Deep Dive – Structured Training (Part 1)

Overview

I may have mentioned a couple of times recently that I bought a new watch. Twice. I did this for you, dear readers, in an effort to balance the books and get you some useful content to go alongside the usual rumour mill. My hope is that this will guide you in understanding why you want or need a device, not just which device is “best”. Does it really matter which device is best? No, well, maybe. It matters that the device does what you need it to, and here I am helping you to work out the answer to the most important question. Just what is it that I need a device to do, anyway?
There are many answers to this question. One of them is that you may want your device to be the latest, shiniest, gadget out there so you can show your mates. This site probably won’t help you on that count, but certainly there are a lot of sites that can show you the latest shiny.

Instead, I’m starting with the assumption that you’re an athlete. You may be a seasoned athlete or a couch potato with ambition, I’m not choosy. My assumption is that you’re using a fitness device to become better at something. With this in mind, your device needs to participate in your training somehow rather than just watch you train. Recording data is great, and you can later use that to tune your training sessions, but first you need to do a session. Also trust me when I say that looking at graphs of heartrate won’t make you fitter or faster. You need to interpret those graphs to determine if you can push harder, longer, faster the next time out. This post is all about planning the “next time out” and giving yourself goals.

Why use structured workouts

This is an important question, and is the question that led to Polar developing sports watches in the first place. If you go out once a week and run 5km and record that run then at the end of the year you’ll have 52 almost identical recordings. Pretty boring stuff. Your body will certainly be fitter than if you don’t run 5km once a week, but it won’t get faster or fitter, and your weight will remain static. To improve something you need to work on that something. To run faster, you’ll need to run faster regularly. To lose weight you’ll need to increase calories burned. To run further for longer you’ll need to…run further. So step one is to define your goals. The standard advice here is to choose a race or event and work towards that. I’m not a standard kind of person, and I don’t really like events so I tend to just decide I want to be faster or go further etc. and pick a target to aim at.

Goals

You may have noticed the basic advice above that to run faster you need to run faster. That’s true, of course, but not the whole story. If you just run as fast as you possibly can you won’t get very far. The trick here is that you want to be able to run the same distance as today, but in a shorter time. Or you want to run at the same pace as today, but for longer; maybe for a half marathon. To do this you’ll need to build up gradually over time. I’m ignoring technique here, and it’s important to say that you’ll need to look into that too to avoid injury and ensure you achieve all of your goals. But simplistically you can set up your training sessions to gradually increase pace or distance and you’ll achieve those things from a fitness perspective.
Over time, this may look something like the below graph – I’ve purposely left off labels here for simplicity.

This shows your weekly effort, building by a small percentage each week, and every few weeks having a recovery or rest week where we drop back a bit to allow the body to recover. These concepts are well documented all over the web so I won’t go into them here. The main point here is that you know that structure is important, and the idea that we build each week towards something.
Within those weeks, you’ll also want to structure your workouts. These will have warmups, possibly repeats, and warm downs to get you where you need to be from a workout perspective and hit that weekly goal. The purpose of a training watch is to show you those goals, and ensure you do them. It’s like having a little coach on your arm yelling at you “just two minutes left!” and then reminding you “don’t forget to warm down properly to prevent injury”. This may look something like:

 

Phase Time
Warmup 5:00
Work 1:30
Recovery 0:30
Work 1:30
Recovery 0:30
Work 1:30
Recovery 0:30
Work 1:30
Recovery 0:30
Warmdown 5:00

The work and recovery cycles allow you to achieve more in a workout than if you were pushing all of the time. As a result you can run faster for a shorter time – until you can’t do any more. Then you recover and go again. This relies on the idea of “active recovery” which is basically low intensity activity to help your body recover faster.

Platforms covered

This series will just be covering the big three’s platforms initially. I do have plans to extend that later to include things like Strava and Training Peaks, but not yet. So this post will cover what we’re talking about so we all have a level of knowledge, and the next will compare the platforms and how they help you to achieve this functionality (or not). The result? You’ll know how to use your device and which vendor does the best job at enabling you in your endeavors. This, hopefully, will illustrate the difference between ticking boxes on feature lists and implementing functionality in a useful and meaningful way. A later post will also be covering the difference between data and information, but I want to get hold of a Polar Vantage before I cover that as right now it’s just not a fair race with an M400. That said, the M400 is probably better in many ways than some more modern devices for information access.

Ad Hoc, Structured, Unstructured

It’s important to differentiate a few terms for this post since functionality differs quite a bit across devices.

Unstructured

These workouts are where you just rock up and go. Literally no structure or planning done, just press go and get on with it. But that’s not the whole story, because you can follow a structured workout with an original John Harrison Chronometer and a sheet of instructions if you like. The difference is whether the watch participates, and the 1772 devices certainly didn’t. Some 2018 devices don’t either, of course. One of my recent unstructured workouts is shown below (pace is blue, HR is red). This was me mucking about on my new treadmill so literally no structure, just button pressing fun.

This graph came from my Strava so as to avoid picking sides early on.

Ad Hoc

An ad hoc workout allows you to decide some parameters to follow, but not to fully structure them. For instance, I could choose to run 5km and the watch will tell me when I hit that goal. This is useful, and some devices go as far as to allow you to say things like 5 repeats of 1km with rests of 2 minutes. This is all done on an as needed basis though rather than planning.

Structured

Fully structured workouts allow you to add phases and repeats, and to plan workouts ahead of time. They also allow you to re-use the same parameters again and again which is very handy. These usually interact with you and give you countdowns and alarms. They often allow coaches to create and distribute them too, or for the watch vendor or a third party to make training plans available online. Shown below is a recent structured workout called “killer k’s”. This includes a warmup and warm down, with 1km repeats, each with a rest after. The watch telling me when it’s go time stops me wussing out halfway and pretending I was always planning to do 3 repeats not 5. We’ve all been there, so don’t kid yourself about how regimented you really are…

Terminology

More terminology to cover here.

Phases are just sections of your workout against which you pin other things. A warmup phase may have a time (5 minutes) and a HR range (warmup/easy/130-150) as well as alarms to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Limits and targets can be set against a phase, often against any metric. These include:

  • Speed – keep between a low and high pace value
  • Cadence – stay within a range of cadences
  • Heart Rate – Stay within a heart rate zone
  • Power – stay inside a power range
  • Distance – go until you reach the goal
  • Time – go until time runs out

Don’t forget that you can use these on rest and recovery not just work phases. You may want to use a target heart rate to decide when you’re rested enough to go again for instance. Limits will have upper and lower values, or just one of those if you want to stay below a certain figure. Targets on the other hand give you something to aim for, like a distance or a time, or sometimes a heart rate and the phase may end when that is reached.

I spoke about alarms in a recent deep dive on the Edge units from Garmin. These will alert you to various bits of information such as HR too high/low, or you’re finished with a repeat, or you have x minutes left. These can be audio, visual (lights or screen text/images) or they can be haptic (vibrations usually).

You’ll have various rules to use too. So these will be keeping within limits, work until target, repeat counts and many more. These are what give you the structure in your structured workout.

Scheduling

The ability to schedule a workout allows you to plan your calendar in advance. This means that you get reminded that today is a run/ride day even if it’s raining. Again, this means you can’t convince yourself that you weren’t planning to run today anyway. Scheduling also allows you to set up programs over several weeks or months, potentially leading up to an event or following a program like the couch to 5k program

On watch, Mobile app, Website

How you configure these can differ between platforms too. Some have great web experiences to fine tune your workout, some have a mobile app that allows you to do the same, and some allow you to enter new workouts directly on the watch. Some also have proper applications you can install to create and edit workouts, although most are moving away from this now. Some also allow you to import from 3rd parties where workouts have already been defined, saving you the effort of manually entering all of that information. There are also instances where manufacturers have tried to monetise this functionality by providing you with workouts for a fee. Given the number of free sources of this info, I would advise against paying. Realistically given the cost of the device I would expect there to be a free set of workouts available on all platforms by now.
Needless to say, the ease of creation and the simplicity of the platform are key here. Entering repeats on a watch is a horrible experience usually, but it’s really useful when you have no other option!

Conclusion

Hopefully that’s set the scene for part two, which will come along soon. I’ll be measuring each platform against the above to see who offers what, and offering an opinion on which are easy, which are hard to use, as well as which are just plain nicer. Nice interfaces make you want to use them more, and that leads to more exercise. Poor interfaces do the opposite, and sometimes even lead you to think functionality is missing when in fact it’s just hard to find and use. I’ve had a Garmin for several years and have only discovered some functions while trying to thoroughly check that they didn’t exist to compare platforms. As far as I’m concerned, if I can’t discover something it may as well not exist.

And now, you can enjoy part two too

8 Comments

  1. Really like your way of thinking – and looking forward to the continuing.
    Its spot on.

    • Thanks for the comment, I’m hoping this set of posts will be useful and think it’s a more useful way of looking at these devices than running through all of the features on one watch at a time 🙂

  2. Great idea. I look forward to reading the rest. I use very often structured workouts on my Garmin 935. I am not worried about scheduling workouts as such. I prepare my workouts on Garmin Connect, send them to the watch, and then select the one I want on the day. I like the comments function to attach a comment to each step to remind me to focus on something in particular or what is coming in the next step. I also appreciate the repetition count (eg. “2/8”) which shows in inverted blocky text at the bottom of the screen – invaluable. I still don’t understand why autolap isn’t automatically disabled during a workout as it used to be, although others seem to think this makes sense. I understand that Polar used to allow sub-intervals within an interval, allowing you to split the data for a particular repetition into sub-parts. This would be a welcome feature on Garmin’s platform. I would like to be able to go back a step within a workout. At the moment if, say, I accidentally hit lap and cut short a step, I have irremediably lost that step and just have to go on with the rest of the workout. Finally, I would like to be able to configure exactly what I see on the screen during the workout. The 935 shows two workout screens, in addition to all my other screens which I do configure, which are fine (and change according to the target I set for that workout eg. HR, pace or power), but ideally I would be able to chose the other fields. And their sizes – during a hard workout, especially in the rain, I want a large font showing the key figures so I can read them at a quick glance. Generally, I think workouts are now very well implemented by Garmin.

  3. Thanks for the article. I am looking forward to the 2nd part. As a semi-couch potato, I don’t have time (and to be honest nor the interest) to learn the science behind improving performance using structured workouts. That means I also have no knowledge on how to create a good workout. I just want my watch to tell me when it is time to exercise and where I need to focus on during that workout (whether I am running, biking, rowing, …). I hope the 2nd part makes it clearer which platform suits my needs.

    • This is part of the problem I describe in the other post on tiredness. If you’re like me and your muscles fail before your cardio none of the platforms can help. In terms of structured workouts, try to find something like the couch to 5k it really helps with motivation and definitely helps reduce excuses to yourself 🙂 Something like the Strava fitness and freshness may also be of interest to you, and I know Polar has a good implementation of this too which allows you to see if you’re improving “fitness” easily. Garmin are less good here as I’ll cover in the upcoming “data vs information” post. They lack accessibility so you’d need to know what the numbers mean to make sense of it all. Suunto I’ve yet to look at from a recovery and fitness point of view, but their watches display things very well indeed.

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