Brent S. Rushall (1997), a response to a question posed by Mr. Alan Roaf, Executive-director, Rowing Canada.

If one was to study for a degree in kinesiology, attend a coaches' clinic, or hear most sport scientists talking about improving elite athletes, usually talk will be predominantly about training (conditioning). Thresholds of various types, workloads, number of repetitions, and in-depth explanations of the physiological responses to exercise abound and dominate discussions. One could deduce from this emphasis that physical conditioning is the most important factor in determining elite performances. But is it?

At the Pre-Olympic Scientific Congress in Eugene, Oregon in 1984, it was the multiple Olympic Gold medalist and physiologist Dr. Peter Snell who opined that when athletes line up for an Olympic final their conditioned states will not discriminate them. Factors other than conditioning will cause one athlete to win over another. Could this be heresy? Why do most coaches still exaggerate the importance of physical conditioning as being the major secret for success at the elite level? The emphasis on physiological testing with national teams would suggest that sport scientists also attribute pre-eminent causality to physical conditioning for elite sporting success. If physical conditioning is not the most influential aspect of sport training then it is the area of sports science that is most popularly emphasized by practitioners and scientists alike. For most people that would be enough. Monkey see, monkey do, and since many monkeys do it must be right; conditioning is the key to success.

But is there another side to this one-sided approach to modern sport? Could there be other things that need emphasizing to produce a champion as Dr. Snell suggested?

The literature contains many studies about the physiology of sport and several generalizations are possible. Below are some of the things that are known about conditioning in sports.

  1. In very unfit individuals any conditioning will produce changes in physiological variables up to a certain level of performance competency.
  2. Beyond moderate performance competency only specialized conditioning will produce further performance improvements.
  3. The body will become conditioned to the activity that is practiced (e.g., running on the flat does not condition one for hill running).
  4. Despite extensive testing of elite athletes, measures of physiological capacities only discriminate between athletes of wide ability ranges. They do not discriminate between a relatively homogeneous group of elite athletes in the same sport.
  5. An athlete can become so fit and no fitter, that is, an hereditarily defined ceiling level of physical capacity exists in all individuals. After maturation, no manner of training will change those levels.
  6. There is a hint in the literature that physical conditioning during growth will extend the capacities of children and adolescents when compared to control groups. It is not known whether the usually inactive controls regress and thus make the trained individuals look better by comparison or whether the trained individuals actually have their natural abilities embellished.
  7. The time to reach peak fitness is relatively short. Some have claimed four weeks for anaerobic adaptation and three months for aerobic adaptation. In mature individuals those times are even shorter. There are many modifying variables, such as initial level of fitness, which will alter any time estimate. However, to this writer's mind it seems that most national coaches think it takes 12 months to achieve maximum fitness which, of course, is incorrect.
  8. It is possible for an individual to improve in fitness, as usually revealed by physiology tests, while performances do not change or even get worse. That phenomenon alone should indicate the lack of relationship between a fitness-test state and important performance.
  9. Because of physiological and capacity differences, the physical training of maturing individuals, men, and women need to differ.
  10. Fitness achieved in one activity will have, at most, a minimum amount of transfer to another activity. The popular notion of "cross training" is a hoax and an embarrassing collective display of misunderstanding. For example, it has been clearly shown that strength gains in one activity cannot be "re-educated" into another activity. This lack of "potential" transfer is supported by evidence in the physiological and motor learning literature.
  11. Training on activities that are unrelated to an intended competitive performance results in maladaptation and coaches who emphasize such programs should be charged with "mal-practice."
  12. An athlete must be specifically fit to achieve a peak personal-best performance.
  13. Attempting to achieve "super" or "excess" levels of fitness for a sport which does not require the accommodation of extreme fatigue is inappropriate and diminishes the resources that could be applied by an athlete to more important aspects of training for the sport.
  14. Exercise and hard-work is catabolic, rest and recovery is anabolic. Emphasizing working hard at the expense of post-training-session recovery is destructive to an athlete's well-being and suppresses improvement.
  15. Current classifications of training are meaningless. Discrete classifications which give the appearance of precision are bogus. Research has shown that within a group of athletes, the nature of responses to a particular aerobic stimulus produces all forms of adaptation plus has no affect in some. Training in "zones," at heart rate levels to produce a particular training effect, etc. are delusional justifications for practice content. The general emergence of specific adaptations is not supported in empirical studies.
  16. The overload, specificity, and recovery principles are paramount in the physical conditioning of elite athletes.
  17. More training effort and volume is required to change a fitness state than to maintain one.
  18. As a corollary to #17, fitness is not necessarily lost in a very short time.
  19. Too much training, whether specific or non-specific, is harmful.

There are other generalizations similar to these which could be stated. A problem with them, as with those above, is they are correct but contradict much "modern" training theory and conditioning practice at the highest level, particularly in the sports of rowing and swimming.

There is no doubt that physiological changes result from extensive conditioning, BUT THOSE ARE NOT THE ONLY CHANGES OR MECHANISMS INVOLVED IN THE TRAINING RESPONSE.

Many features of initial "physiological adaptation" are actually adaptations by the central nervous system (CNS) to use existing resources better. No physiological changes happen but improved performances and athlete reports of increased well-being commonly occur.

For example, as much as nine percent of endurance capacity increase is due to the trainability of the respiratory muscles. Those muscles do not change immediately in a physiological sense because their initial adaptation is neural. Recent research has suggested that an average of nine exposures to an aerobic overload are required before the load should be altered to the next step increase. So if the physiology is not or is hardly changing, it must be the CNS which is adapting to produce better skill of breathing, more economical leverage, etc.

It has long been recognized that in the strength training response the onset of hypertrophy requires anywhere from four to six weeks of intensive training. But by that time almost 100% of strength gains in an exercise are achieved. It is the CNS adaptation which produces the change. The athlete has used existing resources and refined the SKILL of the exercise to produce the strength change. Even when the physiological changes associated with long-duration and intense strength training programs become evident, strength performances only improve marginally more.

The proposal being presented here is that it is the CNS adapting to exercise and using already existing resources that constitutes most fitness and performance improvements in high-performance athletes. When mitochondria multiply and capillarization increases to maximum levels further training does not continue to increase these mechanisms.

There is a caveat to the former paragraph. In March of 1996, a group of USOC physiologists reported that the US Men's Rowing Eight was still adapting aerobically in their training. This improvement was not reflected in the US boat's continued decline in performance in international races. An alternative explanation for these observed improvements was that the athletes were demonstrating a training effect on the ergometer test being used, an activity unrelated to the level of performance being aspired to by the rowers in their boat. They were getting better at the testing activity but unfortunately, that had very little relevance to the matter at hand which was to row a boat fast. It is possible that in many physiological testing programs "improvements" are test-activity improvements and not real competition-relevant improvements. This possibility is supported by the low predictive validity of physiological tests for high performance levels.

The physical stimulus of fatigue (overload) will cause physiological responses in some individuals. If an athlete is not conditioned to his/her ceiling level, the mitochondria, aerobic capacity, thresholds, etc. could all change ("improve"). However, those changes are indiscriminate. They will occur whether the technique of the sport is good or bad. There is little doubt that after a full year of college rowing that a boat that finishes a minute behind a champion is likely to be as fit as the winner, but their skill levels most probably would be very different. So capillaries will grow, mitochondria will increase, red blood cells will increase in number, and plasma volume will increase whether a crew/swimmer/cyclist/runner has good or poor technique.

If one will accept a big assumptive step it is advocated that fitness without good technique is wasted fitness. Thus, a skilled athlete who is energized by maximum fitness will always beat a more poorly skilled athlete who is also energized by maximum fitness. SKILL BECOMES A DISCRIMINATING FACTOR IN HIGH LEVEL PERFORMANCE. What is it that governs skill? It is the CNS and the representation of movements in the brain.

Thus, training hard and diligently without the neural patterns that govern good competition-appropriate skill is a relatively futile pursuit. The modifier of this proposal is that most coaches should know good from bad skill and how to produce those desirable techniques. THAT IS A BIG STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION! In some sports, understanding of technique is so poor that performances are actually regressing and "improvements" generally come only from rule changes. The sport of swimming comes to mind. Only one freestyle event at the Atlanta Olympic Games surpassed the performances registered four years earlier in Barcelona. The four extra years of practice between the two Games had only caused performers to regress, not improve. There must have been a lot of practice that was not particularly beneficial.

The essential thesis of this discussion is that the brain's movement representations must guide physiological work in a beneficial and efficient manner for valuable gains to be achieved through practice. Much emphasized practice that is uneconomical can be wasted practice. A case could be made that if uneconomical or maladaptive practice is stressed enough then the competing dominance of the conditioned strength of the competition-inappropriate neural patterns (movement representations) will inhibit more economical and better forms of performance.

The representation of movements in the brain is different between beginners and elite athletes. Beginners use "schema" to cognitively control their way through a performance. By contrast, elite athletes want movements to be automated and not involve "conscious effort." If that is true, then the research that was prevalent more than 50 years ago still holds true today. Movement patterns are represented in the brain of individuals when automated performances occur. The automated movement patterns are invoked, the muscles and levers of the body respond, the energy systems fuel the exercise, while the athlete thinks of strategy and the cognitive demands of the competition. Thus, AUTOMATED NEURAL CONTROL IS PARAMOUNT FOR A HIGH-LEVEL PERFORMANCE. Few coaches realize just how exquisite discriminated movements can be. They differ at the fiber level, the synchronization of sequences, patterns of stimulation, etc. A performance at 90% effort is to all intents and purposes totally foreign to a 100% effort in the same "activity" (they really are not the same activity but very different and discrete exercises). Rowing and swimming coaches commonly prescribe work at percentages of race-pace speeds with a resulting lack of appropriateness and benefit being obvious.

Enough! Training responses are initiated, determined, and dictated by the brain. Without attention to the control of thought processes, which have not even been considered in this treatise, or attention to the encoding of exact movement patterns, many athletes will be trained inappropriately.

Fitness is good. Fitness is necessary. But it is only valuable for athletic performance when it is developed in concert with mechanically efficient movement patterns which are encoded to high levels of automaticity in the athlete's brain.

Training for fitness alone is likely to yield maladaptation. Training to energize the repetitive performance of good movement patterns is likely to yield rewarding improvements and in those with ability, performance excellence. As implied above, a complicating factor is whether swimming and rowing coaches know what are good movement patterns.

The implication for coaching? When performance, such as swimming or boat speed is important, if athletes are not rowing or swimming with good technique, stop them, give them a rest, and start again with good technique. That technique has to be specific to the desired competitive speed.

This proposal does not state that there is no place in training for work other than race-pace specific work. Specific work is necessary to achieve high levels of performance and often, performance improvements. Training at slow paces also has some benefits. It:

  1. improves the aerobic system which will allow a greater volume of both non-specific and specific training to be tolerated,
  2. facilitates faster lactate clearance in recovery as well as general recovery from fatigue, and
  3. facilitates lactate resynthesis during exercise in the non-propulsive muscles such as the legs in swimming and the overall physique in the rowing recovery.

Slow swimming and rowing is auxiliary training and establishes a base for more specific work.

Studies have shown that race performances in running are slowed when training is slower or faster than intended race pace. Neurologically non-specific training does not promote elite performance. Remember, elite athletes and their training principles are different to non-elite individuals. There is no doubt that long slow swimming or rowing will help low-level performers swim or row less slowly but at the high-performance end of the continuum when speed is sought its continued exaggeration is a hindrance.

What has to be shelved is the notion that all physical practice contributes to a race performance. Only a very small amount of physical training does and that is superimposed on a general level of fitness which is insufficient for a very high-level of performance. The problem is that few swimmers get out of the general trained state (the "Athletic State" as Bompa called it) because of their general training and so cannot perform in a much improved manner. One could propose that constant general training is the reason why many swimmers are not improving including the "immortal" Alexandre Popov whom I believe has only recorded one 100 m time faster than Matt Biondi did 10 years ago.

In the sport of swimming, not only is constant overtraining institutionalized but so is the perpetuation of non-specific and irrelevant activities. Swimmers spend a tremendous amount of time doing the wrong things but since that is a minority opinion . . . . Rowing, at least in the USA, seems to be going the way of swimming.

This question can be posed; "When will the current trend in training philosophy and practice reach the 'Dead-end' sign and be altered to better serve athletes?"

When boat or swimming speed are desirable, train the brain to automate exquisite appropriate movement patterns. Gold medals are given for rowing or swimming fast. No medals are awarded for the best developed aerobic capacity, the densest mitochondria, or the number of capillaries per cross-sectional area of muscle. Few rewards occur when the test results for an anaerobic threshold are read. VO2max does not earn a seat in a boat or a place on a swimming relay team. Good technique in a specifically fit athlete is what is rewarded in these two sports. The brain will determine that.

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