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Selection & Design of Event-Specific Exercises
By Joil Bergeron, Multi-Events Coach, Florida International University
Before you can design a program of event-specific exercises, there are some
basic things to keep in mind. Coach Bergeron discusses these underlying
elements, and then shows us four important specific-conditioning routines.
Our job as coaches is to design programs that will guide our athletes toward their best performance. We use knowledge resources such as experience, colleagues, and our own formal education to help formulate training regimes that we believe will best serve our team. Every coach can remember the first program he/she designed, and the shortcomings of that plan that were quickly discovered.
As time passes we learn a "hidden curriculum." We quickly realize the factual textbook information we study as students of sport often lack a practical application in our specific area. It is discovered that a gap exists between our real-world, first-hand experience and what is learned from books, school and science.
When faced with limited budgets, time constraints, and other responsibilities we share as team leaders, it becomes easy to rely on tradition and experience. However, something is often lost in translation. We forget that there is no substitute for legitimate scientific research when we train our athletes. All of us have seen the coach who, engrained with his own philosophy, limits his team due to his stagnating ideas. This article is meant to help decrease this phenomenon by revisiting the concept of specificity of training with respect to exercise selection and design.
THE CONCEPT OF SPECIFICITY
Specificity of training refers to the selection and implementation of drills, exercises, and methodologies that best contribute to training a desired movement. The SAID principle, which stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands, is a simple acronym describing this concept. In the most basic explanation, the SAID principle states: "The easiest way to improve on a specific skill is by practicing the actual skill."
Of course, performing the same thing repeatedly involves several limitations. First, in accordance with the law of diminishing returns, a plateau will eventually be reached. Second, complex skills are much more difficult to learn as a whole. As coaches we create drills that mimic smaller elements of the desired movement, creating a teaching progression. With the development of these strategies we ask, "What is the limiting factor within this event?" That is, what are the critical points necessary to achieve success?
We are left with one last question: "What is the value of this drill and does it really apply to what I'm attempting to teach my athletes?" It is a question of practicality. Does the drill substitute for part of the overall movement effectively, and does it have a high degree of transfer or similarity to the original skill?
Therein lay most controversy and debate. It is easy for a coach to fall into opinion rather than scientific fact during this step of training prescription. Yet, legitimate evidence is difficult to find for most training methods, leaving us to make decisions based on our own experiences.
During the process of exercise selection there are a multitude of performance considerations; physiologic workload, mechanical requirements, kinesiologic rhythm, and cognitive skills. Each criterion represents a specific facet of the overall assessment. The criteria influence each other and must be evaluated as part of the whole, rather than as independent elements.
Physiologic requirements refer to the bioenergetic workload placed on the athlete while performing. Fatigue directly influences each of the training facets. Metabolic training, therefore, should be one of the first assessments. The simplest method of evaluation is by calculating the amount of time required for a skill in terms of each repetition and the total amount of work done (commonly referred to as total volume).
Considerations for repeated efforts must be made as well. For instance, a long jumper may only spend six seconds during a single effort, but needs to perform the same skill anywhere between 12-15 times when warm-up, preliminary, and final competitive attempts are added together. Their overall workload would be around one and a half minutes from the beginning to the end of competition.
Energy requirements are influenced by intensity of effort. High-intensity exercise requires work within anaerobic systems, whereas lower-intensity work relies more on the aerobic pathways. Activities such as throwing, jumping, sprinting, and weightlifting are examples of anaerobic activity. Each is a short-duration, maximum-intensity activity requiring high-energy output. Relatively lower-intensity examples include distance running. Table 1 provides examples of the metabolic systems. Regardless of the energy system used, an athlete who has been trained to sustain higher-energy output and shorter recovery times in either metabolic pathway possesses a competitive advantage.
Intensity also dictates the length of effort. High-intensity work quickly fatigues the body and is typically shorter duration. Lower-intensity performances require a sustained effort applied over a longer time. Thus, questions such as "How long does this event last?" and "How intense is the activity?" become relevant during the development of conditioning workouts. A common mistake is the belief that long-duration, submaximal running adequately conditions all athletes. The shortcoming of this methodology is that it lacks the specificity of training needed for maximal-intensity events.
Mechanical requirements are the second step of skill evaluation. Complex movements can be broken into simpler parts using anatomical assessment. Which plane does the skill occur in primarily? Which muscle groups contribute the most to and at what point during the movement? Does the skill require a specific level of strength for successful execution? Will the drill or exercise selected simulate these mechanical requirements?
Three anatomical planes exist; sagittal, frontal, and transverse (Figure 1). Sagittal movements occur when a joint flexes or extends. The majority of movements seen in running, sprinting, and linear jumps are sagittal. Side flexion, abduction, and adduction of joints refer to the frontal plane. A significant portion of all throwing events use frontal movements; however, running and jumping also makes use of this plane. Rotational movements about a vertical axis occur in the traverse plane. All events (especially throwing) involve transverse movements, yet this area is commonly neglected in most training programs.
analysis of the kinesiologic rhythm or timing is also of value when selecting
exercises. Looking at the overall skill from beginning to end helps note key
points. Does the movement involve the lower body first and upper body second?
Does the weight shift from the right to left side? Is there a summation of
forces involved? Where does the center of gravity reside typically? Does
velocity remain constant, gradually rise, or abruptly increase? Are there
specific body or limb angles utilized during the mechanics?
Having these answers provides solutions to question for the other criteria as well. For instance, knowing that peak velocity during the release of a throw is the most important factor for success, it might be concluded that the larger, slower muscles must contract first, followed by the smaller, quicker muscles. Recognizing that arm swing contributes to linear velocity could cue a coach to prescribe upper body exercises for a distance runner.
The final evaluation is of cognitive workload. What specific things does the athlete focus on during the performance of the event? Is it a maximal intensity burst such as in a throw or jump, or is the strategy spread out over time as seen in a race? Do the drills and exercises mimic this mental challenge, and do they make it easier to build up to it? Have teaching progressions been developed which gradually condition the athlete into mental toughness, or is there a lack thereof?
Mental preparedness is more important than physical conditioning. So why is this aspect of specific exercise, drill, and program development ignored? Any coach who has had an athlete break off a relation- ship with a girlfriend or boyfriend the week before the conference championship can attest to this.
Our athletes often argue over which of their events is the most challenging. Distance runners cite that the throws require only brute strength. However throwers usually say all distance athletes do is run! Regardless of any merit in these statements, all event groups are both mentally and physically taxing. Keeping this "in mind" makes a difference in program design.
BRIDGING THE TRAINING GAP
A training program that successfully emulates each of the assessment criteria will yield the best results. The closer a regimen simulates a desired performance, the greater the transfer and substitution will be. However, all the criteria should be planned in concert to maximize the adaptation effect.
When selecting and prescribing specific exercises, use of the previously described criteria must take place. Does the exercise mimic the actual performances physiologically, anatomically, and kinesiologically? Is the cognitive workload similar to the goal skill?
The logical progression through each criterion is to prescribe exercises, drills, and workouts that simplify a skill and provide a learning progression. As basic skills are mastered the program should build on previous points. A sound plan allows ample time for adaptation.
Physiologically, prescriptions that focus on overall endurance are first. By increasing the overall ability for workload, a greater volume of work may be sustained before fatigue significantly affects the quality of effort. As mentioned previously, an athlete who recovers more quickly from a practice or training rep has a competitive advantage over time. Once a training base has developed, specific workloads and volumes are prescribed. The more specific a workout is to the competitive effort, the higher the benefit will be. Table 2 provides basic recovery recommendations for the different events.
Mechanical and kinesiologic prescriptions are interrelated and should be developed as such. A balance of activities within the three planes must be prescribed as well.
A common shortcoming to most programs is that the majority of drills selected occur predominantly in the sagittal plane. For throwers and jumpers, heavy reliance on sagittal exercise can be detrimental to performance because frontal and transverse movements make up a large portion of these skills. A strong argument for the use of frontal and transverse exercises with runners and sprinters could be made as well. When standing directly in front or behind of a running athlete, lateral and rotational movements are easily identified at all major joints.
Cognitive training should be addressed daily. Common methods include visualization, positive self-talk, and external motivation from the coach. The clearer the performance is in an athlete's mind, the more likely that performance will be achieved. It is our jobs to define what that particular performance is and then reinforce it. Asking if the athlete understands his job is not enough. The athlete must fully understand what he needs to do and be able to explain it to him or herself before success can occur. Watching practice film, developing specific, individualized cues, and listening to narrations of a perfect attempt are each examples of simple mental training.
Positive encouragement is critical to psychological development. It is rare for the so-called "perfect" performance to occur. It is the coach's duty to always emphasize the specific positive elements of each practice and competitive effort, and also discuss the specific shortfalls. Most athletes who underperform have predisposed themselves to the outcome with their mindset. Although much of the responsibility will always lie on the shoulders of the athlete, coaches play an important role in the development of this area.
Below are a few examples developed by the author to simulate different events. Each exercise was created with specificity in mind. They mimic the actual positions and rhythms while providing additional resistance through the range of movement. The descriptions explain the specific application of the exercise. Unless otherwise noted the exercises may be cycled through an annual plan in the same fashion as any other drill.
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All pictures are ©2006 Joil Bergeron and Jarod Mills
Specificity of training involves the careful analysis of physiologic, anatomic, kinesiologic and cognitive workload for each event. The closer a training regimen mimics an actual skill, the greater the transfer of workout to competitive performance will be. As coaches, it is our duties to ensure that we maintain this perspective and be weary of falling into a "cookie-cutter" approach with our methodologies. Scientific fact, rather than personal opinion, must be the foundation of all decisions for training regimens. We must remember that when not mixed with humility of an open mind, experience can turn to poison.
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