The Economics of Training Part I

David Van Skike


I overheard a conversation this weekend at a highland games that is a classic pitfall of self-coached (and many professionally coached) athletes. Names withheld to protect the guilty.

I don’t know what’s going on with my throws. I have no pop in the trig, no snap or speed. The worst part is I’m doing everything right. My diet is paleo, I’m throwing often, I’m getting my strength lifts in twice a week at least, squatting and pressing heavy. I’m doing Olympic lifts and I’m Crossffitting 4 days a week!

Now, if like me, you laughed out loud at this vignette, the balance of this article may be remedial. If you’re not sure if you get the joke, please continue on. 

It’s the Economy Stupid.

Whether you remember this political phrase or not, you should co-opt it. Repeat it.  Make it ring in your ear every time you make a training decision:  Should I….

  • Add a training day?
  • Do one more set? One more Lap?
  • Go home and stretch, stay and do grip work?
  • Drills or full throws?
  • Sprints or an easy long run?
  • Yoga or foam roller?

What I mean specifically is this:  before you ask yourself what to do, first ask why.  If you know why, then ask can you afford to do it?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s disregard everything you know about periodization, forget all the texts, ebooks, periodization templates, and articles you’ve read, and disregard all the webinars and YouTube videos by experts on how to develop training programs. Let’s talk basic moving parts. All successful programming for training whether it’s general fitness or sports specific comes down to balancing between three variables: 

Recovery.  No one said it would be easy.
  • Volume of training
  • Intensity of training
  • Recovery from training. 
Repeat that to yourself. Three times through. It is  this simple.  If you can’t recover from the volume and intensity you’re applying, you will not progress in your training.   It’s not down to genetics, it’s not supplements, it’s not the gear and it’s not performance enhancing drugs. Successful programming comes down to balancing between those three variables: volume of training, intensity of training and recovery from training.
Here’s a simple equation (if you’re one those types):

R-(V+I)=Progress.

  • R is Recovery. Recovery is what you have to spend. At a basic level, recovery is determined by how well you’re sleeping, how well you’re eating, how long you’ve been training, how old you are, your injury status, your stress level.
  • Volume means the amount of work you’re doing: miles, sets, throws, mat time, etc.
  • Intensity is the degree to which a given stress provokes a training stimulus response.

Volume and intensity of training are often discussed in terms of weight or speed and repetitions or time. 5 sets of 5 is inherently different from a volume or intensity standpoint than 10 sets of 10. Your Recovery is in essence, money in the bank.  Volume and Intensity are where you want to spend that money. So if you have limited spending power, you’re going to want to be frugal about it. It’s this frugality that so many people fail to adopt. Spending this budget wisely is what separates experts from rookies and progress from stagnation.

Skills

There is one more challenge in both the volume and intensity of training that we encounter that is largely overlooked.  Learning New Skills. Lifting is a skill, throwing is a skill, running is a skill. All voluntary motor functions contain a significant skill component. The amount of skills you can learn at one time is finite. The process of learning sport skills is not much different from learning to read, write, draw, or make a souffle.  It takes time, a lot of practice, and it is significantly taxing.

Running fast is a skill, not just and ability.

 A basic training reality is that learning is fatiguing.  Whether you label this as CNS fatigue or something else, we all have had the experience of feeling exhausted after learning to execute a new task. It is no different in the weight room or the track or the field. This fatigue is costly from a recovery perspective. This is true on a micro level (number of new skills learned within a workout) or on a macro level (number of new skills learned during a given block of training).

We tend to think that the skill of throwing a shot put is the same whether you’re throwing 35 feet or 55 feet. The perfect form for a given individual should be the same, correct? The fact is, given two equally strong and fast athletes, the one that is throwing farther is executing a higher skill (better) movement. Developing this skill has a cost and takes time. Whether it be a tennis serve, a deadlift, a 100 meter dash or a 50k run, the skill required to perform one task is not 100% identical to the skill it takes to perform that same movement better, or heavier, or faster or longer.

If one is an incredibly fast and powerful lifter, learning to execute a decent squat may not take very long but soon progress will stall and moving additional weight will require both additional strength and additional skill. The skill it takes to squat 150 kilos is different from the skill it takes to squat 250 kilos, even though the only variable that’s changed is the weight on the bar.

Transference

Transference is the magic manna of training.  Transference refers to the degree to which becoming good at one movement, say a squat, will transfer to another sports movement, say a jump or a throw.  What you quickly learn as you train is that

Squat More

there are some correlations among similar movements (say a front squat and a back squat) but not all gym movements transfer to a sport movements.  The best movements transfer easily. Squats and Deadlifts are two. Yet if you ask the average athlete how he or she would justify including high intensity circuits into a training session, 9 out of 10 would not have a cogent answer.  For others it will not.  A frugal trainer will learn to invest in a limited set of tools they know will work for them and not waste time with cheap crap. So, how do we figure it out?   The first step is not looking at what new thing to try (jump squats instead of powercleans?)  but what tools do you have now that are working?

It depends.

Only if  we actively consider the skill cost/fatigue cost of each component of training, can we  measure and balance how effective one thing will be for an individual versus another.  It’s this understanding that separates good coaches and smart athletes from less good ones.

  • Which is better, rows or pullups?
  • What assistance movements should I do for my squat?
  • Will improving my power clean make me a better thrower?
  • Should fighters do road work?

If you have a pat answer to any of these questions, you are wrong. The only possible correct answer is, It Depends.

It depends on the goal of the athlete.  What else are they doing? Most importantly,  why are they doing it?   What all of those questions are really getting at is what is the best bang for the buck…which of these options is most economical.  By way of example, yes, rows are better than pullups — IF  you are interested in improving your deadlift and developing a lot of upper back strength and size. But, if you are training for a warrior dash, then pullups are much more specific and will work towards improving speed over obstacles. Context is king when changing your practice.

  • What is in your current training?
    • What are you going to remove to make way for the new shiny thing?
  • Why are you changing it?
    • Why will the new shiny thing work better than what you’re doing now?
  • How will you know if it works? 
    • How long are you giving yourself to see if it works?

This should be the go to process when evaluating whether something should be included. When in doubt, banish the word AND in favor of OR.  Before adding anything to a training day, or block or macro cycle, look first at what can be removed.  At the end of the day, effective training plans involve removing everything non-essential and leaving in the components that are known to work. Once you apply that filter, plans for many sports begins to look very similar.

We’ll discuss the practical applications of this concept more in Part II

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