Training the Masters Athlete: Accumulation and Variation
Principles of Accumulation and Variation
The US Open may be pro golf’s sternest test. One of the great quotations about the Open came from Jack Nicklaus, who said, “You can't win the Open on Thursday and Friday, but you can lose it." So also with the Principle of Accumulation in training. One workout will not make the athlete, but one workout can break the athlete.
The point of the Principle of Accumulation is simply that it is the entirety of training that accomplishes the ultimate goal. That’s why it is not usually a good idea to press too far past the training session’s objectives. I know that there are some days when I feel like I could hit 200 meter repeats for another half hour. Maybe I could. But when, three days down the line, the accumulation of work over that half week leaves me needing more recovery time than I have scheduled? Then what have I accomplished?
For the Masters athlete this is especially important. Accumulation also relates to the amount of wear and tear we have placed on our bodies over the course of a career. I have friends with shoulders that have never really recovered from the injury of ten years ago, and others whose knees have absorbed enough punishment already. It makes no sense at all to ignore this in setting up their training. Don’t pretend that you’re young. You’re not. And because you’re not, you have to train smarter.
You cannot cheat the Principle of Accumulation. But what you can do is to use it to your advantage. View your progress in increments, even if they are so small that you sigh in frustration. Don’t let the enthusiasm of a day with no pains tempt you into doing two or three times the workout you need. If you make a plan that keeps an eye on accumulation over a period of time (macrocycle, mesocycle), you’ll find you’re healthy longer, able to put in the right amount of work over a period of time.
The Principle of Variation, on the other hand, posits that good progress will be stalled, even incrementally, without a variation in the stress demands you place on your body during training. This arises in discussions of periodization, or training in phases. Minor changes in the various training variables have been proved in the research to stimulate consistent gains in fitness, performance, and skill levels over time.
There are several ways you can employ variation in your training cycle.
You can change the volume of work. Generally, for instance, my track volume will be below 1600 meters per session, but a week with, say, 3000 meters per session, performed at a lesser intensity, could improve VO2 Max.
You can change the intensity of work. Using the same example, if I decrease the volume to 1000 meters per workout, but run at 90% intensity instead of 80%, I experience a new variation of stress.
You can change the frequency of work. When I complete my track cycle and return to peaking for powerlifting, I will change my frequency in the gym from two days a week to three or four.
You can change the content of the session. I have natural variation during track season because, as a multi-event athlete, I have to throw and jump as well as run. I might have a workout that has some speed endurance work scheduled after a throwing session.
You can change the environment of the session. One of my favorite switch ups is to leave the track, and find a 40-meter hill. There’s nothing like burning the lungs and legs up a steep hill to make you long for a flat track!
It’s important to build variation into your training cycle, but it’s also important to know that variation for its own sake won’t increase your performance. I know lots of folks who vary their running with another activity, like swimming. That will help your head, to be sure, and it may rest your muscles. But it will not make you a better runner (though it should make you a better triathlete). Ideally, the Principle of Variation will always work at a level of sport specific improvement. If I’m trying to be faster, my variations will be aimed at making me faster. If I’m trying to get stronger in my lifts, my variations will be about that goal.
After all, I’m not trying to win the US Open on Thursday. But I intend to make it very interesting on Sunday.