‘Sport-specific’ is an oft misused term used to describe the training of athletes outside of playing their chosen sport. Far too frequently we see misguided training methodologies passed off as ‘sport-specific’ under the guise that if you are not performing these exercises your training will hold little to no transfer to performance. As a result, too many athletes, coaches and parents have a misguided notion of what ‘sport-specific’ training should really look like. With the onset of an enforced lockdown it appears that many athletes have gone way off course in their attempt to maintain training regimes that will lead to improved sporting performance. This article intends to give you a workable definition of sport-specific training and a blueprint for what you’re current training should include, if you are an athlete.
What is sports specific training?
The topic of sports specific training is such a multi-faceted topic that we could spend thousands of words going down that rabbit hole. This article simply does not have the scope to do that, so I will try to be succinct in defining it. Ultimately, what distinguishes sport-specific training from other styles of training is that sport performance is the ultimate goal and so the style of training utilised is specific to this goal.
Knowledge of the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle makes us aware that our body adapts to the specific demand imposed upon it. To use a simplistic example, if our goal was to improve upper body pushing strength then the bench press would be a better exercise selection than a calf raise. Carefully selecting training variables that elicit adaptions that transfer to improved performance in the athlete’s sport is therefore the ultimate goal of the strength and conditioning coach. With this in mind, let’s consider what sort of training does not fulfil these requirements.
What is NOT sports specific training?
Knowing that we need to stimulate the body with specific training to elicit certain adaptations we appreciate that sport-specific training is not high volume circuit classes. Whilst circuit classes may be fantastic for general population clients, who are looking for something to keep them ticking over with minimal equipment during this lockdown period, they are not what is required for the athlete in lockdown. Busy work is not always smart work.
Nor is Crossfit sport-specific training. Before anyone starts having a go at me, I’m by no means a Crossfit hater. I actually think it has many good qualities and have personally been training for Crossfit since the back end of last year. As good as it may be, however, it is not suitable training for an athlete looking to improve their sporting performance (unless their sport is Crossfit of course!). The high volume, medium intensity (and often times high intensity) nature of Crossfit runs counter to the low volume, high intensity doses of training we know athletes need to puncture their technical training with.
The method of training being propagated at the moment that annoys me the most, given the allure it has to athletes, parents and coaches who do not know better, is what I call ‘simulation equals specificity’ training. By that I mean, the training that claims to mimic the demands of your chosen sport. Could someone please tell me how lying on your back and getting up simulates, much less improves, the ability to perform a turn in swimming? I have particular sympathy for swimmers out there who are trying their best to train whilst unable to access a pool but please don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to perform ‘race simulations’ in your back garden to do some meaningful training. If this sort of training worked then wouldn’t you be doing it year round anyway, regardless of if we were in lockdown or not? If you would like to read how to actually utilise land training to improve your performance in the pool click here to read an article I’ve previously written, or please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me directly.
What should sport-specific training look like during lockdown?
During lockdown, we are faced with a number of different issues when determining how best to train in order to keep our training aligned with the adaptations we want to elicit.
- A lack of equipment (most people it seems have access to the odd dumbbell or kettlebell, but very few have access to a power rack with barbells and bumper plates).
- All technical training has ceased meaning we do not have to factor in fatigue from this training (likewise, it means that training adaptations usually derived from sport practice must know be sought from alternative means).
- An uncertain return date to competition.
As strength and conditioning coaches, we are taught to make Plan B as close to Plan A as possible. Oftentimes, this takes the format of slightly adjusting the programme in front of us based off how the athlete is feeling on a given day. Obviously, in lockdown, Plan B will need to be a little further from Plan A than normal given the lack of training equipment available. Nevertheless, although we may have limited, or very little, equipment, we can formulate a training plan that addresses the movements that we would normally train. Is the plan you are currently following addressing the following movement patterns?
- Single leg
- Upper push (vertical and horizontal)
- Upper pull (vertical and horizontal)
- Energy system development
With minimal equipment (an odd dumbbell or kettlebell, or even a resistance band) it is possible to greatly enhance the intensity across all of these movement patterns. Do jumps require any equipment? No. Not got a medicine ball? Find a rock to throw instead.
With all technical training unable to take place, this leaves a huge void in our weekly training routine. In terms of skill development, there’s little you can do to replicate the demands of training and/or competition. But this is going to be the same for everyone. What you can do, alongside strength and power work, is focus on developing your energy systems so that once you return to training you are fitter than before. With extra time on your hands, now is the time to be developing your aerobic fitness, your ‘engine work’. Not to mention that now is not the time to be hammering your immune system with highly glycolytic sessions. Suppressed immune system function = increased chance of catching a virus and not being able to fight it off. Access to an exercise bike? Fantastic, an ideal low impact method of developing the aerobic system. No exercise bike? Use your daily exercise allowance to get outside and run.
An uncertain return date to competition means that implementing a vertical integration method of periodisation is likely most suitable. This is where we are training all components of athletic performance (strength, power, endurance etc.) but with a differing emphasis. With limited equipment now is a great time to focus on muscular endurance but whilst still maintaining an element of speed and power. Train extensive qualities so that you are well prepared for a return to normal training and the re-introduction of intensive training means.
In conclusion, how an athlete trains during lockdown should be as close as possible to how they would normally train. Pause for a moment and consider if this is what you are currently doing – or is your lockdown training devoid of any of the physical stimulus your normal training would include? Whilst we must accept that although general in nature, we can still move the needle forward by making Plan B as close to Plan A as possible. Even with limited or no equipment we can still train the physical attributes required to excel in your chosen sport, in a manner which will at least maintain, or more than likely improve, their capacity so that once normality resumes, you are ahead of the competition who have been following a diet of high volume circuits, Crossfit, or sport simulation exercises that more closely resemble circus tricks.