The principle of Specificity has been a long followed dogma in the field of sports performance. This principle is defined as: any training that is performed by an athlete should be exact in nature to the skills in which that athlete is trying to improve. In simple terms, in order to get better at something you must practice doing that exact skill and not something generally similar. If you want to get better at throwing a baseball then you should not practice throwing a softball. Similarly, if you want to be a better hill runner then you must practice running hills.
The concept of Sport Specific Training or “Specificity” seems acceptable but in a time when CrossFit is highly popular more generalized cross training has become the rage. I mean CrossFit by nature is non-specific right? Not so fast! Even CrossFit (CF) utilizes specificity in their programming they just package their product a little differently. There are movements that are popular in CF’s W.O.D.’s. Thrusters, kipping pull ups, Olympic lifting, and rowing intervals are all very common in CF workouts. When implementing these exercises we are, in fact, practicing our skills . There is no getting around it; if you want to be better at a given sport then you simply must practice the skills/ challenges that you will be faced within that sport.
You may then ask the question, “how can I apply this sport-specific training idea to a sport like Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) where I don’t know what the course will look like until sometimes just a day before the event?” I contend that you know a lot more about that race than you probably realize and taking what you do know and applying that can help a lot when it comes to putting together a training program. However, before we even begin to implement a program, you must first come up with specific goals in which to focus your training. This is where I feel that many obstacle racers drop the ball. I believe it is extremely important for an athlete to set goals based on his/her outcome performance in a specific race or couple of races. This “goal” race could be a World Championship event or just your local OCR. This event is the one where you direct your training. This will allow you to best gauge the quality of your training program and the end-result of your labor. Basically, you need to try to peak for one or two events and all the others in which you participate are merely training races to help get you ready for the “big day.” Setting up a program in this fashion allows you to create a periodization (planned variation) type program more similar to traditional sports while still addressing nearly all of the aspects we encounter during an obstacle race.
Training for obstacle races is generally considered “non-specific.” This could be because a lot of the athletes in the sport come from varied backgrounds. There are runners, CrossFit athletes, Parkour runners, and even some bodybuilders. This leads to a lot of unique training styles. Whatever you choose to include in your program, realize there are certain staple obstacles for which you need to be prepared. These include rope climbs, cargo nets, wall climbs, monkey bar type apparatuses, low crawls, weighted carries, muddy hills, and balance beams. If you have properly prepared then you should be ready. There is only 168 hours per week so how are we going to fit everything in? The answer is, HAVE A PLAN!
The following is basic performance enhancement programming. This is Strength and Conditioning Coaching 101. First you have to evaluate the needs of the sport, and then the needs of the athlete(s). Once you know what you need to be able to do and you know where your weaknesses are in relation to the sport then you put the plan together to overcome those vulnerabilities.
OCR Guaranteed Needs:
|Pull up ability||Grip Strength|
|Balance/ Agility Training||Core Strength|
|Lactate Threshold||Military techniques (carrys, low crawl, etc)|
OCR Possible Additional Needs:
|Hill Training||Lift/ Carrying loads|
|Burpees||8 Count Bodybuilders|
Advanced Obstacle Training (American Ninja Warrior obstacle practice courses like OCR Warrior, and things like Platinum Rig, Warped Walls, Rope Climbs, etc)
The Needs Analysis above is purposefully generic. This would be used to put together a general program to prepare you for obstacle racing. This level is great for those relatively new to the sport. However, for those of us who have been racing awhile this is only the beginning. The next step for an experienced athlete is to put together a race schedule for your season. At this point you will also point to a specific race or couple of races that will be the main focus of your preparation. Events like the Spartan World Championship, OCRWC, and World’s Toughest Mudder are all common goals for high level competitors. If you are not so ambitious then pick a local race, like The Battlegrounds here in the St. Louis area, and have that be your peak event. Once you have selected your “peak event(s)” then you will need to put the race specific program together. This is where most racers fall flat on their face like they were hit in the head with an electrified wire!
The following is how I would breakdown a specific race for season preparation. I used Google Earth/Maps, www.onthesnow.com, YouTube, and race reviews from various sources to gather this intel. You will likely have to do the same unless you have raced the specific course before.
Spartan World Championships (Squaw Valley Ski Resort)
|Altitude||6,000 – 9,000 ft|
|Length of Climbs||Up to 1 mile|
|% Grade||25 – 60% (can be much steeper than Killington which averages 25 – 45%)|
|Avg Temp (H/L)||High- 64 Low- 35 (similar to Killington numbers but more arid)|
|Climate||Arid Mountain. Low Humidity|
|Distance||Beast- 13-16 miles? (based on 2014)|
|Obstacle Density||about 32 (averages to about 2/mile)(based on 2014)|
|Terrain||Rocky and Mountainous|
Notes: The elevation difference between the 2014 WC at Killington and 2015 at Squaw is significant. Nearly all of the event at Squaw Valley will be above 5,000 ft of elevation. At this level an unacclimatized athlete will suffer a 10% drop in performance. An athlete who spends approximately 14 days at or above this elevation will only see about a 5% drop in performance. This 5% difference in acclimatization at this distance can equal about 1 minute of race time!!!
OCR World Championships (Mud Guts and Glory Course)
|Altitude||700 – 900 ft|
|Length of Climbs||100 – 300 yds (avg 200 yds)|
|% Grade||15 – 45% (about 10-12 climbs) (+ rope climb hills. Pinnacle = 80% grade)|
|Avg Temp (H/L)||High- 67 Low- 43|
|Climate||Fall will have leaves dropping. Can be very humid|
|Distance||8-9 miles (based on 2014)|
|Obstacle Density||about 60+ (averages to about 7/mile)|
|Terrain||Wooded and Rough|
Notes: Rough angled terrain. Rough trails and creeks. Angled ridge running. Hills that require ropes to climb. Short but very steep hills. 5+ climbs of 30% or greater. Obstacles are also very challenging, including two Platinum Rigs. Expect an obstacle fail-rate around 30%.
I know what you are thinking, “now I see the science of how I need to gather the information, but how would Science suggest we create a program with this data?” Well I’m glad you asked! When I am creating a program for an OCR athlete I have to prioritize his/her “skill” training as well as take into account what he will be up against during his race season. These factors are balanced with the athlete’s experience and training level to make sure that he minimizes the risk of over-training while still peaking at the right time. A typical training week might look like this:
|Strength Training||Hill Repeats /Sprint Training||Advanced Obstacle Training/Body weight Strength||Tempo Run||Strength Training and Metabolic Conditioning||Longer Endurance Run||Rest|
Addressing all the different aspects of human performance in an OCR training program can prove to be very difficult. Much more so that it would be for someone training for a marathon. Strength and Conditioning professionals and athletes are constantly adding new things into their programming to provide new challenges. The question is, “when do we ever take things out?” My answer to that would be “when you’ve mastered a skill then move it to the bottom of your rotation!” For instance, once your strength is good, strength train less. Once your balance and agility are pretty good then you can focus more on something that you aren’t so good at. You just need to keep in mind once you reach a higher level of athlete that your training needs to be a revolving door of all of your skills. You should be constantly mixing things up and practicing a combination of every one of the skills that you will need. For example, if you need work on your spear throwing for Spartan races but those events aren’t until the end of your race season maybe hold off on practicing that until you get closer to those races. Focus on more pertinent things that you will face early in the season. In contrast, if you know that you will be competing at the OCRWC at Mud Guts and Glory where there will be numerous steep grade hills with shorter distances you will likely need to begin training for this terrain from the beginning of your program because adaptation to hills takes time.
In summary, the key thing to take from all of this information is that optimal performance in a peak event often takes an entire season of planning and preparation. Simply going out and racing every week is probably not enough. Taking the time to set a goal for your training, selecting a “peak” event, and working towards being your best at that race all requires balancing a variety of stimuli to the body with proper training volume, rest, as well as proper nutrition. As you enter your preparation for the heart of the OCR season, remembering the adage “proper preparation prevents piss poor performance” will go a long way. Please keep in mind the principle of Specificity when putting your program together. The training needs to be pretty much exactly the same skill as the one you are attempting to improve in a race. If it’s hill training then the incline needs to be the same grade and distance as it is in the race. If you are trying to improve your grip strength on the monkey bars then you need to practice the monkey bars.
In the end, a sport specific training program can make all the difference in a sport where races often come down to 60 seconds separating the top five finishers. Good luck and Godspeed!