After getting destroyed at the Ritte team training camp it seems like a good time to address the difference between being in shape and getting into sports-specific shape. It’s important for any weekend warrior or aspiring outdoor enthusiast to understand and plan around this difference. Today’s post is a primer.
A sport doesn’t exist where you can simply train in the gym and then compete at a high level without a period of integration, where you transition the fitness gains achieved into real world scenarios. There are various factors involved in the answer. The obvious is skill, as every sport has its own technique, but the more subtle issues that tend to get overlooked involving specificity of sport.
The easiest example to understand is skin conditioning. Skiing, running, climbing, biking, horseback riding, you name it; all require that your skin be in a specific condition. Do any of these things too long off the couch, no matter how high your fitness level is, and you’ll wind up with blisters at best. Push it too far and a real injury can occur.
Skin is the leader of the integration chain—the obvious link that breaks down fast but adapts quickly. Following are a slew of physiological processes that all require neuromuscular adaptations of varying levels in order for you to be efficient. I like to lump these under a made-up word for neuromuscular patterns that blankets this entire category: engrams.
Engrams are the patterns a sport engrains in your physiology, like the “once you’ve ridden a bike you never forget” saying. Though you don’t lose them at a basic level, such as how to ride, run, ski, etc., you absolutely lose them in the realm of high performance, especially when you’ve made physiological improvements in fitness level.
Fitness gains made in the gym take some time to integrate, which is why athletes should only try and make big physiological changes in body composition during the off-season and, conversely, the closer they get to their performance goal the more specifically targeted their training should be. An outdoor athlete should be spending virtually no time in the gym (living room gym, whatever) close to a big event. But if you want to improve year to year you should spend a lot of time in the gym during your off-season. Check out my 2011 training synopsis and see how my gym training sessions tapered close to each big event.
For an example of what happens when you don’t do this let’s use at the Ritte camp. In SoCal, where Ritte is based (click here for awesome Wired article on Ritte), racing season begins in early Feb. This means that camp, at least for some, is a final tune up to race season.
My race season begins in June and ended in November, putting me in the very midst of off-season training. If I were a professional I would not mix my training with such a group because it will cause too much breakdown and interfere with my program. No coach would ever advise such a thing. But I’m not a professional racer. I’m a professional lab rat and wanted to mingle with my team, most of whom I’d never met. So I showed up in very good gym shape but with almost no time on the bike in two months, knowing full well I’d spend the weekend blurry-eyed and hanging on for dear life under the guise of anecdotal evidence.
If camp had been about who can do the most pull-ups, core movements on a stability ball, or probably even one-leg squats I’d likely have fared well as most of the team had left the gym behind in November. Specific integration often means you lose some of your training-specific strength in favor of, in this case, your ability to turn bigger gears at the same cardiovascular output where you turned smaller gears in the off-season. This gear difference makes a rider a racer. The example works the same across all sports, and is how we differentiate between in shape and sports shape.
pics: brian hodges at velo images