Catering to the Individual

Individualization is one of those buzz words or so called principles of training that coaches and books on training frequently quote. But what does this actually mean and do people actually adhere to this so called training law? You’ll find that most people claim to adhere to it, but few actually do. It is very rare that a coach can completely adapt to the individual. Instead, most coaches try to adapt the individual to their training system, instead of adapting the training system to the individual. While this might seem like a different in semantics, it is actually much more.
When most coaches think of individualization, they do the former and try and adapt their athlete to the training program. By this, I mean that they have their own training model or system and they try and force the athlete into this model. For example, if someone was using a strict Lydiard system, he would try and get the athlete up to 100mpw, then follow it with hills, etc. The coaches idea of individualizing this program for the athlete would be to adjust the quantity or quality of the training, but the overall system would be the same. For instance, he would adjust the mileage up or down or the amount of hill repeats done, or any other variable like this. By doing this, the coach thinks he is adapting to the individual. However, all he is really doing is taking that same training model and putting the athlete in it.
Another form of individualization used by coaches is to adapt their training program based on the event the athlete runs. In doing this, coaches change their training system slightly based on the different track events. The athletes are put into groups based on the type of runner they are. If they are a 1500m runner, then their training would differ slightly from if they were a 5,000m runner. For instance, one such system, based on Frank Horwill’s work, would use the 2 distances above and below the race distance as the main training paces. A 1500m runner would therefore train at race pace in addition to 400m, 800m, 5000m and 10km pace. While a 5000m runner would get rid of 400m pace and add half marathon pace. The problem with this type of individualization is that it assumes that every runner running a particular event is the same. So the coach is NOT adapting to the individual. Instead he is adapting to an event. He still has a particular training system, and slightly changes based on the event run.
True individualization requires adaptation of the training system to the athlete. This means that the training system changes, sometimes entirely, based on the individual physiology of an athlete. If we look at physiology, it can be seen that individuals vary widely in a number of different aspects. Some of those aspects we are well aware of, such as the percentage of different muscle fibers an athlete has. Other aspects are probably unknown to us, such as some genetic limits, or the total amount of adaptation energy a person has. Acknowledging that we do not have the whole picture figured out, it is important to make individual adaptations in our training based on the parameters that we do know. For example, it is relatively easy to change training based on fiber types. An athlete with predominately Fast Twitch fibers will adapt very differently than one with predominately ST fibers. The same can be said with athlete with high or low aerobic and anaerobic capacities, or Lactate thresholds, or any other parameter.
As a quick example, the FT athlete will need a different type of endurance training than the ST athlete. If both athletes wanted to run the 5k, a traditional training scheme might say that VO2max and Lactate Threshold are essential for the 5k. So the coach would use lots of VO2max and LT training. The problem with that is that each of these training zones (zones are another pet peeve that I hate… but that’s another topic) will affect the athlete differently. By doing lots of LT training, the FT athlete will actually decrease his anaerobic capacity too much and not get much of a training stimulus because he has a high percentage of FT fibers. If we look at LT training, it can be seen that the intensity isn’t great enough to elicit many aerobic benefits in FT-b type fibers. So the athlete wouldn’t be improving the aerobic capabilities of the fibers he predominately has. In addition to this, the few ST fibers he has, would probably be overwhelmed. To improve endurance, a more prudent approach for our FT athlete would be to do repeats at a quicker pace (3k-10k pace), such as 800’s. This is just one of many examples that could be given.
Ignoring Science for a minute, the individualization of an athlete’s training can be seen in the wide variety of successful training programs used by different coaches. If we just look at one event, say the 1500m, we can see that we’ve had World Record holders and Olympic medalist succeed off of a wide range of training programs. Some used very high mileage, some used very low mileage. Others used endless repeats with lots of anaerobic training, while others were strength based. How can so many seemingly different programs produce great results? It’s because the program worked for that individual. It may not have worked for another equally talented but different runner. Even the greatest training system will NOT work for every runner.
Acknowledging that a wide variety of training programs work for a variety of runners allows us to see that the best individualization would be one that would allow for a coach to train athletes in completely opposite ways if need be. For instance, a coach could have one athlete doing 120mpw with lots of LT running, while another athlete on the same team doing 40mpw with lots of fast repeat 400s. Unfortunately, this type of individualization rarely occurs because it would take an in depth knowledge of a wide variety of training systems. Coaches sometimes feel like they have to develop a system (such as a Lydiard, or Daniels or whoever system) and not deviate from those principles. Perhaps then the best system is no system at all, and just coach purely based on what one particular athlete needs. Unfortunately, that may beyond our grasps at the moment because of knowledge limitations, among other things.
Lastly, if you do not by all of the information in this rant, consider this workout. It is designed to improve recovery, increase capillarization, and increase the aerobic capacity. These claims have been backed up by research and by the success of many athletes. What’s the workout?

6-8x200m w/ 50m walk breaks in 26

Yes, for sprinters (which is where I got the info from) it will do things such as increase capillarization. Yet for distance runners, it would serve as a type of speed endurance or anaerobic workout. For distance runners the same claims have been made for long runs. How can the same workout accomplish two completely opposite things? How can 14 mile runs and 200s in 26-27 accomplish the same thing in different individuals? Individualization.


  1. Anonymous1:49 PM


  2. A good post. An interesting read for me as I am in my early days as a coach!

    I found your post via Ewen's blog!


  3. Anonymous9:21 PM

    Steve what you decide about the track season? Are you going to do any more races?


Related Posts with Thumbnails
Related Posts with Thumbnails