Posted by: SLS | June 17, 2011

Sports training: a look at how to develop successful athletic regimens

I’d like to begin a couple of posts about physical training for sport and general athletics. As I’ve mentioned before, I played a sport called kayak (or canoe) polo competitively for a number of years and was also a gymnast in a past life. So there have been a few periods in which sport specific training was required of me, but none of which I felt were very well organized. I’ve had a fair bit of time to experiment, read, learn and ferment some solid opinions on how a casual to semi-pro athlete should conduct their training in order to reap some maximum benefits without the full time investment of a pro-athlete.

Interestingly, I’m still on the email list for the US women’s training squad even though I’m an inactive player. Activity has surged once again in preparation for the for the biennial World Championships and a recent message piqued my interest. It was the detailed coach-mandated training log for all the active squad athletes. I read the log and analyzed the coach’s expectations and started thinking about the logic and practicality of the new training program. This is a new young coach for the team, but from what I can tell, his protocol is old-school high volume progression training. With all the information out there about how high intensity training surpasses endurance training for aerobic conditioning, where is there room in an athlete’s regimen for hours of high volume? In what sport specific context might this style still apply given what we have learned from Tabata protocol research? It is my belief that aside from brute endurance sports (running, biking, swimming, marathon paddling), high intensity training best prepares an athlete’s aerobic conditioning and lactic tolerance for nearly any sport specific demands.

So here was the basic premise of the US women’s mandated workouts for the first week:


  • 10 minute warmup progressing from 40-80% max effort
  • 100 pass repetitions each arm
  • 5 lap re-warmup at 50%
  • 5 full length (100 meter) sprints
  • 5 x 1 minute sprint with direction changes (6 meters long, 180° turns at each end)
  • 2 timed Clyde races that simulate game play- variable sprinting and turning


  • 1 hour paddle at 60%, 100 pass repetitions each arm

And that’s it. After the first week, the percent efforts and number of exercise repetitions increases each week until a tapering period leading into competition. Not a bad start to a training program, however, this coach (I’m not trying to be mean or petty, just critical) seems to have an overabundance of training history and too little theory. Sure, put your money where your mouth is and results require action, but theory is no less crucial to implementing a sound and well researched training regimen. What worked in the infancy of a sport does not necessarily work once the fine tuning has taken place over time across a broad spectrum of coaches and athletes. Some of the old-school athletes swear by the mantra that if you aren’t in your boat (or in your <insert sport> essential element), then you aren’t really training. The philosophy was high quantity eventually makes high quality. Does that seem right to you? I can appreciate it, but I have to disagree with it. At the very least, if it doesn’t injure you, high volume training ensures a very 1-dimensional athletic profile: 1 fiber type, 1 fuel source, 1 energy system, 1 intensity level specificity, 1 ingrained motor pattern. High volume training does not consider the multidimensional demands sport can place on an athlete.

Here’s a couple little clips of some kayak polo in action, since I know it’s not a widely known sport: World Masters, Oceania Champs. As you can see, players engage in short bursts of activity interspersed with periods of rest. The activity ranges from sprinting, turning, passing, shooting, and full contact jostling for position. It’s  kind of like rugby or basket ball on the water. One reason the games are only 20 minutes long is because of the sheer high intensity involved. Also, the upper body muscles (back, shoulders, arms, stomach) are not very fatigue resistant like the legs, so it is very hard to sustain any constant movement above about 70% of max effort. Now that we have some perspective of what the sport entails, we can figure out the basic qualities an athlete in this sport might need. The very first thing I immediately think of is strength. After that, power, coordination, speed and lactic tolerance. The game often hinges on sudden bursts of activity in a purely anaerobic condition. It’s the part where you’re sprinting down the court for a fast break away and feeling your muscles screaming from the effort, border lining on loss of innervation from complete fatigue. Those are the moments these athletes must train for.

One must train how they intend to play. For moves that require power, strength, agility, speed, and endurance, a regimen should include almost everything but high volume, moderate-intensity aerobic training. In the example training log above, the M/W/F plan looks mostly solid- it involves high intensity and dynamic work while in keeping with sport specific movements and metabolic situations. However, what is with the T/TH hour endurance paddle? Moderate-intensity work is almost completely absent in the 20 minute games that comprise the sport. Everything is high intensity, fast, dynamic, start and stop work rates. The athlete needs to be efficient in both the glycolytic and aerobic pathways with a high level of overlap in response between the two. Too, the athlete must maintain the power and strength necessary for a full contact sport. Those two days of hour long endurance provides nothing more than a muscle and energy wasting exercise when time could be better spent improving strength, flexibility, coordination, or recovery. If they are to acquire any strength, then high volume training at moderate intensity must be dropped. High volume training will first use up all the muscle glycogen for fuel, but when it has run out of that, it will break down muscle to release protein for gluconeogensis in the liver to provide new glucose for energy (yes the liver has glycogen stores as well, but metabolic pathways for energy production are not mutually exclusive in an organic system and so many forms of energy production are ongoing simultaneously). High volume training is directly antagonistic to strength conditioning. Strength is the quality the top athlete should have, not moderate-intensity endurance.

Thus I’ve finally come to what I believe should be the focal point of development for any serious athletic or sport training:

  1. High intensity training
  2. Strength conditioning
  3. Metabolic efficiency
  4. Muscle efficiency and power production
  5. Muscle coordination and mobility
  6. Neural growth (mind-muscle connection)

Or simply put:

  1. Train hard and fast
  2. Lift weights
  3. Move slowly on off-days
  4. Stretch
  5. Mentally envision playing
  6. Train motor pathways with frequent repetition but not long repetition

Not included in this strategy is high volume. Instead, maximizing multidimensional movement and energetic pathways for anything non-endurance specific should have the highest payoff for any serious athlete. I plan to continue this talk on training in a few more posts where I hope to cover the importance of full body training and neural development.


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