How Coaches Prescribe Workouts for Athletes

Monday, August 11, 2014 | By Derek Loudermilk
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How Coaches Prescribe Workouts for Athletes

Have you ever been in the middle of a set of intervals, working your butt off, and wondered, “Why am I doing this?” Beyond the bigger metaphysical questions, you are probably doing that workout because your coach told you to. This post will dig into why and how coaches prescribe workouts for you, their athletes.

The Process

Coaching can be thought of as a process of breaking down the needs of the athlete and then charting the course to get the desired result. Often this takes lots of observation and experience to know how each workout will affect the athlete. With new athletes, coaches use workouts and recovery schedules that are effective for the average, then tweak things based on individual situations.

A good coach will help you learn enough to coach yourself, because the training process is explained well. A well-informed athlete can make better decisions, and hopefully this article will get you started . This doesn’t make coaching yourself easy or ideal, which is why coaches often trade coaching with each other to receive accountability, outside perspective, etc.

One big thing I notice about athletes without a coach is that they try to “just go ride hard”. This may or may not be hard enough to get your body to change and get fitter, or it may be slowing down your recovery. So, hire a coach so you don’t have to worry about getting it right.

Starting at the End

One of the habits in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind”. This is where most coaches start. Each season, coaches talk to athletes and listen to the athlete's goals and ideas for what they are looking for with coaching. Usually this involves something like doing well at a specific race, trying to break through a plateau in fitness or needing someone to take care of the planning due to a busy life schedule.

From there, the next step is to lay out the racing calendar. Say you want to do well in the state road race or a big local Olympic-distance triathlon. These events are a known quantity in the sense that a coach knows the course and the physiological demands of the race.

For example, in order to win a road race that typically ends in a field sprint the athlete must have the endurance to ride several hours with the peloton and then deliver a tactically sound short explosive burst to the line. For cyclocross, the demands will be that most of the race will be at threshold level with hundreds of small accelerations out of each corner.

By working backwards from the event demands and the time you have to the event coaches can determine what type of training to do each week and month. A coach uses a basic formula to take you from the fitness/preparedness level you are currently at to the level you want to be. The formula is: training stimulus plus recovery equals adaptation.


Most modern coaches subscribe to the idea of periodization, where there are different periods in the training where you will be doing different types of workouts as you build towards your goal event. During the planning phase of the season, we can breakdown periods into macrocycles (season or years), mesocycles (months), and microcycles (days and weeks).

The Base Period

You may have heard about building a base. This is usually interpreted as doing a lot of easy aerobic miles. The base that you are building during long rides and runs is to train the use of fuel, capillarization, mitochondrial density, aerobic enzymes, and cadiorepsiratory adaptations. During the base phase coaches prescribe long steady rides or runs in a fatigued or fasted state.

Often overlooked are the structural and neuromuscular components that allow for gains in speed. In order to later support high torque efforts on steep climbs, or the neuromuscular requirements for sprinting, during the base building phase coaches have athletes do sprints and fast pedaling on the bike and strength exercises such as pushing a big gear and plyometrics. This prepares the body for the next part of training which directly supports the event.

Workouts in the base periods are generally lower intensity and higher volume. As we work close to the event, you can expect the workouts to get progressively more intense (specific to the race effort level) and with less volume.

The Build Phase

In the next phase, coaches build support aerobically and anaerobically for your event. Designing workouts that start to bring together some of the speed base and the endurance base you have created. These workouts often come in the form of long intervals, referred to as tempo, steady state, sweet spot, etc. Coaches continue to prescribe regular long rides and some speed work to maintain the base already achieved.

The Peak Phase

In the final stages of work towards your goal event, coaches begin to add in workouts that directly support the demands of the event. An example of this is harder and shorter intervals, in the one to five minute range, potentially decreasing rest in between the intervals. You will be getting closer to the actual demands and pace of the race in the workouts.


In addition to training, there are plenty of recovery enhancers/detractors that vary for the individual. These include sleep, diet, mental workload, alcohol consumption, genetics, etc. These recovery modifiers are largely observed over time by looking at your workouts and results, talking to you, and getting feedback. A lot of the time it is easier for a coach than the athlete to see progress or training response, because we can go back and look at the big picture. This also emphasizes the importance of keeping a training log such as TrainingPeaks, so that it is possible to collect and observe these patterns.

In this progression towards your goal event, your coach will design a training schedule that involves scheduling workouts and recovery days within the week, building volume or intensity week-by-week, planning recovery weeks, and sharpening your form for your peak.

No single workout within the training plan will be the one that makes or breaks the performance. Rather, training is designed to work as a complete program that will bring together the wide range of physiology needed. I like to remind athletes that missing a workout is not going to kill their fitness, and not to try to squeeze a missed workout in later. Hopefully this explanation of the coaching process will help you as an athlete understand why you are doing the workouts you are doing.


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