David Howatson |

The art of fitness programming

Wondering how to create an effective training programme? David Howatson shares some key insights to help you achieve your fitness goals

Fitness programming, put simply, is all about building a road map towards a goal. Coaches use the principles of periodisation when creating this map – a way of breaking up a long period of training into smaller, more digestible chunks. There are many styles and approaches which can be used, but the key to any programme is that it must be based on the needs of the individual.

Starting points

The first port of call is setting and understanding your goals. Having an event or competition to work towards makes planning much easier. If we are self-programming without the help of a professional, then having that end goal becomes even more important. A quantifiable goal is a must – winning a medal at an event, surpassing a season’s best time, or gaining a place on the team by X date. Nailing down a target gives us a picture of what success looks like, anything arbitrary is too difficult to measure.

Once those goals have been set out, the second step is testing. Coaches will have their go-to tests for aerobic capacity, function, and strength but those three categories must always be measured in some way. Pre-programme testing provides a baseline from which we can retest further down the line to guage improvement.

When self-programming, tests could be as simple as noting your heart rate every minute during a steady paced 2,000m row. A functional test could be a basic lunge, looking at how well you complete the action. Strength tests could be based on the force produced during a stroke or load achieved in a squat. How often we test is based on the length of the programme, but common practice is monthly or every eight weeks depending on the type of test.

Too often there is a tendency to look for a quick fix, but you do not need to be smashed in every session!

Session to session basics

The next stage is to consider the nuts and bolts of the programme:

  • Number of sessions per week
  • The duration of the sessions
  • Times, distances, sets/rep ranges
  • Exercises
  • Available tools
  • Nutrition
  • Challenges/secondary goals
  • Retesting schedule

All the above is geared towards finding the smallest meaningful change in each session. That could be just a slight tweak in technique or nutrition. Too often there is a tendency to look for a quick fix, but you do not need to be smashed in every session! Progressing by a small percentage on distance or heart rate recovery is where the magic lies. And no matter what the sport or activity, every session should involve the same fundamentals:

  • Movement preparation/Dynamic warm-up
  • Strength development
  • Energy system development
  • Recovery

Energy system development is about working the body at the correct intensity relative to the goal. When rowing for endurance, for example, we may favour a higher number of long-distance sessions to work on the aerobic system rather than shorter high-intensity workouts. Getting that blend of activities right is where effective programming comes into its own.

Long term tips

The best programmes are those which are malleable. A good coach will always have contingency plans for sudden improvements or setbacks. If you are following a generic programme from a book or website and you miss a session because the dog had to go to the vet… don’t panic – you can make up the time and still stick to the aim or theme of the programme.

An often repeated mistake is to ‘mix things up’ due to perceived boredom or a lack of progress. Great programmes negate that need by factoring in opportunities for those small successes, meaning we get a regular win in our planned sessions.

The coach or programme creator is ultimately responsible for setting a path to success from the start. If the initial tests are too difficult or unattainable targets set, then we begin with failure. An effective programme will provide just enough stress to make the body adapt positively. Most sessions should be right at the edge of our comfort zone and, when needed, push beyond it.

Self-programming is tricky, knowing when to taper off the intensity and frequency of sessions before an event may not be your strong suit. Training without any plan at all is an even bigger gamble. Following an effective programme undoubtedly means that you are more likely to achieve your goal.