The entertaining principle of Variation

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    The principle of variation is one of those immoveable tenants of training. None

    The principle of variation is one of those immoveable tenants of training. It is the basis of the principle of overload, the premise that little progressive changes in your regime will give you better gains in performance. This goes for virtually every sport. The principle maintains that a constant adaptation and changes in intensity, volume and time of the workout will prevent the stagnation of performance gains or increase performance gains faster than a repetition of the same workout. Thus by overloading the body in different ways, you constantly force the adaptations and therefore increase sports performance. So what does all that mean in English?

    The principle of variation states that

    “After a period of training the body adapts to the demands made on it. If the training continues without variation then the body will cease to adapt and it will in fact become stale” (Hennessy, 2010).

    Gambetta (Gambetta, 2007) wrote that the body’s response to the stress of training is fairly predictable and is characterised by rapid gains followed by a levelling off, which becomes a stabilisation phase. At the end of this the body is much less responsive to the same training impulses and won’t adapt as readily. The goal of the coach is to continue the positive adaptations and not allow the athlete to become ‘stale’ or slide into overtraining syndrome. Stale in this context is the athlete’s gains are minimal or the athlete mentally loses interest in training or loses focus due to the monotony of the training.

    In the case of the Ultra marathon athlete, if the athlete constantly trains at a slow steady pace, they will not be training the muscle fibres that are required to complete in a fast middle distance event (Noakes, 2001). So with that we can assume that running long slow distance may give you the stamina to run an ultra marathon but you won’t be able to run it fast or be competitive for that matter. And my definition of an athlete is the constant striving to be better, faster, and stronger and run for longer.

    One of the best known tools for variation is periodisation, or a training program broken down into phases or cycles (macrocycles, microcycles etc). Periodisation is a whole new topic for another time but it is typically a yearly program including speed, sports specific and conditioning workouts in phases or periods. It can also be broken down in to off season and in season etc.

    Some fitness schools take the principle of variation to the extreme. Crossfit (when you look at it very simplistically) is all variation. So how much variation does one need in their workouts? When it comes to running the aim, no matter what distance you run from the 100 metres to Ultra marathons, is to get faster and stronger over your desired distance. Quite a lot of training programs entail a number of workouts that repeat over the program. While this is not variation in its pure form, it enables the athlete to benchmark the progression. For example a road runner doing a monthly 5km all out effort on a set course or race. This means the athlete or coach is able to compare like with like.

    Those opponents of the principle of variation state that you just need your staple workouts and then you just need to train harder each time. But that in itself is variation, doing more or faster with the same resources available to you. So while we can generally agree that doing the same workout, over and over will not progress your performance, a certain repetition of key workouts is desirable both to benchmark improvements in fitness as well as the motivation boost one receives from visibly doing better over a set workout.

    So how best can you use variation in your training? You should have a plan. Preferably it should be an annual plan that is laid out in phases such as competitive, recovery and base periods. And each will have its own emphasis. Planning recovery is just as important as planning key workouts. Build the periods into a peak, such as your main race of the season. If for example your goal is a marathon then you plan a half marathon or two into the training in the build up to the main event. You use these second tier events for specific purposes in relation to your goal event.

    Plan each microcycle (week to 10 days) so that high intensity sessions don’t clash. This means planning your recovery on a micro level. In our anthology for the marathon runner, you shouldn’t follow a day of speed work with a long distance or technical session. This means ‘juggling’ distance with speed with length (time) and recovery. You should also plan your cross training or weights in conjunction with the overall goal of the cycle. A recovery microcycle for my athletes rarely includes heavy or explosive weight sessions in the gym. I usually adjust the exercises, repetitions and volume accordingly.

    My final word of caution on the principle of variation is just because you have a plan, you shouldn’t stick rigorously to it. Be aware of the symptoms of overtraining and immediately change your planned workouts by reducing the amount of overload and increasing recovery. The earlier you rectify this the faster you can get back to training for performance.
     

    The principle of variation is one of those immoveable tenants of training. It is the basis of the principle of overload, the premise that little progressive changes in your regime will give you better gains in performance. This goes for virtually every sport. The principle maintains that a constant adaptation and changes in intensity, volume and time of the workout will prevent the stagnation of performance gains or increase performance gains faster than a repetition of the same workout. Thus by overloading the body in different ways, you constantly force the adaptations and therefore increase sports performance. So what does all that mean in English?

    The principle of variation states that

    “After a period of training the body adapts to the demands made on it. If the training continues without variation then the body will cease to adapt and it will in fact become stale” (Hennessy, 2010).

    Gambetta (Gambetta, 2007) wrote that the body’s response to the stress of training is fairly predictable and is characterised by rapid gains followed by a levelling off, which becomes a stabilisation phase. At the end of this the body is much less responsive to the same training impulses and won’t adapt as readily. The goal of the coach is to continue the positive adaptations and not allow the athlete to become ‘stale’ or slide into overtraining syndrome. Stale in this context is the athlete’s gains are minimal or the athlete mentally loses interest in training or loses focus due to the monotony of the training.

    In the case of the Ultra marathon athlete, if the athlete constantly trains at a slow steady pace, they will not be training the muscle fibres that are required to complete in a fast middle distance event (Noakes, 2001). So with that we can assume that running long slow distance may give you the stamina to run an ultra marathon but you won’t be able to run it fast or be competitive for that matter. And my definition of an athlete is the constant striving to be better, faster, and stronger and run for longer.

    One of the best known tools for variation is periodisation, or a training program broken down into phases or cycles (macrocycles, microcycles etc). Periodisation is a whole new topic for another time but it is typically a yearly program including speed, sports specific and conditioning workouts in phases or periods. It can also be broken down in to off season and in season etc.

    Some fitness schools take the principle of variation to the extreme. Crossfit (when you look at it very simplistically) is all variation. So how much variation does one need in their workouts? When it comes to running the aim, no matter what distance you run from the 100 metres to Ultra marathons, is to get faster and stronger over your desired distance. Quite a lot of training programs entail a number of workouts that repeat over the program. While this is not variation in its pure form, it enables the athlete to benchmark the progression. For example a road runner doing a monthly 5km all out effort on a set course or race. This means the athlete or coach is able to compare like with like.

    Those opponents of the principle of variation state that you just need your staple workouts and then you just need to train harder each time. But that in itself is variation, doing more or faster with the same resources available to you. So while we can generally agree that doing the same workout, over and over will not progress your performance, a certain repetition of key workouts is desirable both to benchmark improvements in fitness as well as the motivation boost one receives from visibly doing better over a set workout.

    So how best can you use variation in your training? You should have a plan. Preferably it should be an annual plan that is laid out in phases such as competitive, recovery and base periods. And each will have its own emphasis. Planning recovery is just as important as planning key workouts. Build the periods into a peak, such as your main race of the season. If for example your goal is a marathon then you plan a half marathon or two into the training in the build up to the main event. You use these second tier events for specific purposes in relation to your goal event.

    Plan each microcycle (week to 10 days) so that high intensity sessions don’t clash. This means planning your recovery on a micro level. In our anthology for the marathon runner, you shouldn’t follow a day of speed work with a long distance or technical session. This means ‘juggling’ distance with speed with length (time) and recovery. You should also plan your cross training or weights in conjunction with the overall goal of the cycle. A recovery microcycle for my athletes rarely includes heavy or explosive weight sessions in the gym. I usually adjust the exercises, repetitions and volume accordingly.

    My final word of caution on the principle of variation is just because you have a plan, you shouldn’t stick rigorously to it. Be aware of the symptoms of overtraining and immediately change your planned workouts by reducing the amount of overload and increasing recovery. The earlier you rectify this the faster you can get back to training for performance.