Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Random Training Thoughts #4

I love training. There, it's out in the open. A lot of people have this hang-up that real men don't train, that somehow if you're really good at something you just are good at it naturally, and that training is, well, weak. This viewpoint is usually held by people who also believe that the olympics are full of talented amateurs, that pro cyclists don't dope and that anybody can be a champion in any sport. To quote my favorite musician of the 90s, Ice T, shit ain't like that. If you want to approach your sports like most of us approach badminton at a family picnic then no training is necessary. Drink some beers, be happy if you finally beat your sister, and it's all good. For everything else there is training, and I like it. I feel so much better now having shared that.

Early this morning I was doing a sport that required shorts bursts of concentration followed by 200M runs to examine the results. I ran the 200M both directions, and felt great. Low heart rate, strong, easy. I know this feeling; I usually get it when I'm doing a lot of hard mountain running, something I have NOT been doing lately. I'm going to attribute this directly to Crossfit. You don't run much in Crossfit, but you do go at a workout with intensity, that chuck-a-lung intensity that normally only comes when you're chasing or being chased. In fact, I can't remember the last time running felt so easy. Uphill and down. I don't think I would do very well in a long mountain race right now, but I'm surprised with how my 1500M or so of running felt today. I've had a lot of situations in the last month where I've thought, "Hey, I do this in my workouts a lot, no problem." Based on the fast results, wide range of applicable fitness and general, "I feel good doing this" I'm going to say that I think Crossfit is the best possible "generalist" workout I've ever done. I'd put money on Crossfit's athletes in almost any non-skill situation. Pick that really heavy box of books up and run it up four flights of stairs. No problem. Pick your motorcyle up after you drop it. No problem. Wrestle your topper on and off your truck. No problem. Boulder V5. Problem. Boulder hop a creek. Problem. The last two are learned skills based on practice and specific strength, and nothing but doing the activity is going to give you that. But I sure do like how my body feels and performs (that being a relative word--I'm at a family badminton game level in most things Crossfit) these days. I first started doing Crossfit specific workouts in Brazil a few years ago with a friend who was into it, and loved it. It's been in and out of my life since then, but it's just a good thing, especially for those of us who still want to be athletes as we age. I have no fucking intention of giving up being an athlete anytime soon, I expect Crossfit will help meet that on-going goal.

"Functional" gym workouts. These are relatively new; I first started seeing people doing bicep curls and lateral raises on beach balls maybe ten years ago. Now there's a whole whack of ball-based moves. I keep looking at people doing this stuff and thinking, "Ah, when was the last time I did anything in sport where I was rolling around on a ball as I did it?" It's like learning to make love by masturbating on a beach ball or something. Yes, it's maybe better than sitting on a bench to do bicep curls, but why not just DO whatever motion it is you're trying to insert a beach ball between you and the movement? I don't doubt you can get a good muscular burn (Ah, I'll admit it, I've done my time on a beach ball) with a ball, but attempting to simulate a more "life like" movement pattern by using ball just doesn't make sense. Do the movement, a ball just gets in the way. Pullups, presses, squats, running, situps, lunges. No ball required to make any of these more "life like," they are moves you do in REAL LIVE LIFE! Amazing.

Traditional 3x3 (or 5x5 or whatever) sets of a lot of different exercises that, cumulatively, equal whatever motion it is you want to be stronger at. This is the muscle head way forward, or some variation of it. It demonstrably builds muscle. It does not demonstrably build useful strength. Most exercises are very specific; this can be useful if you're seeking that specific strength (lock offs for mixed climbing, but even those are likely better trained using bands and other techniques to reduce the load). I have had luck rehabbing some injuries using very specific shoulder exercises to isolate damaged or weak areas; I'm not sure how these injuries would have responded to other forms of rehab as I don't have a "control," but they did seem to work. I don't think I'm going to be doing a lot of traditional weight room time ever again unless it's for specific injuries.

Endurance: I used to race Cross-Country skiing (without much distinction but slightly better than family badminton level) and have done a lot of really long days in the mountains. Based on a few endurance athletes experiences with Crossfit I'm likely to continue with relatively high volume low-intensity work for these cycles of my life. There was a University of Utah ski team member who posted up my last post on this subject; I'd really welcome his take on the combination of Crossfit and XC racing--being on the U ski team means you're very, very good. I'm doing a lot of reading on training for 24-hour endurance stuff at the moment as that's what my next three goals revolve around. We'll see what develops with that... I also suspect that the thousands of hours elite XC skiers spend sliding over the snow is also about building an absolutely massive internal matrix of "moves," just as a climber does. The ability to ride a flat ski on hard, soft, inconsistent or just plain old icy snow is critical, as is the timing of every input in so many conditions and situations. Same with cycling, especially at elite levels--Lance didn't just win because he was damn strong (ignoring all allegations and denials for the moment), he also won because he could read the situation and stay safe in the peloton... The hours of endurance training aren't just about developing wattage.

Sport-specific training. Unless your sport is simply too dangerous or possibly inaccessible to practice and train hard at then I believe this should be the vast majority of your "training" time. Only when there is excess time would I add in other stuff. For any sport at all. If you do ten sports reasonably often or don't know what life is going to through at you then Crossfit is likely the best solution. If you don't have a primary sport you're attempting to reach a higher level in then some sort of general life-training such as Crossfit is likely the answer. But if you're trying to be good at one single sport then train intelligently with the moves and specific requirements of that sport.

I used to really covet a gym with a full rack of barbells, a nice lat pulldown machine, a bunch of those Nautilus machines and a bunch of other stuff. My ideal training environment is a lot simpler now. More on that next time, I'm outta here for a few days, thanks for reading this. These posts aren't magazine articles, they're how I try to figure things out. Write it down, see if it makes sense to me and you, the reader who just slogged through this epic, try it out, see if works, revise as necessary.... Nothing is constant, no achievement or system permanent.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Random Training Thoughts #3

I've been training at one sport or another now for 25+ years. I first started thinking of physical activity as "training" during high-school sports; but the focus was always more on "practice" than on "training." I think this is an important distinction. We "train" for things like running, lifting weights, etc. etc. We "practice" yoga, archery, medicine, many martial arts and so on.

There's an old adage that to get good at something you have to practice, practice, practice, and practice some more. In Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" book he figures that about 10,000 hours of practice will produce mastery in any given field of endeavor. It doesn't matter how strong you are, if you haven't done the practice then you won't be any good at something.

Taking this idea farther, most sports may fall on a spectrum defined by straight skill on one one side and pure power on the other end of the spectrum. Target shooting might be the ultimate "skill" sport, olympic lifting the ultimate power sport (although skill obviously is required in even the most power-based sports--in fact, it looks to me that skill often wins out over straight power even at the olympic power lifting events). But, as a way to think of sports, I could put "skill" on the far left of the spectrum and "power" on the far right. Most outdoor sports lean heavily toward the "skill" side of the spectrum. Being a linebacker also takes serious skill, but do you damn well better have some power and mass to back that skill up. Far right of the spectrum.

The strength requirements of "skill" sports also become increasingly specific. For example, a climber needs to have tremendous specific hand strength (the ability to apply strength to a hold in any of the three common grips and their sub-grips), something that just having tremendous general hand strength won't provide (nordic skiers used to win the hand strength tests, not sure if that's true anymore). Without very specific and sufficient forearm ("finger") strength every bit of strength training is close to completely wasted. If you can do 50 pullups but not hang on a half-inch edge for 30 seconds then you're the equivalent of a car producing 500hp but spinning bicycle tires--there's no way to apply that power, not enough friction with the road. This is why so many gym-based exercise routines are completely useless for climbing. 99 percent of the time I--or almost anyone I've ever witnessed climb--fall off it's because I can't hang on.

So, for sports requiring very specific skills or far to the left on the skill vs. power requirements more time should be be spent practicing the sport than training for it.

There's another axis to the spectrum as well; the variable nature of the apparatus. If you're a target shooter then things stay relatively familiar. If you're an olympic lifter or gymnast you pretty much know what you're going to be dealing with when you walk out the door to compete or train. But if you're a climber or a skier then the the apparatus is going to be wildly different, and will require a much larger set of ingrained skills.

So now the spectrum looks more like a piece of graph paper with "skill" and "power" defining the X axis, and "familiar" and "unknown" defining the Y axis. I would argue that the time spent "training" will be highest in the low-variability, high-power sports, with the time spent "practicing" proportionately greater in the high-variability, specific power sports.

OK, there are a bunch of holes in the above, but I'm doing a lot of thinking on the subject as I go through another round of Crossfit action. Crossfit is training, but it also has elements of practice (the gymnastic moves, olympic lifts), etc. Yesterday I did my workout in yet another strange gym, and was so stoked to make a complete retard out of myself in public yet again. Nothing like hucking a lung while lifting exactly one bar in a room absolutely full of fancy machines and nice people nicely using the machines.

In my next post I'm going take aim at various common "training" strategies... Let's just say that I will never do another set of bicep curls again.