re constantly changing the workouts you do, this opportunity doesn’t exist.  

Setting goals and attempting to achieve them is fun.  It makes each workout more of a challenge, and that keeps them interesting.  From my perspective, doing a workout that is different, but lacks that challenge, isn’t more interesting.  It’s less so.  It’s just a lot of hard work and sweat with nothing to really get excited about.  

Repeating work allows you to more effectively monitor progress.  

If you’re collecting data from one workout to the next and using it to set goals, you can also use it to monitor your progress.  This process allows you to gauge both your progress and the effectiveness of your training, not only within the training cycle but also from year to year if you repeat the work and record the associated data from season to season.  You’ll be able to track your performance which provides you with valuable insight into your fitness and technique, as well as the overall effectiveness of the training you’ve done. 

How often should you repeat workouts?

Let me be clear.  While I strongly suggest repeating workouts, there’s a limit to that.  It would be a huge mistake to do the same workout, every Thursday, for example, week after week, month after month. Remember, workouts that appear on your program each week should be part of a periodized plan, that has you doing different types of training at different times within the year or within a particular training block.  Training programs can be periodized in a linear fashion, characterized by basically one long progression of training over a training season, or in blocks, each lasting 8 to approximately 16 weeks.  

Within each periodized block of training, work should be prescribed sequentially, first focusing on development of aerobic base, then intensifying to focus on development of higher-level aerobic abilities like anaerobic threshold and aerobic power, anaerobic abilities and, finally, neuromuscular speed.  Clearly, you’re going to do different work in an accumulation phase focused on base than you are in the intensification phase, and that means that you won’t be repeating many, if any sessions, for much longer than three to six weeks at a time. 

What I suggest is doing the same session, for example 5 sets of 10 x 30 seconds, level 4, 30 seconds rest with 3 minutes rest between sets, every Tuesday for three weeks at the beginning of an intensification phase before moving on to more intense work in the slot in the program.  Other workouts that focus on components of fitness where there is less progression required, like repeat 2 km pieces, can be done for an entire intensification phase lasting six weeks or more.  

If you’ve periodized your year into training blocks, you’ll end up repeating that three to six-week block of work anywhere from two or four times a season, meaning that over an entire year there’s enough repetition of particular workouts to allow you to become quite familiar with them. 

Recording data

Repeating workouts is only useful if you learn from the work you do and, most importantly, remember the lessons.  I find that recording the details of the work you do extremely useful, especially for higher intensity sessions where the learning is more critical.  

I strongly suggest keeping a training log or journal where you can record critical bits of information like the work done, the conditions it was done it, performance data like times, stroke rates, etc., and the critical lessons you learned.  Having this record allows you to look back at data from previous workouts so that you can use it to set goals for the workout you’re about to do.  Similarly, this record allows you to compare data from a workout you’ve just completed with that from previous workouts, and that helps you track your performance.  

*

The easiest way to get the right balance of variety and repetition in your training is to follow a periodized program.  Whether you set the program yourself, you have a coach that sets it or, you work together with a coach to set the work, repeating workouts over the course of a training block provides huge benefit.  If you’re writing your own programs and struggling to determine which workouts are best repeated and when to repeat them, I strongly recommend working with a good coach for at least one full training block so you can see how the work should be laid out.  This can help you learn to set your own program.

Happy paddling!

Larry

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