A while back, during one of those rare moments of inspiration, I took to my whiteboard in my home and began to scribble. The goal was to break down every single way I could manipulate a workout possibly. In the end, I came up with this mess of a picture (and yes, as anyone who follows me on instagram can attest, my handwriting is that of a 2nd grade boy):

What inspired this late night scribbling? Frustration.

I’d spent a while at presentations trying to get across a simple concept: the individual workout doesn’t matter. No, I don’t mean it doesn’t matter if you do 400m repeats or 2 mile repeats. Instead, I meant, that there are no magical workouts or magical zones. I’d say that phrase, maybe throw up a slide or two and people would get the “no zones”, but often the message was lost. They still wanted to know what workouts I did, what they impacted and how I classified them. I can’t tell you how many times someone would ask me a question about a workout, I’d tell them the exact details, then they’d say “ahh a Vo2max workout” (or whatever else). In my head I wanted to scream “No! No! No! You’re missing the point!”, but mostly I’d politely smile and let them on their way.

The same thing happened when I spoke at clinics outside of my neat little niche of track, whether it was football, strength and conditioning, soccer, or any other sport.

Now, this isn’t meant to disparage other coaching colleagues, but instead to notice a trend:  training had become enraptured with the idea of classifying workouts based mainly on distance and maybe speed. Now it’s not these coaches fault or anyone’s really, as it’s human nature to divide the world into neat, manageable pieces of organized and classified information. It’s how we deal with the complexity of the world we live.

Unhappy that I couldn’t get the message I wanted across, one late night, while the rest of the world is out at bars and coaches are at home with workouts dancing in their minds, I went to the white board. As I sat there drawing on my wall, I was looking for a way to break free of the grasp of classification.

Getting “stuck”
When I was at the Canadian Endurance Coaches Convention, someone (apologies I forget who!) made a comment about looking back at the likes of coaches like Franz Stampfl and Igloi and how good and creative their workouts were. In particular, the rest periods were manipulated to a much larger degree than they are now, where instead of worrying about the rest, we’ve defaulted to using some defined preset amount for each workout type.

And what happened since the hey days of intervals was, we lost all creativity. It’s become too dogmatic, too scientific, too calculated. When we venture down this route, we get so sucked into the details, that we lose the ability to innovate. If we see 400m repeats, it gets automatically processed as “special endurance 2” or “Anaerobic tolerance” or whatever it is in your own particular classification system. In the words of Economists Daniel Kahnemann, we default to our fast system 1 thinking, never allowing system 2 to even have a check. In other words, there’s little actual thinking about what the workout actually does.

The idea of the workout had shifted. It’s become, not what does this workout bring to the table, but instead, in what classification zone does this workout fall. Once we have that answer, then we have an automatic answer for what it develops.

As an example, do 150-300m repeats with near or full recovery at 90+% max speed and it’s a special endurance 1 workout. How much volume? up to 1200m.

It’s all pre-packaged. There’s no thinking left.

And when we give in to our automatic default answer for training, we lose creativity. We lose the idea that we can modulate any number of factors and change the ENTIRE dynamics of the workout and what they impact, just by simple and subtle shifts.

If I truly wanted to, I could create a threshold type session, using nothing but 100m repeats, if manipulated properly with speed, recovery, tempo, and so forth. I watched a runner last week do 150m repeats with a 50m float that acted as a specific tempo workout. He didn’t go out and hammer out 6 miles, instead he did 150’s…and got the same effect.

In the world of Creativity research, scientists have found an interesting conclusion. When we take “play” out of the picture, we lose some of our ability to be creative. It’s almost as if once we consider something “work”, it’s a stop sign for looking at a problem in a different way. Instead, we default to our traditional linear process of thinking (i.e. X workout fits in Y classification so it does Z). We lose our ability to make connections, and see the problem in a new and different way.

And my argument would be that as coaches, we often get so enthralled into the scientific process of coaching that it becomes a crutch. We act as if training people is like a computer program, and neglect the dynamic organization that the human body challenges us with.

In essence, overly relying on classification gives our brain permission to stop considering the workout at any deeper level. So we get stuck. We start defaulting to the same workouts over and over, not realizing all the interesting and imaginative ways we can get the same or better training effect.

Here’s an experiment, take someone’s training that looks totally foreign from “normal” like someone who does Igloi, or this wonderful example from 13:30 5k runner Danny Henderson that looks more like swimming training than anything a runner would do. Ask a coach, guru, or expert to inrepret it. Either they (A) interpret it using their own system (“These here 800’s look like a VO2max workout”), (B) they are too perplexed and dismiss it, or (C) they are well read/experienced and tell you why it works.  A and B obviously aren’t good answers, but they occur all the time.

Why? Because we get trapped in our own little domain of thinking about workouts in one particular way.

Before, I wrap this up, I want to address a thought some might have. If the same traditional workouts are working, why change?

My counterargument is two fold.
First, you may be harming your athletes. If I have an 800m athlete who despises a 4 mile tempo run, but can nail doing 200m reps with a 100m float that gets the same benefit of a tempo run, and perhaps in a more specific manner, then why wouldn’t I insert some 200m reps with a 100m float?  Just because it doesn’t fit the “tempo run” classification? By occasionally being more specific while still getting the aerobic component, we reduce the risk of disrupting the wonderful balance of speed and endurance in a middle distance athlete.

Second, it opens up possibilities. You start seeing that workouts aren’t simply about manipulating volume, intensity, and rest. Instead, there’s dozens of parameters we can play with. And if you realize that adaptation is simply a result of the stimulus applied, then it allows us to vary the stimulus in ways that can stress athletes in new and different ways. We’re no longer trapped by our pre-conceived notions. The moments I’ve grown most as a coach are when I’ve become challenged by unusual circumstances. A few years back I had an 800m runner on my collegiate team run sub 1:50 with his workouts being 100m repeats back and forth at a controlled effort because that’s all his body could handle due to some unique medical issues. Yet, we manipulated the workout to get almost everything we needed from those stupid 100’s.

So what?
Forget whether mile repeats, cruise miles, Yasso’s 800’s, or whatever other workout is the best in the world. There’s nothing special about any of them. Nothing. Second, just because you label something as “anaerobic capacity” doesn’t mean that the only way to develop “anaerobic capacity” is to do that workout in that manner. It’s not.

Am I arguing against classification? Well, maybe I partially am. Yes, I get that we need a common vocabulary and it helps us as a profession. But I think once a coach understands the foundation and what others are saying, he should move beyond it. Classification systems are wonderful for coaches when they get started. But after a while, it becomes restrictive. Workouts should be a means to stress the athlete in a particular direction in which you want him to adapt. That means physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, biomechanically and so on. Far too often our classifications for workouts are based on one stressor (physiologic), neglecting the complexity of the body.

Which brings me back to my drawing on my wall.

In searching for ways to get beyond your stuck reasoning, two easy themes kept coming up, whether it was in the research or from watching guru’s like Elon Musk.

1. Break ideas to their simplest form-  Break things down as far as you can, always asking whether or not you can further break it down in any way, before building them back up.
2. Stop describing objects/ideas by their function.- We have a tendency to default to describing ideas based on what we think they will do. Think, “This is a lactate threshold workout!” instead of this is 4 miles at X pace over Y terrain, and so forth. Try to see what happens when you stop describing ideas/concepts as their function but instead by what they actually are.

Both of these processes are designed to make us aware of our assumptions and to shift our way of seeing a particular problem.  The effort of breaking down every workouts into every single way of of manipulating wasn’t an effort in complexification, it was to help me break free from getting “stuck.”


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    1. danny on January 11, 2016 at 4:48 am

      No one is omniscient. No one knows why someone has incredible success and the next person doesn't. So the question is: is it the workout or is it something else? Rather than tell someone they are wrong for asking what workouts to do, what about asking them what other things influence the success of the athlete?

    2. johnnydajogger on January 11, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      Thank you! Its an excellent article with lots of food for thought. I often design my workouts on the fly, after my 5-10 min warmup. So, it depends on how I feel. I also like to consult my monthly calendar and try to pick out areas I may be ignoring. Other times, I fall back on my favorites workout: 200m sprints with 100m or 50m floats. I also play with inclines on the treadmill and vary speed based on the severity of the incline. In other works, I'm flexible but I try to increase the difficulty of the run as it progresses either by adjusting the recovery, speed or incline on the treadmill. In the winter, I do almost all my training on the treadmill. I've recently discovered a couple of books which have given me some innovative ideas for workouts. Here they are: 1.http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Treadmill-Workout-Interval-Training/dp/1440589291/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452537320&sr=1-1&keywords=the+ultimate+treadmill+workout

    3. Bob Pollmann on January 11, 2016 at 9:28 pm

      As always Steve, you make us think!

    4. Jim Hansen on January 12, 2016 at 12:47 am

      A little more on Danny Henderson, a college teammate of mine. http://recoveryourstride.blogspot.com/2009/07/swimmers-way-of-doing-intervals.html

    5. Harith K on January 22, 2016 at 10:24 am

      Wonderful post, myself I like to categorise my training as much as possible. I realise category and classification are not the same thing.

    6. malmo on February 1, 2016 at 2:32 am

      Steve, the more you write the smarter you get. The more I read your musings the more I'm convinced you actually get it.

    7. Dr. Freakinstyle on February 22, 2016 at 9:15 am

      I have been reading some of your posts and find them refreshing! I have been picking up running after 15 years, but mainly did sprint and middle long distance. But I remember the workouts being so really really boring, that I would always skip them after 3 months and come up with something of my own. This was always based on a certain feeling over e spectrum of: torture – hard – comfortably hard – moderate – relaxed -easy. I have read back my log when I was training for 1500m and regularly find training with speeds mixed up from 200m sprint speed to 10k speed over 100s and 1500s with almost breaks I would choose along the way. Perhaps too random, but a lot more motivating.

      I am now building a schedule, of which I know I will deviate from, and could only find energy based classification so went along with that. You encourage me again to beforehand built a more creative programme! Back to the drawing board, thanks!

      p.s. ignore the weird name, is my artist name, hence the will to make a creative training programme.

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