When coaching any sport for performance we need to be looking at the specific elements of fitness and any other specific factors that might effect performance. We then need to make sure we are building these specific factors into the training program.
When it comes to specificity timing is everything, we do not want to be looking at specific work all year round as the focus on this always sees a decline in general fitness. We also see that once specific work starts in any program that the body adapts very quickly to any change and within a short period of time we stop seeing any noticeable improvements.
For example if you are racing on a hilly bike course then we would need to be looking at incorporating hills and technical descent training into the program. Riding hills simply asks the muscles to contract in a different pattern to when we ride on the flat and also we will ride at a different cadence we need to make sure that we are used this on race day or else we will fatigue quickly and not perform to our best. If we watch events like the Tour de France we see the riders really suffer when they leave the flat riding of the opening week and head into the hills – they need a day or 2 to find their climbing legs – these riders will have prepared in the hills before the race but so many hours of flat riding in the opening week of the race sees the legs get used to this pattern of riding and its a shock to their legs when they suddenly face the demand of climbing.
Using the above example of a hilly bike course on race day, a lot of athletes will look to make they endurance ride hilly as this would seen to make sense in increasing bike fitness on the hills, if we look at the stats of this type of ride for sure we will get more hill riding but what goes up must come down and during a hilly ride there will be a lot of dead time in terms of fitness. A 3 hour ride in the mountains for example might see only 2 hours of real riding time due to all the descents and free wheeling, a 3 hour ride on flatter terrain would get more general fitness development and the hill specific work could be put into a shorter session during the week so we preserve the fitness development of our endurance rides.
Timing is everything and really when we are looking at specific work like this then the final 5-6 weeks into the race are when we need to start hitting the specific work that will allow us to race to full capacity on race day.
Putting specific work into the program not only needs to be carefully looked at in terms of its effect on general fitness but there is a safety aspect too. Specific work also brings extra demands to the body and increases injury risk. From a technical point of view crashes happen, there is a very true saying in cycling – “there are those cyclists who have crashed and those who are going to crash” – descending hills/ mountains is dangerous, we are travelling at much greater speeds and that brings with it risks – no matter how technically good you are as a rider there is still a risk – you can hit a stone, get a puncture or hit a wet section of road and crashes happen.
We need to factor this into rides, we need to develop technical skills but we want to minimise risk – if the day of your hill ride comes and its pouring rain then maybe you need to change plan and save that ride for a dryer day – yes we have to ride in the rain on race day but in training the risk is not worth it.
When we look at specific work it needs to be specific – its no use training in extremely steep hills if race day is going to see you riding long but shallow gradient hills. For example if we are training for the bike course at Ironman Nice which sees long but gradual hills then you need to simulate this in training – riding on the flat in a slightly bigger gear would actually work really well here competed to training in the hills if you only have access to short but steep hills.
When it comes to cycling the turbo trainer is a great tool that allows us to simulate hill riding, we can raise the front wheel slightly to get the bike into a climbing position – this does actually effect how you sit on the bike so is worth doing, resistance from the trainer is not the only thing we have to consider!! Have a go at riding a 30min hard effort on the trainer with the front wheel on flat ground and then try again with the wheel raised 3-5 inches – you will notice a big difference in how the muscles work and how you sit on the bike.
Specificity is not only about the course you will face on race day but also the weather conditions, an athlete training in the cold or dry climate who is travelling out to race in heat and humidity faces a big challenge on race day. Again though this is something we can work into our training program in the final weeks before the race.
If we are racing in humidity and cannot access that weather close to home then again the turbo trainer comes into play. We need to create a humid environment in which to train, this can be done on differing scales depending on resources. I have seen sports labs at universities use perspex boxes in which the athlete and bike is placed – the humidity within the box is high as the athletes is perspiring and working. We can recreate the same thing on a budget by simple erecting a tent at home and placing the bike inside for the session – very unpleasant but very similar to race day conditions.
As with the climbing example this sort of specific training comes with benefits but also risks. The demands of riding in such environments are extreme on the body, we are going to sweat more and loose more body salts – this is good for training as it allows us to get used to taking on more fluid and test race day nutrition but it also depletes the body a lot more than training in cooler dryer climates and if we do not factor this in then we will end up suffering not gaining from the specific work.
When we look to simulate race conditions like this we need to factor in that recovery time from such sessions is going to be longer than regular, that means we need to look at the structure of our plan around these sessions to make sure we are recovering fully and not compromising our bodies too much with the specific work and end up losing general fitness.
To race to your full ability you need to make sure you have great general fitness and that you have incorporated specific work into your plan in the final weeks leading to your race so you are ready to perform and enjoy your fitness!
Enjoy your training.
By Alun “Woody” Woodward
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