Vail Daily column: The wrong focus in fitness training
October 14, 2013
I was standing in line at a local coffee shop a few years ago when I overheard a young, fit woman in her late 20s talking about how sore her legs were from skiing. After all, it was sometime in early December, and she said, "I have been biking 300 miles a week all autumn in preparation for ski season; it is just different muscle groups being used, I suppose."
Put simply, it isn't different muscles being used, rather different kinematics and metabolic demands. Human movement is quite specific to the motor tasks that are being placed on the organism. The late Russian researcher and exercise scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky and the legendary Dr. Mel Siff said, "Metabolism is very specific to the intensity and duration of the sporting event, to the extent that excessive development of one type of fitness may have a profoundly detrimental effect on another type of fitness. … It is vital to understand the metabolic specificity of each sport if any training program is to be effective and safe."
Used in the context of the cyclist above, metabolically speaking she clearly wasn't optimally conditioned to perform the act of skiing in the most proficient manner. However, just because she wasn't the most prepared for skiing doesn't mean there isn't any carryover from her developmental adaptations from the heavy cycling.
From cycling to skiing
Cycling is a tremendous stimulus for aerobic adaptations that are important in skiing, especially all terrain skiers who spend time in the backcountry.
Getting into the backcountry without a lift relies almost exclusively on aerobic metabolism, and without a sufficient aerobic base, physical punishment will ensue. But nonetheless, skiing and cycling are quite different in terms of the specific demands each sport places on the body. Skiing relies more heavily on anaerobic metabolism, which produces energy from the absence of oxygen and produces high levels of blood lactate that isn't easily buffered. In other words, your body is taking in 100 percent oxygen, yet the activity is asking for 180 percent to metabolize energy. Anaerobic metabolism is the byproduct of the increased workload in which there isn't sufficient oxygen available. For the anaerobically unfit, this creates the need for more frequent breaks on a typical run.
Make training relevant
This is precisely why it is so important to arrange your fitness around very specific goals. Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John, both elite athletes, coaches and co-authors of "Easy Strength," state they "firmly believe that many athletes are defeated not by their opponents but by their excessive and often irrelevant endurance training. If an amateur boxer fights for 3 minute rounds with 1 minute of rest between them, why should we smoke him with a two-hour practice and the equivalent of 20 rounds (combined sparring, bag work, etc.)? Not only does such training lead to inappropriate, not specific-to-the-event intensity, volume, work-to-rest ratio and metabolic and biomechanical adaptations, but it makes the nervous system learn wrong lessons, as well. Practice brief efforts with a lot of rest, and it will adapt to concentrate all of its resources. Practice going the distance, and you will teach your central nervous system to pace its efforts in order to last. So few recognize the dangers of 'just trying to last' mentality, laments sprint coach Barry Ross. Our amateur boxer should not be saving himself for the 12th round, which will never come."
The same philosophy holds true for the following example. If a cyclist's goal is to become a better cyclist, why should he waste precious nervous energy training excessively with weights? Note that I emphasized "excessively." I am a big proponent of prioritizing strength development for all people, as force production will always drive improvements in the other fitness qualities. So nonetheless, weight training can help, but at the highest levels in any sport, it is imperative that you practice the specific demands of the sport first and foremost. However, developing a base of strength with general strength training exercises first, then picking exercises, work-rest ratios, heart rates and force outputs that are most specific to the actual sport is a great guideline.
Fitness training specific to skiing
Consider skiing for example — even if you are skiing at a modest speed and the average run takes two minutes to complete, it makes more sense to train at a higher heart rate for two minutes with interspersed rest periods, than the alternative of training at a lower intensity for an extended period of time of 20 minutes.
Following these guidelines will alleviate the frustrations sometimes associated with muscle soreness during the onset of a specific season. Lastly, general strength training followed by specific fitness training will keep you healthy, injury free and better prepared to enjoy your sport or activity to the fullest.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards' passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion.