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

Opportunity Cost and Training Interventions


Normally we talk exercise and sports science here, but today we’ll bring some economics into the discussion.  Specifically, we’ll address opportunity cost.

Quite simply, opportunity cost is cost of passing up your next best alternative.  For instance, if you earn $10 from investing in company X but could have earned $15 by investing in company Y, your opportunity cost of investing in X but not Y is $5. 

Classic example: Strength and conditioning professionals will argue for more time in the weight room, often espousing the benefits of lifting weights for a particular activity.  In fact, you can find a study in support of nearly every type of training intervention for a multitude of activities.   

But whether the intervention has the potential to help is often NOT the most important question.  Instead, “Is that particular intervention the most beneficial use of resources at that given time compared to other interventions you could have chosen?”  Even if the intervention has a positive effect in isolation, does it detract from other areas? 

To illustrate these points, let’s look at a couple of studies on plyometric training and running.  Spurs (2003) and Saunders (2006) both showed that addition of plyometrics improved measures of running performance.  Sounds great, right?   

First, consider this…both studies included two groups: a control group that trained as normal with their run training, and an experimental group that did the same run training but simply added plyometrics.     

Many people have read these studies and concluded plyometrics are great for running.  This may be true but it misses a key point….is adding plyometrics better than adding more running.  If so, what mix of each?  The opportunity cost in these studies is not comparing plyometrics with running.  Instead, it compares a mixed program of plyometrics + running with a “running only” program that includes the same running as the mixed program.   

The plyometric group didn’t replace any running; the simply trained more than the “running only” group!  The opportunity cost is not running versus plyometrics but instead plyometrics versus some unspecified activity (video games, sleeping?) that the “running only” group was doing when the experimental group was doing plyometrics.  These studies don’t establish that the plyometric program would have improved runners as well as running more would have.

In the real world, the issue is rarely all or nothing, but rather finding the right mix of interventions (recipe example: how much of each ingredient to achieve the optimal taste).  Training design is about scarcity of resources….time, energy, attention.  If you are lifting, it means you aren’t running.  Sure you’d gain by lifting, but is it more than you’d gain by running?  If you’re training, then you are not resting.   Highly likely you’d gain by training, but is it more than you’d gain by resting?  Opportunity cost would be the difference between what you’d gain by training versus what you’d gain by resting

Comparisons aren’t simply between different activities.  Speed, power, strength, flexibility are all worthy qualities but often require separate interventions.   Sure you can try and mash them altogether into a random exercise circuit, but in that case your opportunity cost is the foregone benefit of what you may have gained by focusing on one particular area.  This latter analysis which requires an understanding of how much or how little work is required to maintain whatever qualities you aren’t presently working on.  

Opportunity cost also applies to the total workload in a workout.  If you do an extra rep, is that worth the opportunity cost of the added recovery?  Sometimes the opportunity cost of the extra rep versus the extra recovery will be worth it; other times the opportunity cost will work in reverse (resting may create an opportunity cost of forgoing the benefits of added work).

Answers are not easily measured on individual workout level: consider the long term benefit and how does the intervention interact with everything else.  Opportunity cost is more a concept than a quantifiable commandment.  However, if you don’t appreciate the concept at least subconsciously, messy programing will result…consider the frequency with which athletes randomly throw together a random mess of interventions?


Something may look good and be effective, but is it better than what you could otherwise be doing?  Might it detract from something you are already doing?

Everything has the potential to work….but does it work optimally in the way we’re seeking to apply it, and does it work better than the alternatives?  Always consider the opportunity cost of each intervention relative to other options.   


Spurrs RW, Murphy AJWatsford ML.  The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Mar;89(1):1-7. Epub 2002 Dec 24.

Saunders PU, Telford RD, Pyne DB, Peltola EM, Cunningham RB, Gore CJ, Hawley JA.  Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners.J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Nov;20(4):947-54.


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