Individualising the programme (Part I)

square peg

How we individualise the training program is everything! At times we do NEED general training but individualising will make the difference. This makes complete sense to me and actually seems common-sense; yet as a good mate of mine often says, common-sense isn’t that common. I was re-listening to a recent podcast (CVA Sports Performance) featuring Dutch Sprint Coach, Henk Kraaijenhof, where he discusses individual differences amongst athletes. His underlying coaching pedagogy is to really understand each athlete and not to cookie cutter the program because it’s easier for the coach. Fit the athlete to the program, not the program to the athlete. It’s like the square peg, round hole analogy.

To achieve the above outcome is not as easy as it sounds (although I don’t think it sounds easy anyway!) Logistically, this can often be difficult to achieve depending on the dynamics of the sport, event, squad or team numbers. But in the end, I would say it is pretty much essential to ultimately achieving success with each athlete. You only have to look at how far pro teams have progressed with measurement tools such as GPS, HRV, Wellness, Muscle Soreness and Blood analysis, where they try to paint a more accurate picture for the athlete and coaches of what is happening at the external and internal levels. But what can we do at the sub elite level?

I am just finishing up my third season of coaching track and I’m learning more and more about the athletes I work with all the time. My own philosophies around training, programming and racing has changed during this time but within the past 12 mths I’ve placed a much greater focus on just creating a more conducive environment for my athletes to achieve peak performance and trying to work out what works for them. This is the most a coach can strive for; no more, no less. If athletes are in the right environment and doing the right training (this could mean many things) then the performance should somewhat materialise; regardless of the sport.

Below are my thoughts on how to individualise the program and as Henk says fit the athlete to the program.

Fibre Type

Try and establish the dominant fibre type of the athlete(s) you work with. This can often be very obvious from the sports they have come from, or workouts they excel or perform poorly in, but it’s a great indicator of recoverability. We know the fast twitch (FT) athletes will be explosive etc; but more importantly, these same athletes are going to need greater recovery time than those loaded with slow twitch (ST) fibres or a balanced mix of FT & ST. Repeatedly hitting FT dominant athletes with intensity will only further delay recovery and likely send them towards a state of overreaching/overtraining. From my experience training track guys, it will be the difference between hitting them with a capacity based workout versus a power based workout; depending on the athlete, one of them is likely going to have a profound physiological effect on the system(s), while the other will allow them to spit out a decent session 24-36hrs later.

Sport Analysis

Train the athlete(s) for the demands of their event, sport or position. This can be hard at the semi-pro level in team sports where logistics determine the priority, but where possible, direct the energies towards the demands required. Remember the principle, SAID, Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands, this should be at the forefront of all coaches minds. If you frequently expose your athletes to the stimulus, expect to see the body adapt and change; so you better hope it is changing for the better. See the recent Conor McGregor frenzy in the UFC; watch below (actually pretty funny exchange – NSFW), as Nate Diaz describes how McGregor is (paraphrased) doing too much stuff in the park with the dork in the ponytail and not enough sparring? I have no idea how much sparring he was doing but his movement exploration definitely got people questioning the methods, the specific nature of the task and ultimately the transfer to the task.  In combat sports it’s simple; prepare to hit and get hit. In track, you won’t make the Olympic final doing reps at 9m/s. It doesn’t have to be every day of the week, but specificity is King. As Vern Gambetta says, don’t replicate the event outside the event, but make specific adaptations occur due to the intuitive way you constrain the task.


Key Performance Indicators are one of Dan Pfaff’s (and others of course) ingredients to success; and something he frequently discusses in interviews and podcasts. Without using his words: study the event; analyse the demands; find the commonalities between the best… these should be on your list of KPIs. In the track world and specific to the 100m sprint, the KPIs are going to include: block setup- drive phase (see below), acceleration pattern, transition phase, limb positions, technical postures, contacts etc. He also talks about Key Performance Inhibitors; those that detract from performance; from above: high heel clearance from the blocks, plantar flexion, energy leaks on contact, too much frequency, overstriding etc. All sports/positions and the athletes themselves are going to have various indicators and inhibitors which will lead to either peak or sub-par performance. The coach (and the athlete) must do the utmost to focus on the indicators and direct all available energies into an environment which is conducive to achieve these.

common sprint


Transfer of Training is THE philosophy (and text – see below) behind one of the greatest track and field coaches of all time, Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Without going too deep on Bondarchuk, he established an exercise classification for this throwers, and through the specific event or training results, would monitor which exercises had the biggest transfer to the result; then eliminate or direct the training focus to what caused (most likely) the result. He did this by effectively keeping the training streamlined, and allowing few variables to influence the result. This can be applied to all sports, whether individual or team. I guess it’s a little like the Pareto Principle but with quantification to the event. Don’t waste your time at training doing things which might help your athletes… You need some longitudinal data, but you should be able work it out. Whether it is the training frequency-volume-density-type-intensity-exercises-design; try and establish which variable is going to give you the best transfer to high performance, or best Return on Investment (ROI).



Coaches should attempt to individualise the program to play to the athlete’s strengths; rather than trying to solely address the weakness(es). The strength is what makes the athlete good at what they do; and what the coach selects the player to do extremely well for the team. Every coach wants a more complete player but ultimately they are a professional for doing one or two things to an extremely high level. See Steph Curry and Klay Thompson; known exclusively for their outside shooting abilities (well until the past 18mths for Steph anyway – now he’s just a freak in most areas). The strengths of James Harden and Russell Westbrook is scoring; their alarming weakness is defense (see Harden defensive ‘highlights’ below). This is well known if you follow the NBA. Will it make them a better player if they focus a majority of their time on their defensive abilities? Of course. But, by placing less emphasis on what they are being paid millions of dollars for, will likely have a counter-productive effect on the team’s W-L record. The late Charlie Francis also subscribed to this theory. There’s several accounts on his forum about aiming to get BJ to accelerate as deep into the race as possible and maintain, rather than trying to address his finish by running rep 3s and 4s at non-specific race velocities.

We know that all athletes need to train in a ‘general’ nature at various times throughout the season or year, but there will come a time, where possible,  we want to individualise the programme to maximise athlete success!

I’ve got a few more things to add to this post so this may be Part 1… Stay tuned


One thought on “Individualising the programme (Part I)

  1. Great article, thank you. Would love to hear your thoughts on strength training for mid distance & distance runners. Looking forward to the next installment.


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