General preparation for 2021 race season

This post is an overview of my training for the last 10 weeks (2 November 2020 to 10 January 2021). It has been a great training period and I have enjoyed the process of building up my fitness over the winter. There's plenty of work still to do before the race season, but I'm pleased with this start to the year.

My starting point

In 2020 I struggled to find a rhythm and to click into the right training mode when it felt like the goal posts were continuously moving. I did have some periods of great training and some periods of racing (cross country in Q1, some trail races at the end of summer), but I also had too many periods of inconsistent training and low motivation. Overall it was a year of training that sort of cycled through stops and starts and it didn't contribute to my overall development as an athlete.

Despite the fact that 2020 was a tough year for races and for athletes, most of the athletes I coached managed to achieve consistent training and to get some good race results. Clearly it was possible to keep training and to make the most of the circumstances and even though I knew the solution I wasn't effectively applying it to myself. At the end of the year, I decided to start the 2021 training cycle with a clean start, to apply the basics, and to follow these principles:

  • Start from the point I am at, not at where I hope or want to be.
  • Gradually increase training at the rate at which I am able to adapt to it.
  • Prioritise developing a routine and hitting all the desired training objectives before adding load.
  • Put in place best practices for supporting my training from the start (nutrition, hydration, sleep, core training, etc).
  • Train to become a better athlete and when the time to race comes apply that fitness rather than trying to focus on race demands first.
  • Have fun in training and enjoy the daily process.

The plan for the off-season

Starting in November I created a two week schedule as a template for a general preparation phase. I wanted to touch on a range of different intensities each microcycle and I know that trying to squeeze that all into one week can be difficult for me. In addition, I wanted to take some rest days so I would not be adding too much load too quickly and one rest day every two weeks works well for me. The details of the training plan were:

  • Four high-intensity sessions every two weeks (two lactate threshold sessions, one VO2 Max session, on steady state session).
  • Two days separating each high intensity session for optimal recovery.
  • Four strength sessions every two weeks.
  • One long run every two weeks.
  • One rest day every two weeks.
  • Activation pre-run and core post run every day.

In the first weeks I was slowly building the training load each day by adding a little extra duration. Then I started to look at the weekly totals and add more training load on a weekly basis. This gradual progression allowed me to follow the principle of patience and allowed for increasing training load at a rate I can adapt to.

The high-intensity training sessions all started at close to the minimum possible dose for each intended stimuli (~12' for VO2 Max, ~25' for lactate threshold training, ~45' for steady state) with a gradual progression in either repetitions or repeat duration every two weeks. I planned to achieve some time at each different intensity, but to prioritise building a routine over achieving any especially challenging single session.

For my strength training I focused on lower leg exercises (lunges, single-leg deadlifts, squats, hip thrusters, calf raises, etc) and used the weights that I have at home (5kg dumbells and 8kg kettlebells). I started with 3 sets of 12 repetitions and increased the total number of repetitions every two weeks.

The tools I used

I've included this section for any readers who are interested in how I track my training and what tools I use to guide and monitor my running. If you just want the results, jump ahead to the next section.


Every morning I take an HRV neasurement. I find it a useful check in each day to see how I adapted to the previous day's training and to have an objective measure to warn me if I should limit intensity. Most days I know what the result will be before I take the measurement, but on the odd day when I see a result I don't expect it's a useful starting point to check in with some other metrics (chronic training load and coefficient of variation) to see what's going on.

I always have a quick look at the History page to see how the whole week is shaping up and I also check the baseline to see what the trend for the training phase is. If there is anything unexpected in the daily measurement, then looking at these two charts can give some good context of the bigger picture.

I have linked HRV4Training to Strava to import my training data into the app. This allows for more detailed analysis and for the generation of the insights in the app. This combination works well as I can track my training load and also see any correlations between my training and its impact on HRV.

My daily score, History page and Baseline page in HRV4Training.

HRV Logger

I just started using this app to experiment with the DFA1a measurement that Marco introduced a few weeks ago. I've been using it to try and determine my aerobic threshold to help guide my training. More detail on this in the section below.

Polar devices - Vantage M, H10 chest strap, OH1 optical strap

I've been using the Polar devices for just over a year and I'm really pleased with them. I use the H10 chest strap to take my morning HRV measurement (with HRV4Training) and I've been using it with HRV Logger. I also use the chest strap more during the summer with my Vantage M for measuring heart rate while training. I use the OH1 for measuring my heart rate while training with the Vantage M in winter as it's more comfortable and the optical HR measurement does not require wetting the strap and it doesn't lose signal if the weather is too cold or too dry. I haven't had any issues with any of these devices and they sync well with my phone and other apps. I would highly recommend them.

The Polar Flow software is also a valuable tool. In particular I like how each session, day, and week is split into the different HR zones. This gives me a good indication of how polarized my training is and I find that useful for monitoring my progress. I have also been using the TRIMP metric to measure load (I'm not sure how convinced I am of its usefulness yet, but I'm sticking with it to test it out for now).

Progress to date

The last ten weeks have gone really well. I've managed to achieve all the sessions I planned and I've managed to increase my training load consistently every week. You can see in the screenshots below that the chronic training load (CTL) in the left hand screen has been increasing consistently each week. At the same time, I've see an increase in my HRV (the middle screen) and a decrease in my heart rate (right hand screen). The combination of these data points tells me that I've been responding to the training well and that I'm getting fitter. All good news!

My chronic training load (based on duration), HRV trend, and HR trend over the last two months.

When looking at the Polar stats you can see that when I started ramping up my training the cardio load status jumped into the overreaching zone. However, as I settled into the training progression the cardio load status settled into the productive range. Similar to the HRV4Training chronic training load report, the Polar cardio load buildup based in TRIMP shows a consistent rate of growth of the last two months.

Polar cardio load report.

Lastly, in terms of training polarisation, you can see in my own tracking chart that the majority of my training was below VT1 (zone 1 and 2 in the 5-zone model). There was some training in Z3 each week (more in the weeks where I had a steady state session) and some sessions pushed me into Z4 (VO2 Max sessions). As this polarisation is based on time, the percent of time above VT1 appears to be very small.

Training polarisation into a three-zone distribution.

A few small refinements along the way

In the last two weeks I made some refinements to my training plan. The first change I made was moving from a two-week microcycle to working in three-day cycles. The first day is a high-intensity training day with a hard session and a strength session, the second day is a longer endurance day, and the third day is a lighter recovery day. This approach allows me to have a continuous flow of training without sticking to weekly schedules and without having specific days for certain sessions.

The second refinement I've been working on is making sure that my heart rate zones are set correctly. I've been using HRV Logger to record my easier runs and I use the DFA1a analysis to determine my aerobic threshold (the top of Z2). Below you can see three runs where I used heart rate to guide my training, the first run with a maximum heart rate of 135bpm, the second at 130bpm, and the third with at 125bpm. By the third run you can see that all of the run occurs above a threshold of 0.75 (no white bars). This suggests that by using a maximum heart rate of 125bpm I will ensure that I'm running below VT1 and that my training is easy enough for all low-intensity and endurance runs.

Three runs with maximum HR values of 135bpm, 130bpm and 125bpm.

What's next?

My goal is to continue this general preparation for another four to six weeks and then to start some specific preparation for my first race of the year. Hopefully that will be in May!

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