5 ways to take a more scientific approach to coaching

If you’re a coach or a personal trainer, chances are you’ve taken an exercise physiology course, or at least basic biology. Remember week one when you went over the scientific method and the difference between dependent and independent variables? Maybe you skipped that day to go for a training run…

But remember, everything we know about exercise was at one point the result of scientific research. And that science is what you actually base your coaching on. So how can you take a more scientific approach to help both you and your athletes accomplish your goals?

  1. Have a purpose. Everyone wants a podium spot, a hard-bod, or a new personal best; but no two athletes will have the exact same path to get there. This may seem pretty obvious, but the importance of the individuality principle cannot be overstated. Each athlete you coach can be seen as a single scientific experiment: you are trying to find the most effective training program to get him or her to reach a specific goal. And in order to find that training path, you must define the goal. You must have a hypothesis, or a purpose.

It’s probably helpful to record your purpose for each athlete: “The purpose of this training program is to… improve your 10k PR by 15 seconds,” or “lose 3% body fat,” or, “feel healthy, happy, and confident.”

Why should you have a specific goal or purpose? So you know exactly what you should be looking for! Improvements in performance seem pretty straightforward, but if your client wants to be healthy, happy, and confident, how do you measure that? And how do you make a specific plan? You could just do the same training plan for each client or athlete, but in order to get the best plan, you should…

  1. Review the evidence: if you really want to give each athlete the absolute best advice you can, don’t depend entirely on past experiences. Don’t just take another coach’s word or, even worse, put your trust into the blogosphere (except this one of course). Spend a little time doing research. You could dust off your old physiology textbook, or, since you’re already on a computer, type your topic, purpose, or question into Google Scholaror pubmed.

To improve the 10k time: “Determinants of endurance performance.” You knew aerobic fitness was important, but what’s this about movement economy, how can we improve that? And how does an occasional high intensity “anaerobic” workout improve endurance? As you practice breaking down the research, you’ll get a more comprehensive understanding of training programs, principles, and adaptations, and how you can apply them to each individual athlete.

If you don’t want to collect the resources yourself, check out some of the more trusted resources: start with ACSM (https://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/search-by-topic) or the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/exerciseandphysicalfitness.html). These objective, evidence-based recommendations usually aren’t the first results in your Google search.Once you have a better idea of the research, the next step is to…

  1. Make a plan. This is where all your knowledge and experience really pays off. Just make sure your plan matches your purpose. How do you know if that’s the case?
  1. Record and track your athlete’s data. At one time this was the most difficult, and probably least performed aspect of coaching. Now it’s the easiest part. Whether it’s heart rate numbers, miles cycled, weight lifted, or subjective qualitative feedback, you’ll get a ton of great data from your Addaero app.

And by recording your own data on each individual athlete, you can…

  1. Draw your own conclusions! This is probably the best part: you don’t have to just believe what you read online or heard from another coach. You can compare your results with your earlier research. Did you confirm what’s already been published? Maybe you found a better way.

You know, based on your own evidence, that your plan either worked or didn’t. You know whether or not you reached your goal.

It may be an easy yes or no answer, but probably not; coaching is never an exact science. For instance, your 10k athlete may have improved her fitness by 15%, but her time only improved 10 seconds. What could you have done differently? What else could you measure?

Even more importantly, you know what to do (or not to do) in the future! This is how you get better as a coach. This is how your athletes continue to improve: with your purpose, your plan, and the data to match, your scientific approach will give you the tools you need to train better.

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Author – Kevin Fasing is an Exercise Physiologist in Denver CO. An athlete, coach, scientist, and avid dog-walker and bike commuter, he believes everyone can train better through personal data collection and the information to interpret it.

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