I like to do things. Sometimes I like to do easy things and sometimes I like to do hard things. I have my fair share of comfort activities to help me unwind. I read comics and manga, I watch television and movies, I train, and I play video games. Within these spheres of activities I choose my level of engagement and thus the attention needed from me in order to fully enjoy them. Most of the time when partaking in consumable media the extent of my critical thinking is “Am I being entertained”. Of course there are lots of ways to be entertained. Laugh with, laugh at, be thrilled, have ideas provoked, whatever. For me, there is no external product being created at the end of the activity. I am not a critic, a writer, an illustrator, a producer or director. I do not have to engage more than whatever a cursory self check of “is this entertaining”. This lack of a finished product makes these “easy” activities.
For me, these activities are easy because I want them to be easy. I do not set an expectation to have an external product with these activities. Instead I choose my difficult activities to be of a physical nature. I choose to create external products for myself in the form of challenging physical feats.In the same way that becoming a good writer, producer, or illustrator takes time studying those mediums and practicing the intricacies of those arts; preparing to produce a physical accomplishment follows the same trajectory of putting in time and thought into how to practice. This dedication of time is known as training. In the following pages I will be breaking down my approach to building a goal oriented training plan. While I will be focusing purely on training for physical goals a lot of the ideology can be applied to achieving any goal.
Training is a regimented process to lead individuals to have the ability to perform a predetermined goal. Without a goal the same actions that could be considered training become nothing more than play. A predetermined goal also makes sure that we are making sure to prioritize actions that are “value added”. Meaning we are not wasting physical and mental power on acts that do not bring us closer to our goal.
When coming up with your goal there are a few guidelines to make sure it is an effective goal. You have probably heard of the SMART goal system and maybe even already used it for various goal setting needs in your life. SMART goals are the backbone of developing an effective training plan. In case you have not heard of SMART goals before it is a mnemonic device to remember that goals should have the following attributes:
- Specific – The goal should be well defined and direct. This ensures we can figure out our value added activities
- Measureable – There should be a clear way to say the goal is complete. This is the “external product” mentioned earlier
- Attainable – The goal should be the realm of possibility for you. Winning gold in olympic diving is not realistic for most people. (If it is I am flattered you are reading this).
- Relevant – The goal should fit into some overarching plan. That overarcing plan in itself could be a bigger broader goal and this training/performance is a substep of that goal that fills in the specific details.
- Time bound – You need to have a deadline for the external product. Procrastination and a loss of focus can easily take over without a deadline.
Let’s get into the weeds a little on these attributes.
General conditioning is a good starting point for a training plan. Every athlete needs their body to coordinate muscle movement, blood flow, respiration, etc and general conditioning hits all of these points. However, general conditioning is, as its name implies, is general. It will never help you develop a specific skill. The idea of specificity is what delineates every different type of activity. It’s why crossfitters don’t dominate all sports (as much as some practitioners may think that should be the case). Crossfit in particular defines itself as a broad form of fitness to be able to excel in all aspects of fitness. This idea is summed up in the idiom “jack of all trades; master of none”. Having a predetermined goal will give you the appropriate guidelines to determine what kind of specificity you need. To steal a term from gaming a goal lets you know how to min-max your stats. If you want to be an endurance runner it will behoove you to sacrifice muscle mass and power as a trade off to increase endurance and lean muscle. To play basketball you may need to sacrifice some strength to take more time for coordination practice. Whatever the details end up being they are all predicated by the specific goal you have laid out.
With a specific goal determined the next step in the process is actually determining what to do. What activities will you be incorporating into your plan. Critically these activities need to be leading you to a measurable result that should resemble the result of the specific goal. In this step those measurable results are what I call benchmarks. These benchmarks should be close representations of aspects of your goal. What I mean by this is that a goal can be made up of several pieces of performance. A running goal can have distance, pace, and elevation; a lifting goal can have lifts, weight, and repetition; a climbing goal will have style, difficulty, and length. Your goal will have as many components as you need it to have. Each of those components should be considered a benchmark.
For example; at the time of this writing I have a goal to do a trail run route known as the WURL in under 24hrs. This goal will demand me to climb 18,000ft of elevation gain in a day; to traverse 32 miles of various terrains including doubletrack, hiking trail, and rock scrambles; to perform vigorous physical activity for 24 hours; and to be able to climb and descend a 10% grade for 5 miles. With these benchmarks in place I have a representative measuring stick to push my body toward getting used to the stresses the goal will put on me to make sure that I can do the task when performance day comes. This can be especially helpful if your goal requires you to be far away from home on performance day.
It would be silly to start training when you are currently capable of doing your goal. In that case your goal isn’t something to work toward but something to check off a list. These goals are still valuable experiences but not things you need to go through this process with. Your goal should be harder to accomplish than you are currently capable of achieving but not so much harder that you will burn out and stop trying when you don’t feel the performance gap narrowing. With the benchmarks determined you need to now do a double check self evaluation. The detailed benchmarks are going to both make it easy for you to evaluate if you are capable of performing your goal in the time you have available to train and that your goal is at an appropriate level.
During the self evaluation comparison to the benchmarks you have defined it is important to be honest with yourself. It will do you no good to lie to yourself about what is achievable. This is not to say that there are things you absolutely can’t do. It’s more to say that you need to be realistic about the time you have to train and the timeline in which you want to achieve your goal. If you’ve never run before it is not a wise goal to run a 100 mile race next month. In this case what you should see during the self reflection of “is this attainable” is that maybe that 100 mile race should be a goal for a year out and your goal for next month could be something smaller like a 10k to start.
Now we get into some of the specific tasks you’ll need to do in order to reach your benchmarks and eventually your goal. There are a lot of exercises that exist that increase your fitness. I would go so far as to say that there are an infinite amount of exercises that challenge the body to grow in some way. The massive scale of available activities is exactly why it is so important that the goal you set is specific and that you have well defined benchmarks. Without a solid framework you would have no real guidance on what to do to achieve it. With no framework in place all the exercises in the world are more play than work. But you do have a goal and you do have benchmarks. By looking at these benchmarks it becomes easy to distill valuable exercises from the infinite sea of possible exercises. These valuable exercises are what I call Value Added Tasks or VATs for convenience.
Let’s go back to the benchmarks defined in the example in the measurable section. Climb 18,000ft of elevation gain in a day; traverse 32 miles of various terrains including doubletrack, hiking trail, and rock scrambles; and be able to climb and descend a 10% grade for 5 miles; perform vigorous physical activity for 24 hours; . Each one of these benchmarks has specific activities that will add to an ability to perform them.
Climbing 18,000ft in a day will obviously entail gaining vertical elevation. This can be done by box steps, hill runs, stairs, or in a pinch a stair stepper (I say in a pinch because stair steppers actually rob you of some gain by having your trailing foot fall acting as an assist). These tasks should be added in a progressing fashion. Starting at maybe 2,000 ft of gain and working up day by day towards the benchmark.
Traverversing 32 miles can be accomplished with a detailed running plan similar to a marathon training plan. That benchmark will have VATs that include things like back to back long runs, fast runs, hill sprints, base mileage runs, and recovery runs. Since our benchmark is a little more specific we also know that we will have to split these activities on various terrains. This will require some effort to find out what terrains you have available locally. You will need to find a place to run with long sustained hills and a different place with sections of rocks to scramble over. Then mix in the runs on these trails in particular.
Climbing and descending a 10% grade for 5 miles will require a place with a long steep hill that laps can be run on up and down to get the legs and knees used to that kind of abuse. Just like everything else this will happen on a progression.
Performing physical activity for 24 hrs is actually not something I would recommend doing a traditional training for. Not sleeping is detrimental to recovery from the rest of the activity you are doing. It would be counterproductive to ramp up the amount of awake time you have in a day or a week. For this particular benchmark I would recommend setting aside one weekend 2 or 3 weeks before the performance period and try and stay up for the full 24 hrs after a strenuous day and keep tabs on how your fatigue ebbs and flows through the time. This way you can track when you will need to focus on energy intake and it will get you ready to feel what that kind of exhaustion feels like.
In this example you may have noticed that running hills shows up as a VAT for multiple benchmarks. This will likely be common in any iteration of this planning no matter what the goal. It is uncommon for activities to be so isolated that they don’t help you improve in more than one area. Use this to your advantage and try and find the most VATs that hit the most benchmarks. This way you can focus on the most specific and representative VATs for your goal which will increase your chances of success.
In a lot of applications time bound means that you have a deadline to reach your goal. Leaving it at this simple definition is not particularly helpful when trying to put together a productive plan. If all you have done is say “I want to deadlift 3x my body weight in 3 months” it is very likely that you will squander 2.5 months of that span with an ineffective use of your time. The solution to avoid this rut of procrastination is the crux of developing a training plan. You will need to lay out your available time, your VATs, your benchmark, and your goal and mix it all together into a coherent schedule that you can hold yourself accountable to until you have reached your goal.
Different goals will require different looking record tracking. Written weight lifting training regimes do not translate well to running training plans which do not translate to climbing training plans. Different people will also like to organize their calendars differently. At the end of the day it is up to you how you want to write down your plan. However, it is critical that you write it down somewhere and that it is meaningful and measurable to you. Keeping a written record is the best way to hold yourself accountable. When you look in your book and see the last date you worked on your goal was a week ago it is hard to lie to yourself and keep procrastinating. You also get a sense of accomplishment if you are writing down your training. Seeing the right numbers go up or down is a great source of fulfillment. It is real time feedback that what you are doing is working and that keeps your motivation high.
Even though the written form of everyone’s plan may look different they will still follow the same outline. There needs to be a prime phase, a perform phase, and a recovery phase. In the prime phase you will be putting your VATs on a schedule in order to work your body toward your benchmarks. Do not forget to include rest days on this schedule. Always remember that stress breaks the body, rest strengthens it. The time spent in the prime phase is going to depend on your starting fitness and your goal. Inside the prime phase is where all of the details go. This phase is complicated enough that I have broken out my thoughts on it in a different article here and have put together some prebuilt priming programs for various activities here.
The performance phase (or peak) is where the big payoff of all of your training goes. This is race/competition/redpoint/go all out time. This is what we wish we could do all the time. However it is impossible to maintain peak performance year round. Depending on your goals the performance phase can last as little as 2 weeks or as much as 8. Most typical training plans will allow for about 3 peak phases per year at most. If you are training for similar activities back to back it is expected that your 3rd peak phase would be an improvement over your 1st and 2nd peak phases. In pursuit of a far off goal that makes the earlier peaks the benchmarks we talked about earlier. Thinking of each peak phase as a small step toward a bigger goal lets you set goals for as far out as you want them to go. It also allows you to change up goals if you so desire. With 3 peaks a year you could set up 3 goals of fairly different styles and still have time to train, perform, and rest. There is really no limit to how you organize your peak phases as long as you are making sure they are following a logical and attainable progression.
The last phase is the rest phase. You should plan on spending 1-2 weeks after the performance phase taking it easy. You have just finished putting your body through an incredibly strenuous process. Even with the weekly rests during priming your body will still be in need of serious recovery after testing itself during the performance phase. Similarly to the rest days in the prime phase you don’t have to do nothing. Light easy exercise will still help you recover and feed the need to be productive if you have it. Overall though you will have a lot more time than you have for the entirety of your training period. Use it to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Think about the next goal you want to set. Start planning your next training plan. Or don’t; take the time to completely check out of fitness for a few days if you feel a little burned out on it. There might be other things that will help you rest.
The best way to improve your fitness is for your fitness to really be yours. You should have your own specific goal. Your specific goal will dictate your measurable benchmarks. Your measurable benchmarks will guide you to your relevant VATs and inform you if your goal is attainable. You will plan how to incorporate your relevant VATs into a time bound plan. Your time bound plan will give you the external product you established with your specific goal. This is laid out visually in the diagram below. This can be used as a quick reference while you get used to the process. Of course, you will do this enough times that you won’t need a reference.