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Training principles to improve athlete performance

By Rainer Martens

Follow these eight cardinal training principles and you will be well on your way to designing effective fitness programs.

Specificity Principle

The specificity principle asserts that the best way to develop physical fitness for your sport is to train the energy systems and muscles as closely as possible to the way they are used in your sport. Thus, the best way to train for running is to run, for swimming is to swim, and for weightlifting is to lift. In sports such as basketball, baseball, and soccer, the training program should not only overload the energy systems and muscles used in that sport, but should also duplicate similar movement patterns. For example, in strengthening a quarterback’s throwing arm, design the exercise to simulate the throwing movement. Warning: This principle can be taken too far. Ample evidence suggests that cross training, or doing another sport or activity, can help improve performance (see the variation principle).

Overload Principle

To improve their fitness levels, athletes must do more than what their bodies are used to doing. When more is demanded, within reason, the body adapts to the increased demand. You can apply overload in duration, intensity, or both. If you increase a cross country runner’s long-distance run by five minutes, you’ve added an overload of duration. If you instead ask the runner to run her normal distance but in a shorter amount of time, you’ve added an overload of intensity.

Progression Principle

To steadily improve the fitness levels of your athletes, you must continually increase the physical demands to overload their systems. If the training demand is increased too quickly, the athlete will be unable to adapt and may break down. If the demand is not adequate, the athlete will not achieve optimal fitness levels.

Diminishing Returns Principle

When unfit athletes begin a training regime, their fitness levels improve rapidly, but as they become fitter, the diminishing returns principle becomes law. That is, as athletes become fitter, the amount of improvement is less as they approach their genetic limits (figure 13.9). A corollary to this principle is that as fitness levels increase, more work or training is needed to make the same gains. As you’re designing training programs, remember that fitness levels will not continue to improve at the same rate as athletes become fitter.

Variation Principle

This principle has several meanings. After your athletes have trained hard for several days, they should train lightly to give their bodies a chance to recover. Over the course of the year use training cycles (periodization) to vary the intensity and volume of training to help your athletes achieve peak levels of fitness for competition. This principle also means that you should change the exercises or activities regularly so that you do not overstress a part of the body. Of course changing activities also maintains athletes’ interest in training.

Perhaps you’re thinking that the specificity principle and variation principle seem to be incompatible. The specificity principle states that the more specific the training to the demands of the sport, the better; and the variation principle seemingly asserts the opposite-train by using a variety of activities. The incompatibility is resolved by the degree to which each principle is followed. More specific training is better, but it can become exceedingly boring. Thus some variety that involves the same muscle groups is a useful change.

Reversibility Principle

We all know the following adage: Use it or lose it. When athletes stop training, their hard-won fitness gains disappear, usually faster than they were gained. The actual rate of decline depends on the length of the training period before detraining, the specific muscle group, and other factors. A person confined to complete bed rest is estimated to lose cardiovascular fitness at the rate of 10 percent a week. Smart coaches and athletes today recognize that maintaining a moderately high level of fitness year-round is easier than detraining at the end of the season and then retraining at the beginning of the next.

Individual Differences Principle

Every athlete is different and responds differently to the same training activities. As discussed in chapter 5, the value of training depends in part on the athlete’s maturation. Before puberty, training is less effective than after puberty. Other factors that affect how athletes respond to training include their pretraining condition; genetic predisposition; gender and race; diet and sleep; environmental factors such as heat, cold, and humidity; and of course motivation. As discussed previously, it’s essential to individualize training as much as possible.

Moderation Principle

Here is another familiar adage: All things in moderation. Remember that training is a slow, gradual process. Give athletes time to progress. Your challenge as a physical conditioning coach is to design a training program that progresses optimally using the principles just discussed. You want to gently coax your athletes’ bodies into superior condition, not beat them up by overtraining.

Make training fun. Design games and activities that challenge athletes to do the same work but without the drudgery of monotonous exercises. Be encouraging and promote a positive attitude about training. By all means don’t use training activities as punishment for misbehaviors.

This is an excerpt from Successful Coaching, 3rd Edition.

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