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Crash Training: Get Specific

Over the past couple of years my competing has been reduced to one or two events per year.  For each of these races I’ve faked my way through training, hoping to rely on muscle memory and good old fashioned grit to get by, but inevitably I show up at the start line with mediocre fitness at best.  The upside of doing a few, albeit spread out, races on “crash training” is that it’s allowed me to get good at, well, crash training.  I’ve signed up for an Xterra mountain bike triathlon at the end of March and have been able to train more efficiently and effectively than I have in quite some time.  Below are some thoughts on what’s worked for me when getting in shape in what I consider a short amount of time (3 months or less), as well as how I mentally approach my training and racing. 

 Note – these are based on personal experiences, anecdotal knowledge, and common sense.  Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to site each and every statement I make – I’m training for God’s sake.

Get Specific

The training principle of specificity says that training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which an individual is training in order to produce a training effect.  If you are a runner, you should run; a cyclist should ride a bike, etc.  This also means that if you are a sprinter you should sprint – a backstroker should swim back.  When I came across this principle for the first time my reaction was, “so if I’m training for a marathon, I shouldn’t then go bowling in hopes that it’ll help me run 26.2?”  Right – maybe this is stating the obvious, but it is something to really keep in mind, especially if you are getting in shape in a short amount of time for a relatively complicated sport to train for like triathlon.

(Note** I’d like to follow-up with a few of my Crossfit buddies to get their view on the principle of specificity.  Workouts that are “constantly varied” are inherently non-specific.  That being said, Crossfit workouts do tend to rely on a number of repeated exercises, or categories of exercises.)

(Double Note***My general feeling about Crossfit is that it has tried to buck traditional training methodology because it’s hardcore.  Though as the “sport” becomes more competitive, the athletes that are going to excel are those that adopt established training tactics, adapted for their sport, like periodization, and principles like specificity, progression, adaptation, REST etc.  We’ll see.)

One of the most important elements of specificity is to understand what it is you are training for.  If you are training to swim, bike, and run fast, then your training should build you up to swim, bike, and run….fast.  There must be some method to your madness as you cannot build fitness without sequentially increasing training volume and intensity, while making time for appropriate rest. In order to run far and fast, you’ve first got to be able to run far.

Over my years of training for and being around endurance sports, I’ve found that threshold intervals are something that many athletes spend far too little time focusing on.  Even in what is considered a “sprint” event, the fastest competitors will still take about an hour to finish.  Make no qualms about it, this (especially) requires aerobic beastliness fitness at threshold.  We avoid threshold intervals for a number of reasons – mainly because pushing yourself hard for 20 or so minutes at a time sucks is not comfortable, let alone fun.  But it’ll be a lot less fun on race day trying to push yourself to that level of effort (mentally and physically) without having done so in training.  It’ll be even less fun when you realize you simply can’t…and fall into a lumbering pace.  Do your threshold intervals (and run through a few walls while you’re at it).

Many recreational endurance athletes overlook an element of the principle of training specificity in the early part of their season.  Though there may some benefit to building a very big aerobic base, including potentially teaching your body to favor fat as a fuel source over carbohydrates, if your end goal is to win a sprint distance triathlon or downtown criterium, going out on 5 hour base rides through a good part of your training makes little sense.  After a certain point, the return on those big miles will be miniscule, and the cost in terms of time spent building non-specific fitness will be huge (this is all somewhat relative to how long your training cycle is).  If your target event requires you to be able to swim 500 meters fast, ride a bike 15 or so miles fast, and run a 5k fast – you should focus what it takes to do all of these things.  This will require some (albeit likely abridged) period of “base training,” but will also require training other energy systems, too.  Likewise, if you are training for a 20-40k time trial or 10k run, keep distance in mind as you train.

Another often overlooked component of training specificity is knowing the course, or your general competition environment.  It is one thing to build race fitness in a controlled environment like on the track, but if a run or bike course you’ll be competing on is going to hit you repeatedly with short, punchy rollers, you may want to consider doing some of your training to simulate this.  Your body is incredibly good at adapting to training stimuli, and if you train yourself to hold a threshold pace, punch it up a hill, and recover efficiently without blowing up, this’ll put you at a huge advantage over competitors that have simply built “general” fitness come competition day.  Do your homework ahead of time, and build a training plan accordingly.  You’ve gotta be smarter than your training plan, and adapt it specifically for your needs.  For short, intense events, each and every second is critical, so being properly trained for that specific event becomes even more important.

For my upcoming Xterra, specificity has dictated nearly my entire training program.  First, it’s an off-road event, so I’ve done about 90% or so of my bike training on my mountain bike (makes sense…).  Doing some course recon has been key, as I know the run is pretty hill (note* really hilly…people are going to complain a lot), so focusing a bit more on building strength and eventually power into my run training has been important.

There are periods of training where you will want to succumb to “general” fitness.  These are mainly periods of preparation, maintenance in between training cycles, or possibly even detraining.  But when preparing for competition, know what you are training for, lay out a plan to get you there, and waste little time in between.  Also, keep in mind that no training plan is perfect, so don’t drive yourself up the wall over analyze every single last bit of your program trying to make it so.  You will have to adapt days based on how your body feels.  The most important thing is that you train consistently and rest often. Have fun.


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4 Responses to “Crash Training: Get Specific”

  1. Corbitt Chandler March 7, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    Great stuff. After Mikko Salo won the CrossFit Games in 2009 it came out that his training didn’t very much resemble typical CF programming. I think most of the elite CF athletes are starting to periodize at this point.

  2. Brennan March 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    From what I’ve been reading from the CrossFit community, I agree with Corbitt. Much of the CF populous derides the “main page” WODs posted at crossfit.com as being too random as focused on general physical preparedness vs. any sort of specificity for competition.

    Here’s a link to a Charles Poliquin article that I think highlights some of the honest strengths and weaknesses of the CrossFit methodology/community:


  3. Brennan March 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    …and for what it’s worth, here is some of the response to Poliquin’s article from the CrossFit website:


  4. Casey March 14, 2012 at 3:48 am #

    It’s an interesting phenomenon when one of the most basic principles prescribes doing exercises at “high intensity” and does not mention anything about varying intensity for the sake of making gains in fitness. Based on the official CF response to Poliquin’s post, it makes me think whoever wrote that truly does not understand periodization (vs randomization).

    Interesting point is when he mentions the “data behind its methods.” I am not all that well-versed in CrossFit’s history, but this was an interesting read – seeming to call into question any such credible data http://joshsgarage.typepad.com/Crossfit_White_Papers_–_Timeline.html

    Though it seems like in talking to some competing crossfitters, there is a group within the sport gravitating to better established training methods – and making them work for Crossfit. I plan to get more involved with it over the next couple of months, so until then, will try not to speculate too much.

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