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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Earning the Right: A Developmental Approach to Training Endurance Athletes

As young humans we acquired the skills of creeping, crawling, and rolling before walking, jogging, and running.  Babies stumble, trip, and fall countless times along the process, but the feedback is immediate yet not overly punishing.  Nature tells the baby when it is ready for the next stage of locomotive complexity.  It is important that our training programs in running and triathlon reflect this concept of earning the right to progress, as holding ourselves to this standard will provide the foundation upon which to cultivate fitness and skill.  Cheat the process of nature when you haven’t earned the right to do so and there will be consequences.

Reading Signals

One problem with endurance sports is they lack the immediate feedback mechanisms of other pursuits.  Our body sounds the alarms of injury, illness, and poor performance when we have not earned the right to proceed to the next level.  Unfortunately, the alarm comes with a time lag, which skews our ability to accurately interpret these alarms.  In fact, the body’s initial signals often reward us for dishonoring sound progressions.   Pulverizing ourselves may seem like a good idea in the short term and provide a faux sense of accomplishment, but could force the body to work extra hard in the coming days to restore normalcy.  When the alarm does sound, the time lag lets us blame the wrong things.  Instead of looking to poor workout progressions as a cause of a weakened body susceptible to the flu, we instead blame the co-worker with the cold that our suppressed immune system was not able to handle. (“When the fire alarm goes off, you don’t put out the fire by taking out the battery!”). 

Ignoring nature’s limitations in endurance sport gets you applauded....doing so in pursuits like rock climbing and sky diving may get you eulogized.   If something “bad” happens, it usually means you hadn’t mastered fundamentals of the previous level necessary for advancement.  The only “gear” that we have in running is our body and our shoes, but if we impose standards analogous to the safety checks of a professional rock climber or skydiver we could avoid many of the common setbacks that infect the endurance sport landscape.  You don’t progress from an indoor climbing wall to making a summit attempt on K2 without proving yourself at proficiency benchmarks along the way.

Creating a Structure to Cultivate Long Term Development

Infrastructure can create a mindset in which movement mastery and not subjective impatience govern our progressions.  Martial arts got it right hundreds of years ago with the belt system.  Gymnastics also has an effective numerical level system, although parental interference often prevents the system from working as it should...  As the immediacy and severity of consequence increases in the activity, the stronger the inherent mechanisms to check our progress before advancement.   However, it is important that advancement aligns not only with numerical standards but also with an overall assessment of physical readiness.  Just because a baby can walk does not mean it has earned the right to do so.  Walking without proficiency at the crawl will impair development in the longer term.

Unfortunately, as consumers who are accustomed to getting things that we want with the swipe of a piece of plastic, our mind’s expectations are sometimes at odds with what our body is capable of doing at the present moment.  The stopwatch is one of our greatest assets.  Legendary coach Dr. Jack Daniels said it best: if you want to train at a higher fitness level, prove it with your race results (His corollary to this advice, and one of my favorite adages in the sport: sometimes the only way to slow people down is to put a race number on their chest!).  Fitness is earned through the long- term application of appropriate stimuli to create desired physiological adaptations, not by chasing arbitrary numerical standards chosen by our egos. 

The Role of Screening and Assessment

As an endurance athlete you earn the right to train at a faster pace not only based on your times but also based upon your body’s structural ability to handle the loads imposed upon it.  We must also earn the right to progress within our supplementary exercises.  One reason we use tools like the Functional Movement Screen is to set a movement baseline.  If the body can’t demonstrate a minimum standard of movement competency on something like the FMS in a sterile environment with no time constraints or any other pressures, we can’t expect the body to magically figure things out when the stakes go up.  Just as the baby became skilled its most primitive movement patterns before adding complex tasks to its repertoire, as adults we must “own” our basic movements before increasing the load on our bodies.  The temptation for coaches and athletes is always to accelerate the process, but we must stay loyal to a system of intelligent progressions consistent with our body’s development trajectory. 

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