Specificity Training: What’s the purpose of your workout?

Do you remember a time when you exercised simply for your health? Maybe you went to the gym and did whatever felt right for the day. Maybe you ran a few miles several times a week. Maybe you took group classes to push yourself and stay motivated.

There is no doubt that exercise, performed consistently several times a week, does a body good.

But, you know you’ve shifted from exercising to training when you start to think about dedicated goals for each workout session. That’s specificity training. 

This is the moment you begin to think and act like an athlete. 

When you are training to meet specific performance goals, every training session should have a clear purpose for helping you achieve those goals. If it doesn’t, then quite simply that training session isn’t worth doing. Furthermore, these training objectives should be appropriate to the particular training period you are in – prep, base, build, or peak. (Need information about the phases of training? Click here for a refresher on periodization.)

If you have a coach, then your coach should be doing that thinking for you. But, if you are self-coached, or are trying to decide the value of a particular training plan, then you’ll want to consider the role of some basic and advanced objectives for various types of workouts.

The basic objectives that any training plan should incorporate include endurance, force and technical efficiency.  And, depending upon your performance goals, race distance, and athletic experience, you may also want to pursue some advanced objectives including muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance, and power. Let’s consider each of these in turn, starting with the most important, basic training objectives.

Basic Objectives

Endurance is the starting point for any runner or triathlete. Without it, there is no speed, no power, no efficiency. Throughout the training calendar, the majority of the workouts in your training plan should emphasize endurance. Keep in mind, however, that building endurance is not always about long runs, rides or swims. Building endurance also results from consistency and frequency in training routines. So, you can think about your total weekly volume, as well as the duration of any one workout, as an important element of endurance.

Endurance takes time to develop. You cannot safely go from running 3 miles to running 13 in a few week’s time. You must gradually adapt to the increased training load, both in terms of the duration of your longest workout and in terms of your weekly training volume. Base period is dedicated to building this volume in a systematic and safe manner, while the build period works on maintaining that endurance foundation to permit the development of other abilities.

It is also important to note that endurance is one of the first abilities to fade during prolonged absence from training. This is why we need to be especially careful not to begin a taper too early, or to cut off total volume too dramatically before it is time. (If you are interested, we’ve offered some ideas for an effective taper protocol here.)

To make the most of your endurance, you will want to introduce workout segments that allow you to enhance your technical efficiency.

Technical efficiency relates to your ability to move effectively and efficiently while engaged in sport-specific activity. This relates to your form and economy of movement while swimming, biking or running.

Examples of training sessions might include swimming drills, which should be incorporated into most swim sessions, or cycling cadence work or single leg drills. In running, you could incorporate various drills to help promote leg speed, as well as proper biomechanic form. In these examples, you are training your neuromuscular system to work effectively to optimal economy of movement. In other words: no movement is wasted energy.

Any time in the training calendar is a good time to work on technical efficiency, and many athletes and coaches will emphasize technical efficiency during the prep and early base periods. As you move into the late base and build periods, you can incorporate efficiency elements into a workout that focuses on endurance or force. 

The third basic objectives is force, which involves the ability to work against resistance. Force is what


helps you power up hills, to fight currents, and to keep pushing into the wind on those breezy springtime rides.

One of the best ways to achieve force related objectives is to introduce some type of strength training into your routine. This may include workouts such as functional training, traditional weight training, or plyometrics. It is also possible to introduce force-based training into sport-specific workouts, such as big gear work on the bike, hill repeats while cycling or running, or using the pull buoy or paddles while swimming.

During the prep and early base period of training, force workouts are more likely to take the form of resistance-based training. As you move into later base and build periods, you will want to incorporate this objective into sport-specific force workouts.

Advanced objectives

For newer athletes, these three training objectives are more than enough to provide a solid foundation for racing success in the first year or two. More experienced athletes who are looking for performance gains may want to incorporate sessions that focus on muscular endurance, which is a combination of force and endurance and permits athletes to apply sub-maximal force for an extended period of time. Muscular endurance helps you to fight fatigue toward the end of a race, or the end of each leg of a triathlon.

These type of workouts might included extended intervals at ~80% of max effort. The length of the intervals will increase throughout the training plan, starting out somewhat short–say 5 minutes or so–but extending to as much as 40 minutes by the build period of the training plan.  These efforts might also include tempo runs or rides, which are often described as “comfortably hard” efforts. If you are looking for a muscular endurance workout you can do on the trainer, I’ve written about one on my personal blog site, which can be found here.

Force combines with technical efficiency to produce a second advanced skill: power. Power permits an athlete to hit maximum force very quickly, such as might be required at a swim start, to accelerate after coming out of a corner on the bike, or to power up that finishing kick in a race. Power is at least partly a product of neuromuscular activation (technical efficiency), which we can develop through skill work and certain functional training, as well as force-based training. A power-based workout might include brief all-out efforts, followed by an extended recovery period. For example, 8 x 20 second all out intervals, with 1:40 recoveries. In cycling, you might do 5 second all out bursts, followed by 10 seconds of soft pedaling, and repeat that for 2-5 minutes. In running, you might complete a series of strides, focusing on fast feet.

Depending on your race length and experience, you may also want to incorporate workouts that build on anaerobic endurance. Again, this is an advanced skill, so it is not necessarily recommended as a key focus for newer athletes. Anaerobic endurance will enhance your ability to delay fatigue when working at or near maximal effort.

These types of workouts would include shorter intervals at much higher rates of exertion, 90%-100%+ of max effort. You might do intervals of 2-4 minutes at 90-95% effort, or shorter intervals of 30 seconds to 2 minutes at max effort. You would include recovery intervals in between these efforts that are at least twice the length of the interval. The harder the interval, the longer the recovery period.

While long course athletes typically do not emphasize anaerobic efforts, there is some research that suggests a minimal amount of anaerobic training can improve aerobic performance. Moreover, for athletes over 40, a weekly (short) anaerobic session may help prevent some of the performance losses associated with aging. However, proper recovery is important following anaerobic sessions to prevent injury.

As you evaluate your training plan, or speak with your coach about the plan he or she has created for you, keep these training objectives in mind. Consider how each of these objectives fits in with the broader periodization of your training season, your experience, and your performance goals.