Thursday, June 5, 2008


I believe the three most important principles of training are 1) specificity, 2) specificity, and 3) specificity. I'll give you an example.

I've been coaching Ralph for 5 seasons now. Great guy and a very good athlete. He is both a triathlete (Olympic distance) and a bike road racer. During this time he's been successful in both sports qualifying for Triathlon Worlds several times with one top 5 at Nationals, and he's been a contender in his cycling age category (50+ and now 55+) with top 10s at his state road championships.

For the past four seasons I had told him that he would be a much better cyclist if he quit doing triathlons or a much better triathlete if he quit bike racing. While there is an obvious overlap between the two sports, they are not the same. There are many differences in how to train for these sports. The outcomes in bike races are largely determined by anaerobic endurance efforts lasting two to four minutes during key episodes such as on hills and with cross wind. The outcomes may also be dependent on sprinting ability. Neither of these, however, is critical to the outcomes in triathlons. Here, with few exceptions, the most important limiter is muscular endurance. The successful triathlete has the ability to produce a moderately high power output but hold it for a long time. Just the opposite for cycling. There success is dependent on very high power for very short (relative to triathlon) periods of time. If nothing else, any time you are training to be good at one of these abilities (anaerobic endurance or muscular endurance) you are not training the other one. So something is lost in training.

You can't train to be good at everything at all times. This is the principle of specificity. Basically, this principle says that if you want to be good at something you must exactly and precisely train for its unique demands.

Ralph didn't doubt my explanation of this for the past four years. He certainly understood it intellectually. But emotionally he wasn't ready to give up either sport. He loves both of them with a passion. Then something happened this year which changed everything and gives us a good lesson in specificity.

Ralph's cycling and running came along quite well this winter. In fact, his running appeared to be ahead of previous years. Then it happened in February. Ralph's Achilles began to act up. It wasn't too bad at first but it refused to go away. And it kept getting worse despite very little running and, finally, no running at all. So he was forced to give up the spring triathlons and focus only on bike racing. From that point on it has been amazing to see what has happened. His functional threshold power (FTP) has risen more than 20 watts. It's never been this high, or even close to it, in the last 4 years. He now finds himself near the front of his training group which includes several much younger riders instead of riding mid-pack and struggling to stay on during climbs. His bike sessions are remarkably different. The power numbers are 10 to 20% greater than for similar workouts done in previous years.

Even though the Achilles now appears ready to go again he's decided to stay with bike racing only for the remainder of the season. He's having too much fun to go back, he says. He refers to it as his new-found youth - at age 56.

Specificity is a powerful principle. Ralph's experience is a good lesson in this for all of us. If you really want to be as good at something as you can possibly be you need to keep this principle in mind. That doesn't mean you should never do anything else. Aerobic cross training and seriously lifting weights in the Prep and early Base periods is still beneficial, I believe. But the closer you get to your most important races the more like the races your training must become.

That's specificity.



At June 5, 2008 9:45 AM , Blogger Jay Parkhill said...

This is a fascinating topic.

No question Ralph made the right choice if he wants to be a better bike racer.

The flip side of the coin is something like "the compromises we make to find happiness & balance". My question is- when his achilles tendon comes back around will Ralph start racing tris again?

My own compromise is between cycling and yoga. I love both and get something different from each. They complement each other a bit, but I know I'm sacrificing depth for breadth by pursuing both.

I'm ok with that, though. The balance keeps me happy.

At June 5, 2008 12:18 PM , Blogger Bill said...

This post comes along at a time when I struggle with cross country mountain bike racing and 24 hour / ultra endurance MTB racing. So how far does one specify? Even into the sport itself?

At June 5, 2008 12:43 PM , Blogger Mark said...

Hi Joe:

Do you see the same type of dichotomy between time trials, crits and road races? I am 42 years old, this is my second year in bike racing and first year using your book for training. I am finding that I am improving in TTs but not as much in crits and RRs.

Mark in Vancouver BC

At June 5, 2008 4:12 PM , Anonymous dave said...

The thought occurs to me as to whether Ralph would have had the same success with the bike this year had he not crosstrained so much in the prior 4 years.

I don't disagree with the specificity point & that it certainly led to gains, but it seems like the variety of training you do for tri events gives value that you might not be able to get training only on the bike or only for ME. Is it possible that frank was building on top of a mountain of crosstraining hours?

love your books, can't believe I have the gall to post something like this, but I'm curious what you think.

At June 7, 2008 8:22 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Dave--I'd stick with my original point here. Had he been riding a bike for the last 4 years with the same volume and intensity as his tri training he would be an even better cyclist today.

At June 7, 2008 8:25 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Mark--It could be that muscular endurance (TTs) comes around before anaerobic endurance (RR, crits) when you are new to the sport. Or it could be that you have spent more time training ME.

At June 7, 2008 8:31 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Bill--Yes, specifity can become quite "specific" to the unique details of the individual sport, the course, the weather, ther intensity, etc.

At June 11, 2008 1:24 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jay--Ralph has decided to stay with cycling only--at least for the remainder of this season. He will evaluate the situation again this winter.

At July 6, 2008 6:14 PM , Anonymous ChrisB said...


I started cycling 4 yrs ago and I read your book last year. I gained a tremendous amount of insight that helped me greatly improve. Specificity is something I'm trying to hone in for cross season coming up this fall, and cross is not discussed in your book. In your experience, what are the most important engines/efforts to train to excel at cyclocross.


At July 6, 2008 8:02 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Chrisb--Assuming your anaerobic bike fitness is solid at the end of the road season, I would say the next most common limiters for CX are skills (especially dismounting) and running (especially uphill carrying bike).

At July 7, 2008 11:56 AM , Blogger Bill said...

ChrisB ~ For cross, along with skills and running, your race start is more important than in road racing and are not much different than a mountain bike start. I usually start not as strong and spend a lot of energy catching up to where I finally place. I think if I were to start strong and recover to race from that same position I could be near the lead in the end.


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