You set a big running goal and you want to become a better runner. There are lots of activities out there, like weight lifting, yoga, or various forms of cross training, that are advertised to make you a better runner. Although there may be some truth in those claims, the very best way to become a better runner is to run! Similarly, the best way to become better at any activity is to do that activity. In this article, Team RunRun coach and exercise scientist, Maxx Antush, discusses the concept of specificity of training and the importance of specific training when chasing your epic goals.
What do we mean by specificity of training?
The principle of specificity in your training may seem obvious in the broad sense that if you want to be a runner, you should spend the vast majority of your training time running. However, this principle goes deeper than that. The starting point in building the training plan road map after you set a goal should always be figuring out what the specific demands of that goal are going to be. How far is the route? How long are you planning to take? How hilly is it? What is the weather going to be like? How far between the aid stations? How much fueling and/or hydrating will you need to do? These are some of the questions that you should be asking when you are considering the demands necessary to accomplish your goal. The answers to these questions will determine what it looks like to specifically train for all the components that go into your success.
How do we apply specificity to training?
In understanding that you need to tailor your training to address the exact demands of the activity you wish to perform, it is also important to understand that your training is going to optimally prepare you for specific events and activities and not necessarily other ones. While general running will make you a generally better runner, if your goal is to finish your first marathon, you will be far better prepared to be successful if your longest run in training is 18 to 22 miles than you would be if your longest training run was 6 miles. If you are racing a mountain race that will require some hiking up steep terrain, you would be better prepared by finding a way to incorporate hiking in your training rather than just exclusively running. If you are doing a 24 hour race that will require you to eat and drink during the race, specific training would include doing some running at night and eating and drinking while running at the same rate you plan to on race day. If you are trying to set a new 5 km personal best, you should have some workouts that are run at your 5 km race pace. If you are racing in the heat, but only train during the cool morning hours, your body won’t be as adapted to perform optimally in hot conditions as it could be.
What to do if you aren’t able to train specifically?
Just because you don’t have access to some of the exact event demands for your goals (heat, altitude, hills, etc.), it doesn’t mean you are necessarily unable to have an element of specific preparation in your training. One of the most notable examples of this is ultramarathoner Kaci Lickteig, who won the 2016 Western States 100 Mile trail race with 15,540 feet of climbing and 22,970 feet of descent while living and training in relatively flat Omaha, Nebraska. For Kaci, the key was to get as fit as possible with her training because fitness will translate to a degree regardless of the event. However, other ways to prepare for specific demands of hilly terrain when you don’t have access to it might be to use incline settings on the treadmill to climb (or descend if your treadmill will decline) or train going up and down the bleachers at your local high school stadium.
If you live in a relatively cool climate, but plan to compete in hot environments, you can do heat specific training by using a sauna protocol or running in the warmest time of the day with layers on to simulate the heat. For altitude races when living and training at sea-level, you can focus on raising your VO2 max, your body’s maximal capacity to deliver oxygen to your muscles, as high as you possibly can so that your body will be efficient at transporting oxygen when there is limited oxygen availability at altitude.
The more exact demands of your event goals you are able to specifically train for, the more optimal your preparation for that event will be. Understanding exactly what you will have to do on race day to reach your goals and developing a plan to address each of those demands in your training is the key to applying the specificity of training principle. Sometimes you might need to get creative and think outside the box to find ways to meet your training needs, and even then it might not be perfect, but doing the best you can with what you have to work with is most often enough to accomplish even your biggest goals!
Maxx Antush is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Maxx, check out his coaching page.