TRAINING PRESCRIPTION: THE RELATIONSHIPS OF TECHNIQUE, OVERLOAD, AND SPECIFICITY
This issue of Carlile Coaches' Forum is an expansion of the contents of Volume 1(1), Technique, overload, and specificity. It was stimulated by an article titled "Kieren Perkins - a short analysis" written by Forbes Carlile and published in the Australian Swim Coach, Volume 11(12), pp. 14-17. That publication provoked a letter response from Bernie Wakefield. By combining information in both sources it was possible to reconcile opinions and observations with principles of modern training. This issue explains those principles.
In aerobic endurance training, mitochondrial adaptations occur only in muscles stimulated by activity. The response is further limited to those fibers which are activated by the specific nature of the activity. Thus, white fibers are very unlikely to be stimulated to produce a training response in work that is consistently at or below anaerobic threshold. Adaptations are only specific and do not generalize to other forms of activity that may use the muscle, and therefore muscle fibers, differently. For example, endurance gained from flat-track running does not generalize or facilitate hill running.
Different training intensities use different physiological mechanisms and patterns of muscle stimulation and therefore, produce different training effects. These are what might be expected in running and swimming.
(a) Sprinters aim to increase the rates of the creatine kinase reaction and of glycolysis.
(b) Middle-distance runners attempt to adapt muscles so that they become progressively more resistant to low pH levels. This is also true for a swimmer's adaptations in the hard-working muscles, but the remainder of the body needs to be aerobically developed.
(c) Marathon runners and longer-distance swimmers attempt to shift the lactate turnpoint (ANThreshold) to a higher speed, increase the capacity for fat oxidation so that carbohydrates can be "spared" or "saved", maximize the ability to store liver and muscle glycogen before exercise, and increase the capacity to absorb carbohydrate during competitive performances.
Response systems are also dependent upon the mechanical function of doing work. For effective training at least the appropriate biomechanical actions (technique and its constituent neuromuscular pathways) must be maintained and repeated while the appropriate energy system is fatigued (but not to excessive levels). Irrespective of the developmental level of an athlete's technique, when in a non-fatigued state, an athlete usually works as economically as possible, even though the technique might include some "errors." With the onset of fatigue caused by a training stimulus, muscle fiber and then muscle recruitment occurs, eventually resulting in a degradation of movement economy no matter what the standard of technique that originally existed. In the very early stages of fatigue, a loss of economy can be stalled by the athlete consciously striving to maintain essential technique elements, a compensatory activity that lasts only for a short time. Physical fatigue gradually becomes more general and reduces movement economy even further. Consequently, it is not worthwhile to persist with training under excessive fatigue if the optimum benefit from a practice activity is a goal.
Once an activity's biomechanics are degraded, further physiological overload is not warranted because the body will be energizing an inappropriate and, very likely, counterproductive set of compensatory actions. Excessively fatigued slow swimming with poor technique does not occur in a race and has no value as a training experience. Thus, for specific training to be beneficial it has to include both the biomechanics and energizing system of the intended competitive performance.
When a program mixes training tasks (e.g., 2 x 100 m, 2 x 200 m 2 x 400 m, 4 x 50 m), it is likely that the body's response will be general and diminished over that which could be achieved through blocked, repetitive stimuli (e.g., 12 x 100 m). A response system can only be stimulated optimally when it is exposed to repetitive work that requires skill technique maintenance in the face of increasing fatigue. Mixed work does not achieve that because both techniques and energizing capacities are varied, none being stimulated optimally, and so responses are not maximal. For effective coaching it is essential that "types" of work are programmed to provide optimal stimulation through the preservation of exact techniques with appropriate physiological overload.
There comes a time in a training segment where further work in a fatigue state is counterproductive. That point is where performance and technique have deteriorated despite increased effort by the athlete. Coaches have to be "brave" enough to terminate training at that point rather than completing the segment as programmed. Only when changes due to training match what happens in a race is training beneficial.
Coaches often make the error of assuming races are performed at an average speed. No matter what the event, there is a range of speeds enacted by an athlete in a race. Thus, it is necessary to train an athlete to perform optimally at these various speeds, that is, to stimulate a family of movement patterns as well as varying degrees of demand for energy from the body's systems.
If one element of the required "training range" is neglected then there will be a weakness in an athlete's preparation for a specific event. In a race, that weakness could cause an athlete to extend the "undertrained capacity" to a counterproductive level of fatigue that will compound and interfere with economical use of other systems and movement patterns. This fine tuning of training is a challenge for coaches.
Essentially, a range of training stimuli should be restricted to those which will be elicited in a performance. Incurring fatiguing stimuli which will not arise in a competition is a waste of time. However, there also has to be a considerable amount of training performed at a constant aerobic level over relatively long distances to maintain a solid aerobic base for training, not race performance, so that recovery is accelerated and specific training stimuli volume maintained and/or extended. If non-specific highly fatiguing stimuli are incurred, the potential to do beneficial training is reduced because of the loss of time available for adaptive work. The inclusion of "bad" training (irrelevant work and fatigue), will lead to maladaptation, a state of fatigue that even when recovery is achieved, will not contribute to performance improvement. That work is truly MAL-PRACTICE.
A training session should consist of two emphases. First, training to race particular events. Second, training to maintain a fitness base that will support the highest volume of and quickest recovery from race-specific work. This latter feature could be described as "training to train."
Too much has been made of training energy systems and physiological parameters. Since there are no gold medals for VO2max adaptations, or heart rate sets, their emphasis is an example of malpractice by coaches. Work which stimulates required mixes of energy provision that "power" appropriately economical movements to maintain a range of pace or intensity of work should be the concern of coaches. It is hard to see how kicking on boards, pulling with bands, floating with pull buoys, and stroking with paddles can contribute to this requirement. It is more accurate to deduce that the use of "drills" and "training equipment" contributes to maladaptation for superior athletes for those activities do not stimulate beneficial qualities that can be transferred into a competitive performance.
The frequency of training stimulations of a beneficial nature is solely determined by the time it takes to achieve full recovery between each stimulus exposure. For anaerobic adaptations, recovery is usually longer than for aerobic adaptations. The point that cannot be missed here is that recovery must be complete so that a training effect ("overcompensation") can be achieved. A basic estimate of the periodicity of stimulus exposures could be at least: (a) 48 hours between anaerobic stimulations of particular paces, and (b) 24 hours between aerobic stimulations. Of course, these time estimates will have to be modified for individual needs as well as to accommodate tolerance of training volumes.
In any competitive event, even one that is considered to be aerobic, the initial work is predominantly anaerobic. Procedures can be adopted to reduce the amount of anaerobic work but some vestige of anaerobic dominance will remain during the initial introduction to an event. To facilitate appropriate anaerobic adaptation, even for an "endurance" athlete, some anaerobic work should be performed at practice. Even if it is a very minor part of an event, if it is not adapted, the race will not start "well" for the athlete and complications due to that problem may continue to be felt for the whole performance resulting in less than optimal racing achievements. Since this capacity is used, but not taxed fully in a race, it should only occupy a small part of the total training program.
One should not be "amazed" to see endurance athletes doing a very minor proportion of their beneficial training work in an anaerobic-movement specific manner. The pitfall with this prescription is that if too much anaerobic work is done to the exclusion of the required aerobic or "specific" work that trains a greater proportion of an event's demands, an athlete will not be optimally trained to perform his/her best.
Only training which affects the exact energizing components for particular movement patterns that arise in particular races will contribute to improved race performances. The corollary to this is, if competitive performances do not improve, then training has been maladaptive. Since competitive performances require a range of energy uses and movement patterns, that range needs to be stimulated in blocks of specific tasks.
Adequate stimulation does not require excessive debilitating fatigue. The signal that training sets should be terminated is when both performance and movement precision deteriorate despite greater effort on behalf of the athlete.
While these aspects of training stimulation: (a) specific race adaptation, (b) aerobic base maintenance, (c) moderate levels of overload, and (d) complete between-stimulations recovery, are used for exercise prescription, practice effects should accrue and result in improved racing performances of an optimally executed nature. If performance improvements do not occur in a seriously training athlete, then beneficial training effects have not been developed.
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