By James Daniels
I believe coaches should have a systematic approach to their plans for achieving optimal results for their athletes. Creating a system with a holistic approach that leads to greater health, fundamental development, and higher achievement for athletes—regardless of individual genetic gifts—ultimately results in long-term development and longevity.
- The role of an athlete’s training program is not just to improve fitness levels but also to increase work capacity and influence the potential to produce energy.
- To perform high-speed skills faster, athletes must increase their rate of energy production (power). To increase how long they can maintain their speed, athletes must be able to produce energy for longer periods without disruption of mechanical efficiency, which is the result of an increased work capacity.
- The biggest mistake is to increase an athlete’s ability to produce force or power without also developing the capacity for increased energy production.
- Energy production should be viewed as a fundamental component and objective of every athlete’s entire yearly training program, not something considered only during the fall.
In this article, I will review training as a systematic process in which athletes improve their fitness to meet the demands of their events. Their training is a progressive, long-term process that increases their fitness level and conditioning to improve their performance capabilities.
The first step in this process is the general preparation phase, also known as fall conditioning. I have come to realize that there must be a period of transition for incoming freshmen regardless of their skill level, and therefore their general prep phase lasts the longest. As athletes continue in your program, and become older, stronger, and more experienced, their general prep phases become progressive shorter. Here are the suggested lengths:
- Freshmen: 8-10 weeks
- Sophomores: 6-10 weeks
- Juniors: 6-8 weeks
- Seniors: 5-6 weeks
Work capacity is the development and ability to withstand large training loads as determined by neuromuscular and metabolic endurance and mechanical efficiency. This process is achieved through a foundational metabolic conditioning process, in which specific activities improve the body’s ability to produce and store energy.
Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, the “father of plyometrics,” states: “It would be wrong to think that the aim of physical preparation is only the development of muscular strength. The strength capacities of skeletal muscles are secured from the energy produced from the corresponding biochemical processes (metabolic energy). Specific physical preparation means having to develop above all the capacity of the body to provide energy for effective specific muscular work.”
An important element in developing energy is natural erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced by the kidneys that promotes the formation of red blood cells via bone marrow. EPO stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells, which in turn increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Red blood cells shuttle oxygen to the cells, including muscle cells, enabling them to operate at a sustained level. The kidney cells that make EPO are sensitive to low oxygen levels in the blood as it travels through the kidneys. Thus, EPO production increases when oxygen levels are low.
Therefore, extensive and intense interval training during general prep—and subsequent phases—is extremely important in terms of teaching the body to produce what it does naturally to enhance maximization of fitness levels and work capacity. The major differences between extensive and intensive tempo are rest and intensity of the run that places the athlete in oxygen debt, a precursor to forcing the kidneys to produce more red blood cells.
Tendon and Ligament Development
Athletes seeking to perform at a high level also need strong tendons and ligaments because of the stress placed on their joints as they move toward event-specific training and the demands of their event. Tendons and ligaments are dense connective tissues made of collagen or elastic fibers that run parallel to each other, creating strong cords that maintain joint stability, decrease the loss of energy, and protect against injury. When tendons and ligaments are not properly reinforced, nagging soft tissue injuries are a sign of problems to come.
Muscle contractions stimulate your tendons and ligaments to become stronger and thicker as you progressively overload them; however, this process takes time, as connective tissue is less metabolically active than muscle tissue. Efforts to strengthen tendons and ligaments therefore progress slowly. While this process is not the most exciting in terms of overall development, shortening it doesn’t allow proper time for supportive structures to gain strength.This in turn can lead to unnecessary soft tissue training injuries.
Thus, it will require the entire general prep phase to strengthen tendons and ligaments to a reasonable thickness to guard against injury during your late fall training model that becomes more race- and event-specific in terms of intensity. As your athlete performances increase the stability of the tendons and ligaments will seek to produce greater force to achieve optimal performances.
Improving tendon and ligament integrity during the general preparation phase also serves as a gateway for central nervous system/neuromuscular coordination. As you progress through fall training, high levels of central nervous system/neuromuscular coordination become more and more important to your program. Many athletes become very efficient with central nervous system/neuromuscular coordination imbalances, which will ultimately inhibit muscle activation patterns and the effectiveness of your training program. Teaching your athlete to become ambidextrous—focusing on both their dominant and non-dominant sides—while performing drills unlocks the barriers to high-speed development.
Considerations of General Preparation
General conditioning exercises play an important role in the development of muscle elasticity, strength, mobility, dynamic joint stability, range of motion, restoration, and central nervous system/neuromuscular coordination. The exercises also form a foundation for specific conditioning exercises. It is important to understand that general preparation exercises have the task to develop the cardiovascular system, improve work capacity, strengthen the movement and support systems, improve coordination, and form a sound base for the performance of specific exercises. The following factors should be taken into consideration in the execution of general preparation exercises:
- Work unilaterally to address muscle imbalances
- Increase the volume on antagonistic muscles
- Strengthen joint stabilization muscles
- Develop general endurance by increasing the number of repetitions and intensity of an exercise
- Frequently change tensions and sequences to improve coordination
- Develop alactic power and capacity to enhance further speed development
- Develop strength, flexibility, neuromuscular coordination, and technique
- Develop the hip flexors
- Strengthen connective tissue and ligaments
- Increase blood volume
- Increase and enhance glycogen storage and capacity
- Gradually increase aerobic capacity and endurance (oxygen consumption) to enhance recovery between reps, sets, and workouts
- Aggressively address the posterior chain (core, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and lower back)
- Progressively overload to build up workout frequency, volume, and intensity
- Promote neurological development of proper technique patterns to improve mechanics
- Develop skill acquisition/talent
- Manage nutrition and restoration activity
Stabilization of physical and functional adaptations requires continuity of training. The training process should be systematic with an understanding that changes will be made to accommodate the needs of individual athletes to achieve maximum results. A systematic approach will have a goal or a set of goals controlled and planned according to results of the control tests and training data. New material must be based on previously attempted material, and the training process should be rhythmical and not sporadic. The plan should include observation of the following:
- Technical development
- Energy system development
- Neural development
- Optimum transfer of power on every stride
- Economical use of the energy system
- Preventive injury and restoration strategies
- Strength development
Progressing to high-volume training loads is necessary during the general prep and succeeding phases to cause lasting physical and functional changes for athletes to handle the increasing loads and intensity. Unfortunately, some coaches skip certain processes in favor of “it’s time to move along.” Arbitrary programming leads to arbitrary results and inconsistent performances, which creates frustration. Your program design should have adaptations that are predictable and fixable.
Remember, as you progress through your fall training, keep your general preparation and development separate from your special preparation and pre-competition training. The difference is that general preparation consists of general exercises to improve work capacity, and development will be technical components that lead to your advanced training model. Blending all three can lead to injuries, inconsistency, and poor performances. An effective model reinforces and establishes your training guidelines, and addresses all aspects of the model through science, observation, and data. The most important variable in any model is the returning fitness level of the athlete. The fitness level of the athlete should dictate how long their general preparation lasts, regardless of their genetic gifts.
Please share this article so others may benefit.