Sports Specific Training

Author: Craig Coghlin, B.A., CPT, CFC
If I have learned anything from my years of Kinesiology at Western, it's that if you don't train specifically for your activity, you're wasting your time. There's only one way to improve in a sport or activity: DO IT!

How many sprinters do you see out trying to improve their 100-metre time by swimming laps? Likewise, you likely won't see many hockey players trying to improve their explosive power by playing golf. Although some of these activities can be used for cross training, if you're looking to improve in your sport, lock in what you want to improve on and focus on that particular training realm.

Physiological adaptations to training are incredibly specific. Thus if you focus your training on a specific part of your sport, improvements will be seen in that part and that part only. There will of course be minor carry over, but in comparison to the training, this will be negligible. For example, Magel et. al. did a study involving VO2 max improvements with swim training. The subjects in the study did maximal treadmill running or tethered swimming tests. Following the training protocol, which lasted for 10 weeks, the VO2 max levels for swimming improved 11.2% while the group that did the running only improved 1.5%.
Training responses will only occur in specific muscles that are being worked. It may also be able to be traced as far down as specific motor units in the specific muscle (this includes both metabolic and cardiorespiratory adaptations).

This principle of specificity relates not only to type of activity done, but also the intensity at which the activity is performed. Intensity can refer to the force put on the muscle (resistance training) or to the cardiovascular system (aerobic training). For example, if someone trains at a high intensity in the weight room, their muscles will get stronger, but little or nothing will happen to their cardiovascular endurance capacity. This explains why weight lifters mus
st train differently for different phases. That is, if a body builder were wishing to increase his/her muscle tone, they would decrease the load, and increase the number of repetitions. This allows the body to place increased demands on the aerobic energy system, allowing oxidative metabolism to kick in. This increases the muscle's endurance capabilities, and aids in burning fat (this is essential in a muscle-toning phase).

I've made it clear the importance of training specificity, but I also mentioned something called cross training. What is cross training? This refers to training for multiple sports/activities at once. An example of this could be someone training for a triathlon. This person would be training for swimming, running, and cycling, all in the same time period. Another example could be a body builder performing heavy resistance activities, as well as cardiorespiratory training. If you are training for multiple sports, it is important to allot time to all activities so as to optimize performance in each activity. Cross training is a very common activity for many athletes, especially in the off season. It gives the athlete a break from the monotony of training for the same thing over and over, thus preventing overtraining. Little research has been done on the effects of training for multiple sports.

One thing I can say for certain, I learned much about one principle in my years of university: the Specificity of Training Principle. And this is not to say that it is not a worth while topic. Without it there would not be as many high caliber athletes in the world today, or knowledgeable instructors to train them. We wouldn't be as awestruck by the amazing feats of athleticism we witness all the time. We wouldn't have someone to aspire to, or motivate us to the same degree. So if you ask me, money well spent.

References in:
Wilmore, Jack H., and Costill, David L. 1999. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Second Edition. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL.