Specificity of training: can you be too specific?

I recently commented on whether training specificity, that is training in a manner that is specific and nearly identical to your event is best, or whether it was a “dead” concept. As I stated, the principle of specificity is alive and well, and it critically important to development of your full potential. The issue with it lies in the misunderstanding and/or misuse of specificity in the design of training programs. The purpose of this article to discuss what needs to be specific and what can be more general when it comes to periodization and session prescriptions.

Specificity is NOT about zones and energy systems

In my comment I stated that simply training at the same level (zone, intensity) as you compete at is not likely the best road to success, and is likely specificity run amuck. This is not a terrible approach and its how many of us start our training lives. Most of us emulate the most salient aspect, usually endurance. The fact is, very few sports require absolute specificity, with most requiring overall development of the abilities; lack of ultimate success is typically due to a bottleneck or major weakness. To contrast this, an example of a very specialized athletes might be Gary Hall Jr. who only swam (the best) the 50 m. If you’re a road or MTB cyclist, an XTerra Triathlete, or a runner racing different distances or terrains then one then you need to train main aspects and energy systems – energy systems, which there are only THREE of, blend together to provide an ideal delivery of ATP. So arguing that there is a zone for every event is nonsense.

Specificity of sport

Homo sapiens (i.e., us) evolved not as specialists, but as generalists; in contrast, neanderthals were highly intelligent, but also highly adapted to their environment, which was disappearing as the climate warmed. We need to adapt and respond, so it is essential to devise a training plan that develops the WHOLE athlete first, minimizes the bottlenecks and weaknesses second, and then perhaps maximizes the strengths. For the semi-pro, particularly those with 10 hrs or less to training, the HIT and/or polarized model appears far better than the threshold-centric plan. As I have already addressed these short-comings in threshold training, I will not rehash that argument, but I also think that threshold and slow endurance rides have an important place in our training. The less time you have to training, however, the more sense it makes to use HIT. And ultimately, if you want to reach your best, then HIT is essential. So then we are back to the question of what does specificity of training mean?

In a nutshell, specificity means devoting most of your time training that skill, rather than an intensity. If cycling is my goal, then putting in lots of miles running will eventually hold you back from your best performance. The neuromuscular and other peripheral adaptations are too specific, and in some cases opposite of those for cycling; running relies on stored energy from eccentric loading, and a smaller efficient muscle, while cycling is power driven endurance resistance training, which overdevelops the lower extremities. The motor unit recruitment patterns are also different.

Too many articles and books equate endurance sports with “aerobic” development. Yes, aerobic development is key, but its developed at many durations and intensities, including those HIT of 3-10 min in length and “anaerobic”. This approach fails to fully activate high threshold motor units, which are believed to be critically important (direct or indirect) to adaptation. So then, what is specificity? It is spending as much quality time in your chosen activity, with a portion of your training time well above the intensity you compete it…

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