On planning (and adjusting) training schedules using Training Monotony and TRIMP

The 21 day cycle has worked okay for me so far, though the runs have been short due to a rash on my right arm that required I go to Urgent Care for a prescription (the rash is doing better, though the RX as it does has messed with my body a bit), as well as a dinner for my dad’s birthday, and a car issue I had to sort out before smog check ahead of registration renewal.

Basically, life intervened, and I had to patch a reduced schedule this week with work break runs. I’ve back-loaded my strength workouts to Friday and Saturday, and then my 3 day cycle should presumably go back to normal by Monday (which incidentally is the next scheduled quality-run day).

I ended that 21 day cycle post mentioning Training Monotony, and that’s the subject I’ve been focused on the last week or so (when I’ve had time to sit down and review my records and plans).

Training Monotony is a metric devised long ago by Carl Foster that measures how variable your workouts are during a training week or similar period of time. The concept is that the more day to day consistent your workout volume is, the higher your monotony.

High Training Monotony can be a problem in one of two ways. 1) Either you’re doing a lot of hard workouts with insufficient easy days or rest, which is an overtraining or burnout risk. 2) Or you’re doing a lot of easier workouts without a mix of more challenging workouts, which in turn will stagnate or decrease your fitness.

Though poo-poohed by some writers (and I’d imagine given their plan layout that the Hansons have a problem with the monotony concept as well), Training Monotony is worth exploring because honestly most coaches and training plans do shove a lot of volume down your throat that for many will just run you into the ground (and possibly injure you) more than prepare you for your training goals. Elite athletes and teams get around this by being 99th percentile strong and resilient, and/or through covert systematic doping. For most of us, the relentlessly high training volumes most top coaches swear by are largely unsustainable long-term.

Conversely, you can get into a pattern of easily do-able workouts, and eventually stagnate as your body grows accustomed to and ceases to progress within those training habits.

I could provide some basic examples, but Jonathan Savage aka Fellrnr has done a great job of providing some himself, as well as providing a separate illustration of what it measures and is designed to deter.

Basically, the Training Monotony number is the volume of your week’s training divided by the standard deviation of all the days collected in the data sample (standard deviation is a pain to calculate so I just have Excel do it).

You can measure your volume by mileage or rate of perceived exertion. But because Runalyze provides it to me for every kind of fitness activity I do, I’ve been using TRIMP, short for Training Impulse, a measurement of your effort based on the percentage of your max heart rate, and on the number of minutes doing the activity.

For example, a 1 mile easy run for me is worth about 15 TRIMP. A walk during a work break is about 6 TRIMP. A full strength workout is about 10-12 TRIMP, depending on what I’m doing. A 45 minute spin bike session is about 30 TRIMP. In planning a week’s workouts and measuring likely training monotony, I’ve been plugging in TRIMP approximates for the expected activities. If adjusting the schedule in midweek I use the actual TRIMP from completed days.

You want the Training Monotony ratio not to be any higher than 1.50, e.g. your volume divided by the standard deviation needs to be 1.50 or lower. If your volume doesn’t deviate much day over day, you’re going to have an unacceptably higher number like 3.00 or more. If these are all hard workouts, you’re not recovering between them and you’re going to burn out, if not stagnate and see diminished progress. If these are all easy workouts, your fitness is going to stagnate, and certainly won’t improve much. (You would combine monotony with total volume to get a better idea of which side you’re on: For example, if you’re running 1 mile a day, 7 miles a week, you’re probably on the stagnate/unimproved end, and if you’re running 10 miles a day, 70 miles a week, you’re probably on the stagnate/burnout end)

Going a bit over 1.50 isn’t a killer (consensus is it’s above 2.00 that you’ve got a clear problem), but eking over 1.50 is like drinking alcohol when you’ve got health problems: If you can’t outright avoid it, don’t make a habit out of it, and definitely avoid doing it on consecutive weeks.

Conversely, you usually don’t want it to be too low, below 1.00. This can happen if, say, you have multiple long workouts in a week, or too many rest or easy days. Either you’re losing opportunities to improve fitness on the rest days, or the workouts are too long and the training week is not as productive as reducing the daily workout volume and training more often.

Exceptions are understandable and okay for unusual situations, if you just ran a half marathon and took lots of days off to recover afterward, or if you had to take unplanned off days, etc. But as a practice during serious training you want to keep monotony between 1.00 and 1.50.

As the Simplifaster link above would indicate, worrying about Monotony can be seen as much ado about nothing, that it’s an older traditional metric first used with racing horses, and that advances in training have theoretically rendered the concern obsolete.

However, looking back at my prior years’ training (and without getting into a granular breakdown and collection of graph images), I can see that times my training was productive often had more of a 1.30-1.40 monotony, and that training that didn’t pan out often cruised around 1.60-1.80, often exceeding 2.00. I see some loosely correlative evidence in my own training that worrying about it, at least in my case, can have some merit.

Someday I’ll probably write a granular breakdown post with all those old tables, graphs and images. It’s just not going to be now. However, I’ll show a sample of what I do now to plan training and keep Monotony at a proper level. This is using the Electric Blues “Daniels Tables” Excel spreadsheet, which has a section to enter in training volume, and shows percentage breakdowns by workout type.

A sample week of training using TRIMP values, entered in the Electric Blues spreadsheet, with Training Monotony measured in the bottom right.

I’ve been entering in TRIMP values for planned workouts in a given week, and also entered in an equation in the bottom right corner to quickly measure the Monotony for that week. I can immediately see if the Monotony goes under 1.00 or over 1.50 after making a speculative entry.

While a side topic, I do try to maintain 80/20 training principles, so you’ll notice the easier Recovery & Aerobic training is around low 80’s%. Harder training at this point is any intense running (not just zone 3 and above… harder zone 2 counts right now as I work back into regular running shape), and any strength training (the 10’s in the sample are strength workouts). ‘Aerobic Zone’ I use for easier zone 1-2 runs and cross training like the spin bike, elliptical or ARC Trainer. Warmup/Recovery I mostly use for walking, which does count and registers TRIMP scores that are part of my volume.

Back to the main point… I’ll not only plan weeks ahead but put the current week’s completed volume in and compare it with my remaining schedule to make sure the Monotony stays on track, or if I need to make an adjustment. The sample above is the current week and I’ve had to make several adjustments to the remaining schedule, since as mentioned earlier this has been an unusual week with multiple distractions. Friday was supposed to be heavier, and the strength workout that day was originally scheduled for Wednesday. As I rearrange the schedule, I make other adjustments to re-balance the monotony.

One thing quickly noticed in doing this is that, the longer the long workout is, the lower the training monotony goes (since a harder long workout increases the standard deviation). While helpful, its usefulness is obviously limited by how long and intense of a workout you can do there. For example, it doesn’t do good to plan 150 TRIMP worth of training if doing 80 is currently a herculean task. Fortunately, I just did about 200 TRIMP in a 2 hour 45 minute hour workout (a 45 minute run and 2 hours on the spin bike), so in this case I know the 105 TRIMP long workout in the sample above is well within reach (which for me is either about 7 easy running miles or 5ish tempo or interval miles).

I also notice that if you add any volume to longer (but not the longest) training days, it reduces the increase in Training Monotony over if you put it in an empty or lighter day.

It also creates a monotony problem if you have to shorten that long workout, since the deviation can decrease and the monotony could surge to a bad level. This can be averted by just cancelling the workout, though of course long workouts are important.

If measuring by TRIMP, a long workout being cut short because it’s TOO hard could actually even things out, if the end result is an average heart rate so high the shortened workout produces the same TRIMP (maybe if pressed for time you can turn a long run into a shorter tempo or interval run that results in the same TRIMP).

All of this is infancy-stage experimentation and research for me right now, and the goal is to create sustainable consistent 21 day cycles, not to mention training weeks, that are better repeatable than some of the training approaches and plans I’ve previously struggled with.

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