The last discussion highlighted that as a nation and a sporting population we can often get infatuated with the idea that we are working hard, even when the training that we are doing may not transfer that well to our sport. There is no substitute for seeking improvement through the physical and psychological stressors that drive performance through implementing training plans. But how you structure training sessions, and training periods can have a huge influence on the performance of athletes.

So opens a series of questions.  Should all the training be hard or only certain types? Do you get more bang for your buck by doing certain types of training compared to others? If you do get greater improvement from specific training, should you do this the whole time?

For those who read our previous article they will know that we are advocates for specific training and using the training phases to increase the capability of the athletes to tolerate and expand on their capabilities with this more competition specific training. 

We have already mentioned that it is our belief that the best form of training is competition. So when designing programs there is benefit in having an underlying thread that links the amount of competition specific training to what you do. It goes without saying that athletes require foundational properties to withstand more specific types of training, but at the end of the day the question is always what transfers to better performance and what does not.

This idea started to really gnaw at me when I first heard a Canadian Coach, Derek Evely, speak about the methodology of Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Who?  

Bondarchuk was the Olympic Hammer Throw Champion, who upon retiring from competition has become more well known for his exploits as a coach and researcher of the methodology and transfer of training. Through his research he collected thousands of records of training and competition data from across the Soviet Union to collate an understanding of transfer of training. He then went on to publish a number of books, his most well known carrying the title of Transfer of Training in Sports. Although the text can be difficult to follow due to the translation, the long and short of it is that once foundational qualities are developed, the greatest transfer of training comes from activities that are close to or mimic (sometimes even exceed) competition loads and intensities and are very specific in regards to the skill execution. For example his research showed that although a very high level of strength in squatting was correlated with throwing distances, once a certain level of strength was achieved, adding further strength did not add further value to the performance of the athlete in throws. What did seem to transfer more at that point was how far they could throw heavier or lighter hammers in training. 

Based on these findings, he then developed a hierarchical system for training session plans that completed the training in order from most specific to least specific across the session, maximising the time and effort into the activities that carried the most transfer to the event that he was training. Now this seems obvious to most of us. Work on the activity that you need most for your sport. But that is not always how sports training is applied. 

I am sure everyone has been involved in a preseason where the coach puts away the balls, and asks you to run for weeks on end, only to find that your added fitness is of no use because your skills are not what they used to be. The same can be said for any capacity, whether it is strength training, plyometrics, or even less often used skills. The point I am making is that coaches such as Bondarchuk have made a successful career out of identifying what transfers the most to performance in their competition and then keeping that the central type/style of training that is completed. 

Given that most of you reading are saying, ‘yeah duh’, we know you should do specific training, how do you look to expose athletes to this form of training effectively and safely?

To look at this we first have to define who we are implementing training for. In individuals who are biologically immature (children/adolescents) or immature within their sport (low training age), there is no debate, the evidence is clear that specialised training blunts progression in the long term, despite the benefits that are afforded initially. The key with these athletes is to work on fundamental skills, movements and fitness characteristics (strength/power/flexibility etc). That is not to say that these athletes should not be afforded the opportunity to enjoy participating in their sport. It is however important to be gradual in your exposure to the amount of sport specific work that is done. For example the overall development of a 14 year old basketballer is not benefited by adding a 4th game in the week as much as starting progressive resistance training, with the longer term view in mind. We won’t discuss this further here, but it is clear in a developing athlete, the gaps in their foundational qualities need to be addressed before adding too much competition specific training. 

In a well developed athlete that has most of the foundational qualities, the aim shifts to increasing the capability to tolerate higher intensities and greater volumes. There are a number of ways to do this, but first you need to do a basic analysis on how much tolerance is possible for this type of training and competition.  For instance if we look at a game like basketball, it is clear that players at elite level can play three games per week for large periods of time. So to ask the players to do three high intensity training sessions in the week is not stretching the relationship. However if you asked a NFL or rugby player to do the same, they are not going to make it through more than a week of that type of physical exertion. So to ask them to do 3 or more full impact, high volume and high intensity sessions in a week is likely to lead to injuries and reductions in performance if prolonged for any extended period.  

So with this in mind how do you determine how to implement the training?

Once you have completed this evaluation on how much is possible or likely to be possible, there needs to then be an analysis (Bondarchuk style) on the training elements that transfer the most and those that still benefit the athletes but are lower on the intensity scale. For example when AFL players are training, the most specific form of training may be a practice match, then would be match simulation drills and small sided games, then full field skill work, then short range skill work, then physical training such as gym and running. Based on this analysis there is likely to be a prioritisation early in the training year of elements that are less specific (foundational features such as running) whilst titrating in small amounts of more specific work such as match simulation from early on. The aim across the training period is to increase the amount of this specific work. However the key feature that is present here, is that it is present from the very start. This is the first key point of how to push. Introduce the specific work early on in the preparation, even if it is a small volume of the total training volume of that week. 

The second key step is to understand how much of that specific work is needed to be prepared to excel in competition. If an AFL player for example, has only ever completed a maximum of 30 minutes of highly specific, high intensity work within the same training session throughout the preseason, then they will be wildly unprepared to undertake a full game that lasts close to 120 minutes. Even if these sessions are more than 2 hours in duration but consist of 90 minutes of lower intensity  or non-specific game style elements. 

Setting this up across the training cycles requires thought to be put into the recovery time needed between training elements and particularly the intense sessions. For this reason, many training systems have employed the high/low system. This often entails a high intensity or volume day, contrasted with a lower intensity or training day. This methodology can be used on repeated days, but also when used in less dense programs (including community or children’s sport) such as a high intensity session on a Tuesday, followed by a lower intensity session on a Thursday and then a game on a Saturday.

In programs that have more training elements and may be conducted with elite athletes, there is likely to be the need to become more creative and even elongate the loading structures. This may mean that there is more time between higher intensity days or smaller volumes completed more regularly, with the accumulated volume surpassing what is required in competition settings. 

Although there are many more elements, a feature that I recently discussed with a coach from overseas, is the use of recovery periods within training sessions. Typically if you complete drills or activities with short recoveries, the intensity will diminish proportionately to the intensity that allows the athletes to complete it (we will discuss central governor and predictive planning in a future article). And the same happens in the other direction. If you extend rest breaks within the session, athletes will naturally be able to perform at a higher intensity in training. As an example when players in AFL are on the bench they may be at relative rest for 5 or more continuous minutes before rotating back onto the ground for 5-10+ minutes to repeat this all over again. The recoveries are further enhanced by quarter and half time breaks. However there would be many sessions within the training week where this is not the structure of work to rest. So when the athlete plays a match, the game intensity is higher than training, even if the coaching staff ask for high intensity in the drills at training, the training is naturally capped by the shorter recovery breaks. 

Finally I will mention that it is important to measure these elements as you implement the training to assess the difference in the intensity needed for competition and the intensity performed in training. As highlighted above athletes may not hit intensities in training that mimic games and this can cause increased risk for injury and burn out. A really clear example of this is Tom Trbojevic, the NRL fullback, who has a long list of hamstring injuries. This year he had his most successful season, both with performance and injury, because staff recognised that the speeds he ran in training were not close to approaching the speeds he reached in games. They decided to make sure that across the season if the total volume of high speed running (over a certain high speed) was not completed in a game or training week, then they would top it up as part of his ongoing training through the season. What they had found was that maintaining his capability to tolerate significant volumes of high speed running was protecting him in games from getting fatigued and tearing his hamstring. 

So to put it together.

  1. Assess the training maturity of the athlete (biological and training age)
  2. Identify the most specific to least specific training elements for that sport
  3. Establish the volumes of competition specific training that are needed by the end of a training period or during competition periods.
  4. Assess the recovery needed between sessions and also within sessions to continue to increase the volumes of competition specific training at high qualities.
  5. Measure over time to maintain qualities that are foundational and extend qualities that are specific.