Sunday, February 14, 2010

Specificity of Training

I consider specificity the most important principle of training. And I tie specificity in with periodization to create training plans for the athletes I coach. So what is it? Basically, the specificity principle says that if you want to become good at something you need to do that thing. Sounds pretty simple, huh?

According to the specificity principle to ultimately become good at bicycle racing you should ride a bike – not run. That seems fairly obvious, but it’s remarkable how many cyclists, when short of time, will resort to a run workout. That may be ok early in the Base period. But in the Build period (3-11 weeks before the A race) there is very limited value.

So how about this one… If your goal is to run a 7-minute pace you need to do a lot of 7-minute-paced running. Not 8 minutes and not 6 minutes. There is this thing called “economy” which relates to the principle of specificity. If you spend a lot of time running 6- or 8-minute pace you will not be as economical at 7 minutes as you could have otherwise been. Economy has to do with how much energy you use (or waste) at a given pace.

One I deal with a lot has to do with triathletes and bike races… Many multisport athletes believe that bike road racing is good training for triathlon. It’s not. Bike races are, indeed, aerobic events, as are triathlons. But that’s where the similarity ends. The outcomes of bike races are determined by two-minute episodes when all hell breaks loose. They are anything but steady state aerobic. Bike racing has a huge anaerobic component which is critical to success. No one in their right mind races a triathlon that way. Triathlons are steady and anaerobic intensity is avoided. A bike race done by a triathlete is largely a wasted workout day. It’s even worse than that because the recovery after one of these delays when the next, truly specific triathlon workout can be done.

(A brief aside… I know many triathletes may be upset about what I just said. I’m sure I will get comments about pros who do this and how successful they are. But I think they’d be better if they stayed focused on triathlon. Some will comment on the “fun” factor of doing bike races. I have no problem with that. I used to do that myself and coach athletes who also participate in both sports. Everyone needs to decide what it is they want from sport. In other words, what is “fun” for you? You can be a generalist who is pretty good at a lot of different things, or you can be a specialist who is very good at one thing. I have no qualms about either. Either can be "fun." The purpose of this post, however, is to describe how to be very good at one sport. Now back to specificity.)

Here’s an even less obvious example… If training for a criterium you need to spend a lot of time in the drops or hooks of your handlebars – not on the brake hoods or tops. Why? Because crit racing demands you be in that position almost all of the race and pedaling economy is different when in the drops versus being on the hoods. Slightly different muscles are used.

You’re probably getting the idea now, but here’s a final one, similar to the above, that is often overlooked by road cyclists… If you want to race well in time trials you need to train on a TT bike. Again, different muscles are used in an extreme aero position than when on a road bike, even in the drops. In the Build period I have riders do muscular endurance intervals on their TT bike weekly.

This specificity principle is applied to periodization by ensuring that your weekly key workouts become increasingly like your next A race the closer in time you get to that race. So let’s examine “key” workouts.

A key workout is one that I have called a “breakthrough” workout in my Training Bible books. It’s a workout intended to push the limits of your fitness. I’ve recently started defining them with a “Training Stress Score” (TSS). I determine very early in the season what the approximate TSS of the A race will be. Then I design workouts based on that stress. I’ve mentioned this concept before here. But I continue to refine it and will post something here in the near future when time allows.

Essentially, a key workout is a hard session. Serious athletes typically do two to four of these in a week during the Build period. If you want to race faster, determining the details of these workouts, when to do them relative to each other, and the rate at which they become increasingly like the A race is what serious training is all about. Missing a key workout is bad but you can recover from it fairly easily. Missing a bunch of them is disastrous to performance.

The bottom line is that these key workouts must be specific to the demands of the A race for which you are training. Specificity isn’t so critical for the non-key workouts in your week. But some is still required. How much is difficult to say. But I’d recommend that a cyclist do them on a bike. That’s probably beneficial, but hard to measure.

It’s a little trickier for triathletes. They probably need to do each of the three sports at least three times a week. That means three key workouts and six “others” every week. Very competitive triathletes do far more than that. In fact, some would probably progress better if they cut back on some of the “filler” workouts.

You can make some exceptions to the specificity principle when it comes to recovery workouts. Triathletes are probably better off recovering on a bike or in the pool rather than by doing an easy run. If you’re going to develop an overuse injury it’s most likely in running. Saving the legs for the key runs is generally a good idea. I still want the triathletes I coach to run at least three times a week. So one of those “other” runs may be to improve skills or as a short run after a key bike ride to prepare the body for the “unusual” stress of running after riding.

At this point I should also get into recovery days in greater detail. That’s a post for another day, however.

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At February 15, 2010 12:49 AM , Blogger Health & Fitness Tips said...

Great article - as a triathlete I do most of my bike training on a road bike as I like to "save" my TT bike for races - looks as though I'll have to ride my TT bike more in training from now on.

At February 15, 2010 2:02 AM , Blogger Gordo Byrn said...


Great post.

Have you looked at TSS for a speedy IM? We had a look at energy required for an athlete of my size. Came out ~7500kj.

Would be interested in your thoughts on this aspect of fitness (work capacity). I wonder if it is a factor of stage racers as well?

Interestingly, the energy requirements went down as the race slowed due to aerodynamic considerations on the bike.

Best regards,

At February 15, 2010 7:58 PM , Blogger Steven said...

Hi Joe,

I've used your Training Bible to plan my year containing a few A-priority century rides. I'm a novice, and nearing the end of my base periods. My question is what should my target heart-rate zone be for my centuries (and so also my long build rides)?


At February 15, 2010 9:44 PM , Anonymous Stefan said...

Many MTB athletes spend most of the time on their road bikes. According to your principles, should they do that only during Base period?

At February 16, 2010 6:40 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

steven--a century will be ridden mostly in the 2-3 HR zones. But if there are hills expect 4-5a zones depending on their length and grade. Good luck.

At February 16, 2010 6:42 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

stefan--no, not necessarily. Aerobic endurance, for example, is best developed on the road. And the road is also preferable for recovery rides.

At February 16, 2010 8:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe, I have used your books from being a triathlete and now focusing mainly on cycling. One question I have "ALWAYS" had, is "how long can I stay in say Zone-5"? i.e. after I determine my zones (for cycling) should I be able to ride in Zone 5 for 30min? 1hr? etc;

Joe "Gammy"

At February 16, 2010 8:36 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Joe G--z5 is pretty big. At the low end (5a) you should be able to hold that for about an hour. The high end of z5b for about 5-6 minutes. And 5c for a few seconds to a minute or so.

At February 16, 2010 8:40 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Gordo--Good to hear from you. Sorry for the delayed reply. Travel and clients visiting this week. Here's the rough general guidelines I use for triathlon TSS by race distance and discipline...

• Swim – 20-30 TSS
• Bike – 40-60 TSS
• Run – 25-40 TSS
• Swim – 30-40 TSS
• Bike – 90-110 TSS
• Run – 50-70 TSS
Half Ironman
• Swim – 50-70 TSS
• Bike – 160-190 TSS
• Run – 110-130 TSS
• Swim – 110-130 TSS
• Bike – 300-360 TSS
• Run – 200-250 TSS

At February 16, 2010 11:30 AM , Anonymous John Tomac said...

Good stuff. I used this principle both for xc and dh mtb racing. I spent alot of time on just trail riding my DH bike to duplicate riding position strength and specific muscle fitness while DH racing. I also did alot of intensity work on the xc bike for xc racing, as opposed to doing it on the road bike. It worked well for me, I am a fan of this.

At February 16, 2010 6:26 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

John T--Thanks for your comment. I still use a study you were a part of many years to describe the economy of pedaling. That study found that you were the most economical of all the elite riders tested from a variety of cycling-related sports. Probably due in part to what you describe of your training specificity in your comments.

At February 17, 2010 10:15 AM , Blogger JZ said...

"The" John Tomac? Awesome!

Joe, question on specificity for MTB XC race training. Since xc mtb (and road) races feature high intensity efforts of varying duration throughout the race, does it make sense to do intervals of varying length within a given workout, such as a couple of two or three minute efforts, with two or three longer efforts maybe five or ten minutes in length? Or maybe just treat each climb like an interval, the duration of which being determined by the length of the climb. To me that seems to be true specificity and more naturally fits into a good ride on my local trails.

By the way, love the blog.

At February 17, 2010 5:11 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

JZ--There a lot of ways to skin a cat - and prepare for the variable intensities of bike racing, whether on or off road. I use several different approaches if for no other reason than to just to give training some variety. But I think the different approaches also helps the rider prepare for different situations.

At February 18, 2010 6:48 AM , Blogger Scott said...

Hi Joe,

With a proper bike fit, can I still expect a slight drop in my power output in an aero position vs. when I come out of the aero position on a traithlon configured bike?

At February 18, 2010 6:49 AM , Blogger Scott said...

Hi Joe,

Even with a proper bike fit, will I still experience a drop in power in the aero position on a Triathlon bike vs. a non aero position?

At February 18, 2010 7:06 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Scott--The aero position decreases power in order to decrease drag. Sitting up increases power (that's why you sit up to climb) but increases drag.

At February 18, 2010 8:02 AM , Blogger Mark M said...

Hi Joe..

This completley off the topic.

I've purchased your Training Bible For Cyclist book and I'm in Chapter 4 now where you are discussing BIke Periodiztion with the PMC chart.

I've bought myself a Powermeter and the WKO+ software a while ago but I'm not sure which values to use for my CTL and ATL Constant. At the moment mine is set at 42 and 7.

Are these the correct values??

At February 18, 2010 10:53 AM , Blogger Scott said...

Hi Joe,

Thanks for responding to my question. In your experience, what would be an acceptable % drop in power between my aero vs. non-aero position? I'm new to bike power training so I'm assuming that the aero position power drop is offset by the gain in decreased drag. Over a short distance, not so much, but the gain in decreased drag would be greater over longer distances.

At February 18, 2010 4:01 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Mark M--Yes, 42 and 7 are good.

At February 18, 2010 4:02 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

scott--It's probably going to be between 2 and 10% depending on how aero you are.

At March 16, 2010 7:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

Really enjoy your Tri and MTB Bible Books. I read and reference them all the time in planning my training Schedule for Olympic mostly and one half at the end of the year.
Two questions for you.

Regarding Specificity. Your example " if you want to run 6' miles, then train a lot at 6'".
Would you do this in a brick to simulate a race or a run only w/o. I guess what I'm wondering is, if your tri pace is a minute +- off your road pace. Should my run only w/o be based on that pace and my brick runs based on my tri pace.

Thanks JD

At March 16, 2010 9:12 AM , Blogger chorpita said...

Hi Joe,

My second triathlon season is coming up. I am a former competitive swimmer, new to biking and an above-average runner.

Being a weak biker, I spent the winter putting in *many* hours on my mountain bike and on various fitness studio exercise bikes (due to snow and cold).

Now, starting up again with my tri-bike, I am shocked by how clumsy I feel. I feel, to some extent, like I've been training the wrong leg muscles. Some back pain. Should I get fitted? Everything felt fine in September. Should I put my tri-bike on a indoor trainer next winter and do most of my work there?

BTW, love your books. Have them all. Awesome!

At March 16, 2010 12:02 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

JD--Run race goal pace frequently in the last few weeks before an A race. How and when is up to you based on what all is going on in your training. There are tons of variables I can't address here.

At March 16, 2010 12:03 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

chorpita--Get bike fit and get on the road as often as you can.

At March 23, 2010 9:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe.
Running race pace frequently the last few weeks B/4 an A race feels right. But as a runner at the core, I'm still wrestling with basing my run only W/O's on my 10k Road pace training.(I do mainly olympics). Am I beating my self up too much based on the perception that my tri pace is so connected to my road pace. Due to secificity, am I wasting valuable energy, enduring too much muscle damage, recovery etc.

Thanks for your help and a great blog.



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