Specificity – It’s About How As Well As How Much

Six weeks ago I went to the pool and swam 4.5km much of it with paddles and an old inner tube round my ankles. This morning I managed 1.6km through what felt like treacle in my first swim since Hawaii. My body was stiff and craved more oxygen than I could supply, that’d be the detraining effect of a three week break.

Anticipating this I’ve not planned anything long or hard, the first week of training is based on feel. Better to be completing steady sessions than pushing myself through workouts I’m not ready for. Patience is needed to reverse the decline and restore fitness, a fortnight more and I won’t be gasping for breathe.

At this time shorter workouts with less intensity are exactly what I need, two months from now and I’ll perform entirely different sessions. Training is specific to the point in the season and the goal I’m trying to achieve (getting fit enough to properly train).

Specificity is what I want to touch on. I’ve written about the Performance Management Chart (PMC) and using Training Stress Scores (TSS) to assess the impact of workouts and I’m concerned it gives the impression that just training is enough. Don’t get me wrong, just training is good it beats not training every time.

Briefly recapping TSS is calculated for a workout based on duration and intensity of the training. Higher scores can be achieved by longer sessions, harder sessions or any combination of the two. Fitness (CTL) on the PMC is a weighted average of recent TSS so routinely recording high TSS days will raise fitness.

You could go for a leisurely six hour ride and record the same TSS as a hard two hour interval set. Both would stimulate physiological adaptations and lead to an increase in your CTL, on the PMC you would be fitter. Which one is better? Neither are bad they’ll both improve fitness, but have differing impact on aspects of fitness which is where you need to consider the specifics. What are you training at this point in time?

If the answer was endurance then the six hour ride might be appropriate. If you were looking to develop threshold power then the two hour ride would be more effective. In reality there’s a more complex balancing act going on. Few athletes I coach have the time to regularly do six hour rides especially factoring in three sports, family and a job.

I’ve got the flexibility that were I inclined I could manage four steady six hour rides a week. From experience (I’ve done this at times) bike fitness and FTP would improve especially if starting from a low point. The improvements would be far slower than a more varied and specific schedule.

In the peak of Ironman training the important sessions are focussed on race performance. For Kona the core sessions were a three hour tempo ride, a ninety minute threshold ride and a six hour mixed intensity endurance ride. That six hour ride was sufficiently hard I’d be hard pushed to manage four in a week.

Even with a couple of easier rides added in a typical peak Kona week would have a lower total TSS than my theoretical four by six hour week. In terms of impact on my race performance the gulf is almost as wide. Those peak sessions ensured I was able to ride harder on race day and still feel I was taking it easy!

Following my three week break any training really beats no training. Increasing my fitness while avoiding too much intensity is the specific work I need to do. Restoring basic fitness so I can tolerate the harder work that will come later. Too much too soon and injury is the likely consequence.

Training isn’t just about the hours you manage or raising fitness on a chart they’re part of the process, but don’t forget specificity. Your training can and should change over time relating to your fitness and your goals, If you want to perform your best you need to think beyond logging miles. How you train can be as important as how much (but at least train).

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.