Planning a new season starts with dreaming up new goals that motivate and guide training. These goals set a target that helps orient all the decisions on what, and when, you’ll do different components of your training. The critical path method is a powerful way of organizing all these decisions when planning a season.
The critical path method is a system crucial in project management. This method outlines how to schedule the activities required to finish a project. Steps in the critical path method (CPM) include:
- Defining a list of jobs or deliverables that, when completed, result in accomplishing the project.
- Determining which jobs are dependent on one another and when they can be started or completed.
- Deciding the most efficient order to complete the list of jobs or deliverables and identifying an end date for the project.
To apply this methodology when organizing a race season, start by making a list of the qualities/training deliverables required, determining which are dependent on each other, and laying out a timeline in which they are executed. This is training periodization in a nutshell, broken down into a rational decision-making model.
The first step in a season’s critical path analysis is to outline all the steps required to achieve a deliverable. For example, if an athlete wants to have a faster half-distance bike split, the deliverables identified could include:
- A more aerodynamic position
- Higher critical power
- Better execution of nutritional needs
- Faster equipment
- Better swim fitness to ride faster
There are many different iterations of this list, depending on an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. It is important to get this basic list of deliverables right. Applying the wrong stimulus will result in a lack of improvement so putting thought in what is really needed is key in choosing a direction. This is where self-coached athletes need good self-awareness and perspective, and coaches need a solid history and knowledge of the athlete they are coaching. Knowing what is required is critically important.
Considering this hypothetical list, the next step would be to see which of these deliverables depend on another, and identify if there is anything else not on this list that one of these deliverables is dependent on. If we take “more aerodynamic position” then this would be dependent on the following:
- A better bike fit
- Improved mobility
- More comfortable saddle
- Better fitting helmet
Mobility is not on the first draft of training deliverables, so it must be added since the aerodynamic position may not be achieved without it. Things like a new saddle should be implemented as soon as possible as equipment like this affects training comfort and position immediately. These deliverables are important details in the critical path.
Deciding Order of Execution
The next step is prioritizing these deliverables, putting them in an order of operation, and respecting those which depend on one another.
Continuing with this example, a potential critical path to a better half-distance bike split could be:
- Build in nutritional practice in bike workouts
- Increase swim threshold training and incorporate workouts on the bike out of a harder swim.
- Immediately implement a mobility regime focused on hamstring flexibility.
- Acquire any new equipment affecting their position (items including bike, seat, pedals and handlebars.)
- Get fitted for position optimization/adjustment.
- Focus on threshold improvement riding in the new aerodynamic position.
If faster equipment is required, determining whether it comes before any position changes can affect decision making. Obtaining a new bike means the bike fit and the bike should be scheduled early. If the equipment is simply wheels or a helmet, potentially that can come later as it won’t affect training significantly and can create improvement immediately. Using the example of hamstring mobility, potentially the bike fit needs to be scheduled later, creating time for greater mobility to be in place before any changes to the athlete’s bike position. All of these decisions are based on the unique needs of the athlete and the identified deliverables influencing their ability to accomplish the goal.
Critical Path Decisions
There are multiple correct decisions when tackling complex problems like this. In this example, how much time and how many workouts are designated for each desired item on the list of deliverables varies. Time is the main constraint. How quickly an athlete can acquire the quality and the date of the goal race factor in when organizing and choosing how to organize the plan. This explains why there are many variable but equally successful solutions in training design.
Some critical path decisions are made based on practicality. Swimming in the winter months in Canada is easier to prioritise because unpredictable weather makes the predictability of indoor swimming practical. Training does not always need to be running uphill, literally, in a snowstorm. There is often a variety of options available so choosing the easiest way to execute is sometimes the best choice.
The CPM can be used in planning training with a broader view of overall development, in a time span of weeks, months and years. Some qualities take years to fully consolidate, so an athlete looking to be an Olympic champion might be doing things years before that event that influence their ability to compete on that stage. Using a wider lens to view development is powerful in building confidence in the process and patience with your own improvement.
As a coach, the most common mistake I see athletes make is comparing themselves to other athletes and other athlete’s training programs. If you decide on a direction with your coach, it is important to trust that process and direction. It is easy to get distracted and lose confidence in what you are doing. The critical path model of season management helps define a path and take decision making out of what to do next. If you lose confidence in that path, it makes sense revisiting the plan and resetting the course. What does not make sense is not following the plan and expecting to arrive at the intended destination.
Commitment to Execution
Determining the critical path for a goal starts with defining the deliverables, laying out the order of execution, and creating a measurable timeline relative to the date of the performance. This organizes, prioritizes, and simplifies all the training deliverables required to reach your goal. Sticking to the critical path is the optimal way to stay grounded in the task at hand, methodically improving one day at a time.
Melanie McQuaid’s personal coaching business MelRad Coaching is at www.melrad.com. She is a three-time Xterra and two-time ITU Multisport world champion who recently finished fifth at Ironman Lake Placid and third at IM Wisconsin at 49 years old.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 2022 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.