Group Evolution and the holy grail - free energy!

Do you hate the off season? Do you hate the gym and see little point in strength and conditioning? Or are you on the road to enlightenment and see some value in gym work in improving your resilience to injury.

Most of us see gym work as unnecessary, or, at most, a necessary evil. However, well-designed and targeted strength and  conditioning programmes improve not only our resilience to injury but also our biomechanical and physiological efficiency. Such programmes are also dynamic, challenging and, best of all, enjoyable. The 'free energy' that is harnessed helps take our performance to the next level.

Nearly all endurance athletes hate winter – the cold, the snow, short days, hours on the ‘turbo’, busy gyms full of ‘headless New Year resolutee chickens’ bumping into each other ... the list goes on. And the final straw is the pangs of jealousy when the elites you follow on social media post pictures from their sunny training camps in Aus or S.A.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Winter training can be productive, enjoyable, interesting and, perhaps most importantly, game-changing. It is not just about developing an aerobic base that can support later (and more enjoyable) threshold and speed work. This is just part of the plan. It is about creating the technical and neuro-muscular foundations that allow you to capture the holy grail of free energy. That is energy which is derived from greater efficiency, not greater use of your finite glucose substrate supplies.

Most of us spend our hard-earned on sport-bling: the trainers that promise improved speed; the most hydro-dynamic wetsuit ever (until next year); the next generation aero bike/helmet/wheels/pedals/bars, etc (perm many from several). But to capture ‘free energy’ you need to train to gain, once you have been advised on how best to access it. Such advice is specific to you, and should be professionally conducted using tailored, sport-specific technical and physiological tests. Just like sport-bling, the advice is good for at least a year, probably two. And it costs a lot less and covers a lot more.

Detailed assessments identify, amongst other things, your co-ordination patterns, muscular imbalances, neuro-muscular efficiency and how effectively you apply force to generate power and speed. The information acquired is invaluable: allowing strength & conditioning programmes and technique sessions to be tailored to your needs and those of your sport. It enhances performance potential and helps to mitigate the risk of injury.

Consider the example of the rugby player who takes up triathlon once he finally admits he can no longer physically bounce back from the latest ‘hit’. He is, to most people fit and strong, perhaps not lithe enough to be the quickest of distance runners, but certainly fast on the bike. However, assessments may well show he is quad dominant, probably a bit of a stomper on the pedals and certainly not smooth in the water. Imagine the difference when his strength programme decreases bulk (and weight) but increases neuro-muscular efficiency (the number of fibres that fire during a contraction, aiding endurance) and reduces the imbalances between hamstrings and quads. When swim technique sessions reduce thrashing and promote a repeatable stroke pattern with strong catch, pull and recovery phases, good rotation and relaxed breathing. When cycle technique sessions reduce stomping and help him apply power more evenly through the phases of the pedal stroke. And when plyometric training improves his stretch-shortening response, supplying substrate-independent ‘free energy’ to his running.

Such improvements are there to be grasped by the eager and diligent athlete. But to permanently secure and retain these gains requires deliberate practice, repeated over a number of weeks. Technical gains, to be there to call on in-season will need to be engrained in the psyche and physical memory, off-season. This requires focussed practice, practice which is not easily achieved by cycling with the multiple distractions on the road, or by swimming in open water, or by running outside over mixed terrain. The desired focus is much more readily achieved in the pool, on the treadmill or on the turbo.

Equally the pre-run 2-minute excuse for a warm-up, or the half-hearted gym session when it’s sunny outside, does not lead to functional and useable strength and conditioning gains. That’s even ignoring the fact that it is clearly undesirable to try to load and adapt when you are upping the training intensity for speed gains at the same time: a recipe for physical stress that often leads to injury. Such conditioning is much more easily achieved in winter, when the training is less intense and the risk of injury that much lower – as long as you can avoid gym ‘newbies’ wiping you out, that is.

The great thing is that all those boring base miles now have a real purpose. You will be distracted from the low intensity monotony and mentally engaged, thinking about your form, your core and ‘wiping mud off your shoes’, or other such technical analogies. If your focus drifts you will soon notice, as feedback provided by the treadmill or cycling trainer will highlight your loss of form or power. As you further progress, it will no longer even feel right - a clear sign that you are on your path to technical adaptation. If you’re really zoned in, you may even have to rewind the latest boxset you’re trying to watch whilst on the turbo as you miss key moments! And when new techniques are learnt, and you start feeling the winter training blues again, you can mix it up, introduce more levels of challenge, further improve your technique and keep it fresh.

The obligatory gym sessions that you do because you once read that you should in a magazine, are now much more specific to you. They have been tailored to your performance and you can see that they have a clear purpose. They are probably more challenging as well, as they are focussed upon correcting your weaknesses and improving your own neuromuscular system. When exercises become easier to execute they can be progressed, enabling you to improve further and progressively eliminate structural weaknesses. You become more resilient to injury and able to perform at a higher level, for longer. The ‘free energy’ grail as has been firmly grasped!

So rather than reeling at the thought of base training this winter, grasp the opportunity to create a strong technical and neuromuscular foundation alongside your aerobic base. That way, when you get to the fun, speed stuff, you will be technically and physically capable of realising your full potential and taking your performance to the next level. Evolve, don’t stagnate this winter.

Take Homes

  • Winter training does not have to be a chore, it can be a cure.
  • Re-focus your winter effort on technical gain and strength & conditioning. Aerobic base training is only one aspect of this.
  • Visit the right people – degree-qualified sports scientists or S&C coaches – and get professionally assessed. If in London, it’s what we do.
  • Practice – focus and enjoy the process – the gains you will get are worth it.
  • Adapt your programmes as you progress - keep it focused, fresh and fun.
  • Evolve to become your best.

Free energy – the holy grail