Today’s athletes are bombarded with advice on how to maximize their performance. The would-be coach, the athletic trainer, the former-pro-athlete-turned-performance-guru, the bona fide exercise physiologist, the enthusiast blogger (ahem, excluding Better-Biking.com, of course…) — they all have something to say or something to sell that will help you in your athletic endeavors. The amateur and professional ranks in competitive sports like bodybuilding, badminton (yes, badminton), swimming, running, golf, triathlon, and cycling have no reprieve from the self-proclaimed experts lurking in online communities from Facebook to SlowTwitch just waiting for the opportunity to fumigate you with their wisdom.
How is an athlete to parse and validate all this information? What is fad and what is best practices? What is authentic-science and what is pseudo-science? What is real and what is fake? Finding the answers to these questions takes time and effort. The athlete who sets out to know their body, their sport, and the science of performance will embark on a journey of discovery that will deepen their understanding of, commitment to, and achievement in all their athletic endeavors.
Like all competitive athletes who want to win, cyclists must be prepared to take this journey. These days, you cannot step onto the top spot on the podium by simply sticking needle in your arm. Strategy, teamwork, mental preparation, patience, focus, and flawless execution are all important factors in achieving success in any sport, including cycling. However, each of those attributes is built upon a solid foundation of athletic conditioning — preparing your body for the rigors of competitive cycling. And it all begins with the ubiquitous training ride.
To most athletes, training seems fairly simple. To improve in your chosen sport, do alot of what your sport requires. For the average athlete, this equates to swimmers swimming, runners running, golfers golfing, wrestlers wrestling, and cyclists cycling. Gee, how difficult is that? Unfortunately, this cursory understanding of training for sport and competition is perhaps the most significant limiting factor to an athlete’s success. For cyclists whose goals range from completing a sub-five hour century to taking first place in the local criterium, developing the physical conditioning to achieve these goals means reexamining, deconstructing, and reassembling the training ride.
So, ask yourself this question — What’s in your training ride?
This is where we rely on the real experts to advise us. Their guidance: training rides should be based on three principles — generality, specificity, and variety.
“Multi-lateral development is a very important component of any long-term training program. This type of training can be defined as “overall development” which means that this training develops a wide range of motor abilities.”
– Kevin Cronin, MS, CSCS,*D, USAW, National Strenth and Conditioning Association
Generality is easy. It’s fun, too. Every training ride has some level of generality built into its route. Unless you live in Florida, most training rides will include a variety of terrain — flats, hills, rollers, prolonged climbs, and corners. Every minute spent on the bike builds a cyclist’s proprioception — the athlete’s sensory understanding of body position, joint movement, acceleration/deceleration, and muscle activation while engaged in sport-specific efforts. A training ride that includes a wide variety of terrain and the related physical interactions with the varied terrain features (i.e. power modulation in affected muscle groups when climbing, visual perception and body positioning when cornering at high speed, etc.) strengthens the cyclist’s baseline physical adaptations to the stresses of pedaling, steering, and braking. All this is done while riding from Point A to Point B. How easy is that?
“One of the key tenets of exercise physiology is the principle of training specificity, which holds that training responses/adaptations are tightly coupled to the mode, frequency, and duration of exercise performed.”
– John A. Hawley, Ph.D., Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, Issue 29, 2002
Specificity requires planning, structure, and focus. Most cyclists get lots of generality and very little specificity. Why? We love to ride. If we complete a prolonged climb, the last thing we want to do is turn around, descend, and do the exact same climb again. That is not fun. And so it is with specificity. Building specific conditioning elements into a training ride takes some thought as well as a conscious effort to complete the specific elements during the ride. Four sets of three 1KM intervals at 90% of FTP with 500M of recovery between each interval requires a cyclist to focus. This is not just riding along. Specificity is a key component to improving sport-specific physical adaptation. At its essence, specificity means that criterium racers add conditioning exercises to their training rides that build explosive power over short distance, time trialists include conditioning exercises that increase power output over intermediate distance, and climbers create conditioning exercises that promote power modulation over long distance. Specificity is a critical component of any periodized training plan. It is the conscious utilization of exercise science principles to improve performance.
“The gradual development of proficiency in a sport changes the way the body adapts to training and necessitates an actual change in the make-up of one’s training programme – to ensure that further performance progress can be attained.”
– Owen Anderson, Ph.D., Sports Performance Bulletin
Variety should not be confused with generality. It is more closely related to specificity. Variety could be considered specificity to the third power or specificity cubed. Variety is used in training plans to prevent ‘plateauing’ — a state of physical conditioning where no further adaptation may occur given the prescribed training regimen. Variety is the principle that helps competitors progress to the ‘next level’ in their athletic performance. Variety takes the focus of specificity and applies it across a spectrum of conditioning exercises. For the cyclist, variety transforms four sets of three 1KM intervals at 90% of FTP with 500M of recovery between each interval into one set of five 1KM intervals at 90% of FTP with 500M of recovery between each interval, 8KM of seating climbing at 65% FTP with two 100M efforts of 95% FTP, 3KM of recovery at less that 40% FTP, and two sets of three 1KM intervals at 90% of FTP with 500M of recovery between each interval. Variety adds an additional dimension to a training ride: structured diversity. Such structured or artificial diversity is designed to push the athlete beyond a conditioning plateau to facilitate further physical adaptation. Variety is not adding ‘more’ to a training ride. Rather, the principle examines the training ride within its existing time/mileage parameters, deconstructs the specificity, and reassembles the regimen with the goal of applying the current level of physical conditioning to a more diversified effort.
Admittedly, incorporating generality, specificity, and variety sounds difficult to achieve in every training ride. Do not be discouraged! While this may seem counterintuitive, it is possible to incorporate each principle into every training ride. Like a periodized training plan, the principles of generality, specificity, and variety should be seen as developmental stages in the cyclist’s athletic conditioning. Every cyclist should work to develop a baseline on-the-bike skill set. This skill set should include achieving technical proficiency in pedaling, steering, braking, and spatial awareness. Building generality into training rides may be viewed as an essential element in developing this baseline cycling skill set. Adding specificity to training rides represents progression to the next level of cycling performance. This may be considered an attribute of an intermediate cycling skill set. At this intermediate level, the cyclist is able to incorporate focused physical conditioning exercises into training rides to build on the fitness and bike handling skills attained at the baseline level. Gaining the ability to use variety to progress beyond a physical adaptation plateau represents the attainment of an advanced cycling skill set. Using variety as a integrative training technique at this advanced level transforms each training ride into a seamless combination of these three principles so that fun, structure, and diversity make every moment on the bike enjoyable, productive, and motivational.
Achieving full integration of the three principles of generality, specificity, and variety into every training ride will open the door to a vast and infinitely complex codex of diverse and engaging on-the-bike training possibilities limited only by the cyclist’s creativity and imagination.
About The Author
Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita – Children of War Foundation Regional Amateur Team. A 28-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.
Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work. He has even been on the race podium a few times.
Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) 2014 Better-Biking.com
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