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Using specificity in training to maintain focus in competition

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

trisutto triathlon training focus specificity ironman coaching

The 2012 version of Ironman St. George began in the calm, chilly waters of the Sand Hollow Reservoir. The rectangular swim course was designed so that athletes would swim in a counterclockwise direction, beginning with a long straight stretch of approximately 1600m. Once age groupers made the first left turn at the 1600m buoy they were met with 3 to 5-foot chop created by 30 mile an hour winds that appeared shortly after the swim start. Widespread panic ensued, and over 400 athletes were rescued by the 2 hour and 20 minute swim cut-off. For those who managed to successfully complete the swim, the same winds awaited them immediately upon their exit on the bike from T1. Many athletes struggled to maintain focus on the bike, which led to mental errors that derailed their races long before they ever began the marathon. They lost the ability to focus their attention on critical cues once they were taken out of their comfort zones. Those who did not come unraveled were able to remain calm and collected, continuing their race plans with relative success.

Why didn’t they succumb to the chaos?

In general, the answer is probably specificity. They structured the training environment so that they were required to perform in uncomfortable and unfamiliar conditions, thereby allowing them to become more comfortable and focus their attention on the tasks at hand when things went haywire.

Failing to recognize important information or cues in training and competition can have adverse effects on performance and well-being. Encountering situations or conditions for the first time can take you out of your comfort zone and sidetrack performance. Once out of your comfort zone, attentional focus can shift from executing your race plan with precision, to simply surviving the event.

Long distance triathlons are dynamic events requiring athletes to complete tedious and monotonous tasks for hours at a time, and the failure to complete one single task correctly can have a monumental effect on the outcome. Most triathletes are creatures of habit who don’t like having their routines disrupted because the repetition of the routine keeps them in their safe place and provides confidence. Athletes who don’t prepare for extraordinary circumstances unnecessarily increase the odds that they won’t prevail when things go sideways.

Specificity is one of the three main principles of training required to elicit improved athletic performance. If you want to be great at a specific sport or task, you need to practice that specific sport or task. By repeatedly performing a task correctly, we develop muscle memory that allows us to eventually perform the task automatically.

If you want to become a faster sprinter you need to dedicate your training primarily to explosive type activities that require the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers which perform most of the work. We are simply a product of our training. We are what we train to be. If we are weak in a particular area of sport performance we solicit feedback from coaches to ascertain what we need to do to improve, and then we incorporate training opportunities designed to foster improvement through repetition.

Well, if it’s so simple, why do we sometimes still perform poorly in competition after dedicating so much energy to improving physical performance?

I would argue that most less-than-desirable athletic performances are a result of what goes on between the ears instead of poor technique or fitness. Failing to mentally address specific direct and indirect aspects of performance can sabotage performance just as easily as failing to address physical limiters. This doesn’t just apply to physical training, but to mental training and logistical preparation as well. The more we can replicate competitive conditions, the more comfortable and confident we become in those conditions, and the more attention we can focus on the task at hand. We become less distracted in extraordinary situations, allowing us to pick up on cues that may direct our attention to potential opportunities or areas of concern.

We don’t panic when the game plan doesn’t go exactly as planned. When we are suddenly forced out of our comfort zone our attentional focus shifts to tasks that we consider more urgent, often resulting in our ability to execute our race plan.

Something as simple as a bike computer failing to operate properly during a race can send an athlete over the edge if he or she hasn’t practiced correlating power effort with Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Although RPE is not as accurate as power in most cases, it is close enough to keep an athlete from blowing up on the bike and destroying his or her run. An athlete confident in using RPE could simply shift to relying on RPE to govern cadence and effort instead of dwelling on a broken power meter that will be of no use for the remainder of the race. RPE can be practiced during every training session and will transfer specifically to competition.

Many triathletes will choose to compete in a race based solely on the probability that the swim will be wetsuit legal. I’ve seen some register for a Fall race and do all open water swims in a wetsuit, even when the water temps are well above 80F here in the Southeastern US.

Until two years ago, Ironman 70.3 Augusta had always been a wetsuit legal race, in addition to being assisted by a very strong current. This year, when athletes showed up at the transition area on race morning to learn that the swim would not be wetsuit legal you could smell the panic in the air. For many, the race was over before it began.

I’ve seen athletes riding high-end carbon bikes with disc wheels in Ironman events never assume an aerodynamic riding position because they are mentally and/or physically uncomfortable doing so. Simply put, if you can’t do something in training you probably can’t do it in competition. If you feel that you need to improve in specific areas, structure your training to address those specific limitations. Look for opportunities to practice out of your comfort zone. Train in extreme heat, swim in crowded conditions to get use to contact, practice swim starts with no warm up, practice swimming in choppy conditions, ride your bike outdoors in cold weather if there’s a chance you might be racing in it, and learn to view adverse training situations as opportunities to practice for the real thing. Do everything in your power to simulate race day conditions in training. The more specific you can be in designing your training activities, the more it will transfer to race day performance.

Be as specific as you can in your training. Practice your exact nutrition on your longer workouts. Run without socks in training if you plan to do so on race day. Practice your transitions. Practice peeing on the bike if you have never done so in a race and plan on doing so. Go out for at least one long run and bike in your full race set up, regardless of how ridiculous you may think you look.

Bottom line, if there is something that you remotely think you may be required to do on race day you need to try your best to replicate it in training. And last, but not least, don’t let race day be your first attempt at changing a punctured tire. Those mechanical vans riding up and down the bike course are for issues that usually can’t be resolved without professional assistance.

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