Winning a medal at a World Championships is never easy, but winning one in 2019 might be trickier than usual.
In most years, professional throwers practice and compete over a ten-month span. Serious training begins in November. Important competitions stretch from May through the summer with the most important–the World Championships or Olympics–generally taking place in early-to-mid August. At the Rio Olympics, for example, track events began on August 12th. The 2017 World Athletics Championships in London opened on August 1st.
The 2019 season, however, will be different. Due to the climate in Doha, where August temperatures tend to be unbearable, the 2019 World Championships will not begin until September 27th.
This creates a challenge for throws coaches who must design and manage a plan for their athletes that accounts for an extra six-to-eight weeks of training while somehow keeping them fresh for Doha.
Curious as to how different coaches would handle this predicament, I contacted a few.
One person I for sure wanted to check in with was Dale Stevenson, coach of the defending shot put World Champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand.
Dale and Tom have become experts at handling extra-long seasons because for them, every season is extra-long. As New Zealand is located in the Southern Hemisphere, their outdoor national championships take place in March, a full two months before the outdoor season even begins in North America and Europe where most of Tom’s competitors reside.
So Tom and Dale have had to devise a system that allows Tom to maintain excellent form two-to-three months longer than many of his rivals.
And based on recent results, they seem to have figured out a way to do just that.
Last year, for example, Tom won the Indoor World Championships in Birmingham on March 3rd with a monster toss of 22.31m. A week later, he headed back to New Zealand and won his national championships with a put of 21.58m. He then stayed in great shape through the months of June (22.29m at the Oslo Diamond League Meeting), July (21.92m at Lausanne) and August (22.60m to win the Diamond League final in Zurich on the 30th of that month).
That’s six solid months of excellent putting.
I asked Dale, via email, how they’ll attempt to stretch that to eight months in 2019 and put Tom in position to defend his World title.
Dale seems confident that he and Tom can handle the challenge, and that confidence seems to stem in part from their use of block periodization.
According to Dale, he and Tom “always follow the same planning structure” for Tom’s training. That structure consists of a sequence of four training phases which Dale calls “Slow Eccentric,” “Fast Eccentric,” “Ballistic,” and “Competition.” The sequence can be modified to last anywhere from two-to-six months, and always consists of those four phases repeated in that order.
A quick note on terminology. In the past, when coaches referred to “periodization” they generally meant “linear periodization.” A training plan based on linear periodization would begin with a high-volume “preparation” or “hypertrophy” phase and gradually morph over a period of months towards a low-volume, higher intensity phase before ending with a maintenance phase during which an athlete would devote a minimum amount of time and energy to strength exercises–just enough to maintain the raw power necessary to throw far. This final phase would be timed to coincide with the most important competitions, and if calibrated correctly would allow the athlete to derive the benefits of all those months of hard training and throw their best when it counts the most.
In a plan designed in the linear style, the various phases would not be repeated. Once an athlete moved past the high volume phase, for example, they would not engage in high volume training again until the following season.
A training plan utilizing “block periodization” would include the same basic phases as a linear plan, but over the course of the training year those phases would be repeated in segments or “blocks” of varying length. So, instead of engaging in say ten weeks of fairly high volume training during the winter months and then leaving high volume workouts behind for good as might be typical in a linear plan, an athlete training in the block style would engage in a shorter period of high volume training each time the block was repeated. And over the course of a ten-month season, the block would be repeated several times.
Here’s an analogy.
Linear periodization is like working hard at your job and saving all the money you can from November through May so that you can enjoy yourself on an extended summer vacation. The more money you sock away during your “accumulation” phase, the longer your vacation will last.
Block periodization would involve breaking up the save/spend cycle into a series of mini-cycles during which you’d save for a bit, spend that money on a shorter vacation, and repeat the process several times over the course of a year.
Advocates of a linear periodization system would argue that each phase of training must be maintained long enough to produce the desired training effect. If you want to produce hypertrophy in your athletes, for example, you must spend the time necessary to create that hypertrophy before moving on to another phase. Chopping the training year into blocks might not allow each phase of each block enough time to work its magic.
The challenge faced in 2019 by those using a linear model is that athletes cannot maintain peak fitness indefinitely. Once they begin a “maintenance” or “competition” phase and get farther away from their last strength-building phase, the clock begins to tick on their ability to generate maximum power. Eventually, the strength they accumulated during several months of preparation will diminish, like the savings of the aforementioned vacationer. With the Diamond League schedule beginning as usual in May, and the Worlds not taking place until late September, coaches have to figure out how to keep their athletes in competitive shape for a much longer stretch than they are used to.
Those like Dale Stevenson who favor a block periodization model might argue that it provides coaches the flexibility they need to manage this kind of situation. Each block contains a strength building phase, which would ideally restore an athlete’s ability to generate maximum power and produce peak throws. Repeating the block ensures that an athlete never goes too long without rebuilding their capacity to throw far.
Dale and Tom vary the length of each sequence depending on the importance of various competitions.
“If a short cycle is required (such as before World Indoors), then each phase is fifteen to eighteen days in duration, whereas a longer cycle might be forty-two days per phase. Pretty simple but it works for us.”
Rest will also be important if Tom is to be at his best in October.
He took seven weeks off after the 2018 campaign before starting back with twice-weekly sessions. Last week marked his return to a full training schedule.
Dale also plans to help Tom conserve some energy by de-emphasizing the Diamond League schedule.
“We will be sacrificing some of the meets in May-August next year to ensure we’re ready for October, some by reducing expectation of performance or simply skipping them altogether.”
Another coach who will be employing block periodization and emphasizing rest as he prepares his athletes for the 2019 season is René Sack, the German national coach for the women’s discus. René’s most prominent athlete is 2011 World Championships discus silver medalist Nadine Müller.
I spoke with René via the worldwide web, and he told me that the main adjustment he will be making in preparing Nadine for the 2019 season will be figuring out ways to include more rest in her training.
“I think you have to plan much more regeneration time,” he said. “I switched to the block periodization model last year. With Nadine, we do the European Winter Throwing Cup in the middle of March to see where we are at, then I will give her one or two weeks off. Then we will go to Chula Vista for three weeks for a training camp and begin the next phase.”
“The German Championships are on 3rd and 4th August, and the week after this she will get one more week free. You can’t train and do competitions for eleven months without finding ways to sneak in rest.”
René also plans to take special care to monitor the energy levels of his athletes throughout the season. He will regularly “do some surveys with the athletes where they answer a few questions to help me see how they are feeling so I can say ‘Ok, looks like you are really tired. Just go home and I’ll see you on Monday.’”
Like Dale Stevenson, René values the flexibility of block periodization and the way that the blocks can be stretched or shortened to suit an athlete’s needs.
René calls the first phase of his blocks an “accumulation phase.” During the first block of Nadine’s training, he will have her perform sets of ten during that phase. As the season progresses, the accumulation phase will always be the highest volume segment of a given block, but that volume will decrease relative to the accumulation phase in the first block. If Nadine’s first accumulation phase requires her to perform five sets of ten reps on various exercises, that may drop to sets of seven or “maybe a pyramid” in the second block.
“I change exercises too, ” he continued. “They might do heavy squats and leg press in the first block to prepare the structures for heavy lifting, and the next block maybe squats only, then later single leg squats or step-ups.” This is also designed to keep the athletes fresh over the course of a long season.
Like many coaches of elite throwers, René also has his athletes train with a variety of implements as a way of developing “special strength.” Nadine routinely throws 1.2k and 1.5k discs in practice, with a 2k mixed in on occasion. Over the last two years, they have “played around” with a 0.8k disc, which Nadine can throw over 70 meters when she can get a good flight on it.
René estimates that Nadine has taken 120,000 throws in her life, so unlike a novice who needs to build technique, “she just needs to remind the body how to do it.”
If he can calibrate her training correctly, Nadine’s body and mind will be fresh and ready to launch some big throws in Doha.
For part two of this article, I will share insights from JC Lambert, (coach of hammer thrower DeAnna Price) and Torsten Lönnfors, (coach of 2016 Olympic discus champion Chris Harting) on how they will prepare their charges for the rigors of the upcoming season.