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System Based Training: A New Lens for Viewing Distance Training

Published by Alan Versaw Dec 29, 2015

Hannah McReavy is one athlete who is convinced of the efficacy of Systems Based Training, and she has performances to back up her belief.

If you haven't yet heard of System Based Training, chances are you would have soon enough even without reading this article.

Like a lot of the rest of you, though, I'm trying to make sense of what I'm hearing and am using this article as an opportunity to put some information out on the table. As a disclaimer, neither I nor MileSplit endorse System Based Training.

System Based Training is the brainchild of physiologist Shannon Grady of Go Athletics! The operation has numerous clients at various levels in the sports of swimming, triathlon, track and field, and several others.

The basic idea behind System Based Training is to tailor athlete workouts to athletes' needs as determined by physiological profile produced by a testing protocol each 10 - 12 weeks. And, SBT testing methodologies are now in use with "several dozen" individuals (not exclusively high school distance runners) in our state, according to Deb Hellman, the SBT regional representative for Colorado.

If Hellman's name sounds somehow familiar, she does double duty as the head cross country and track coach at St. Mary's High School in Colorado Springs.

And that fact provides us a convenient springboard into the discussion of what impact System Based Training is beginning to have here in Colorado. If you are putting pieces together quickly, you may have already guessed that Hannah McReavy (4th in 3A Girls at State this fall) has been training under the SBT model. 

Collegiate programs using the SBT model--at least as indentified by the scrolling logos of clients on the SBT website--include Duke and Boise State.

In any case, for McReavy and eight other members of the St. Mary's team as well--2015 was the first cross country season under the SBT banner. Truthfully, it seems a little too early to assess the results in anything but very preliminary fashion. McReavy did go from 11th at State in 2014 to 4th in 2015, leapfrogging several accomplished veterans along the way, and that with a couple of high-powered freshmen moving into the 3A ranks in 2015. That, certainly, is one positive indicator. 

Results for the rest of the team, however, fall more under the category of mixed signals. And, that's not entirely unexpected for a first year under a program (actually, a first cycle under the program). It's also fair to say that McReavy came into the fall season most prepared to take advantage of the specifics of the prescribed SBT training model--a status she would have likely held with any training model.

So, we will leave the arena of evaluation by suggesting the results to-date are at least moderately suggestive (and perhaps more so for the most dedicated participants in the program, not that anyone who has been coaching for any length of time would be taken aback by that observation), but that the jury is still out.

It's time now to offer a closer look at the premises of the program.

Grady's System Based Training proposes to measure an athlete's current physiological functioning in each of eight different energy systems based on a Physiological Profile Test adminstered, ideally, each 10-12 weeks. From the results of that system, a complete training model is built for the next cycle with recommended guidelines on heart rate, volume, and pacing. The system proposes to take the guesswork out of distance training and help to eliminate ineffective training stimuli.

The testing protocol is fairly simple, though physically demanding, for the distance athlete. The athlete runs an indefinite set of progressively faster 800s, beginning at a very moderate pace determined by the athlete's performances leading up to the test, until failure. After each 800, a heart rate (using an unobtrusive wristband heart monitor) and a fingerprick blood draw are taken. Once the blood lactate level is successfully measured, the athlete is sent along his/her way on the next 800, at about 10 seconds faster than the last one. 

For most reasonably fit athletes, the Physiological Profile Test ends at somewhere between six and eight 800s. Less trained athletes likely won't get that far. 

Then, the magic of the system begins. The 800 times, heart rates, and blood lactate levels are processed through an algorithm that yields athlete fitness scores on each of eight different energy systems, ranging from strictly anaerobic to strictly aerobic--at either end of the spectrum. 

From these fitness scores, a training regimen is prescribed that addresses the deficiencies of fitness observed. And that becomes the recommended training plan for the next 10-12 weeks until another Physiological Profile Test is administered.

One major advantage of the program Hellman is anxious to talk about is a targeted training program that leaves the athlete less fatigued and beat up. She cites a "significant benefit to adopting the SBT program was that we were able to do substantially less volume than we have done in the past, which translated to less overall fatigue, and a much reduced rate of injury across the board."

On a chilly afternoon in early November, I was able to observe a Hannah McReavy's second Physiological Profile Test under the program. It was from that session that the photos illustrating this article were taken.

And, I had the opportunity to ask McReavy a few questions about her experiences with the testing and with the program.

McReavy echoed Hellman's assessment of reduced fatigue and pounding, "The major difference in training is less miles and shorter runs at a specific heart rate, along with continuous track workouts with certain times... A lot of the time the workouts feel easy, and I don't come home as exhausted as expected. The progress I have noticed within myself is that I do not feel as tired when I am running at a fast pace whether it be on the track or during a long run."

McReavy also noted that the first testing session was something of an ordeal but that, by the second time, "I felt much stronger, and the amount of lactic acid buildup was much less than before. So overall I would consider the testing tolerable and not too bad."

And, count McReavy as one who is convinced the program works, "When I was first introduced to the SBT, I was very interested based off of the results of people who had been following the system. When I was told that the training would be a lot less distance and slower pacing, I was a little worried that it would not work... I questioned its ability to bring me to my potential, but eventually I started to feel my progress and I now fully believe in the system and what it can do."

There is, of course, a financial outlay associated with coming on board with the program. That's how things in this world work. And, it's for those interested in the program and what it purports to provide to weigh the costs and benefits of getting in line.

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