Running is a time-honored skill of endurance, and probably the most commonly trained type of cardio.
However, a lot of people train for races poorly, often by violating the incredibly basic exercise science principle of specificity.
Much like when lifting weights, running is subject to the principle of specificity, and you should prepare for competition by increasing specificity and decreasing variety, leading to a taper and a peak much like you would for a powerlifting competition.
I’ve been on a kick of writing about running a lot lately, so I’m starting to add up a lot of the other miscellaneous bits and pieces about running that are bouncing around in my head. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the application of the principle of specificity when it comes to running.
The principle of specificity is well known when it comes to training for strength and size. This principle states that neurological and physiological adaptations to exercise are highly specific - so you get the best training results in a particular activity by training that activity, as close to your competitive needs as possible.
Let’s take the single rep max bench press as an example. In competition, you’re required to complete one lift, as heavy as you can, under a very specific set of circumstances, wearing certain clothing, and with an appropriate pause at the chest. So, the best return on our effort for improving at this competitive skill is to bench press exactly like that - down to the position on the bench, the positioning of our hands, the bars and plates used, the clothing you’re going to be wearing, and with that pause in the middle of the lift.
Now the further away you get from “that ideal bench press”, the less your activities will carryover to performance in that bench press. While wearing different clothing or pausing for a slightly shorter period of time may not be big differences, and neither will be using different bars or plates, these small differences will add up.
Bigger differences will have an even bigger impact. An incline bench press is like a flat bench, but uses different muscles and different muscular activation patterns. A pushup uses the same muscles, but it does so under a different load and while allowing your scapula to move freely versus being pinned to a bench. A chest press machine works the same muscles, so we might expect it to have SOME carryover, even if that carryover is minimal because the weight is set into a specific track of movement. Then on the other hand, we have something like a squat - which will have little to no carryover whatsoever, since it’s a completely different lift.
So how do we apply this to running?
When I ran cross country in high school, our coach would generally just focus on increasing our total volume of training over time, while alternating harder and easier days to help with recovery. Then, he would periodically sprinkle in other kinds of running - running on harder or softer surfaces, running on sand, and so on - but he would do so mostly randomly, something like the application of the (fake) muscle confusion principle.
This was a huge waste, because while his structure was mostly on point, these added random stimuli violated the principle of specificity, and probably hurt us a bit in the long run.
When it comes to running, we can think of the principle of specificity in the exact same way as when we apply it to lifting weights. Our bodies adapt to stimuli - and the more different that stimuli is from our goal adaptation, the less a given stimuli is going to help achieve that adaptation.
For example, we might expect that cycling and the elliptical would have some carryover to our running performance, because they train similar energy systems. But like the pushups or the chest press machine in the above example, not much - because they involve different muscular patterns of coordination, and stress those systems in different ways.
Next up, treadmill running is certainly more like running outside - but you might start to piece together why it has less carryover. A run on a treadmill works all the same muscles and energy systems, but it’s also significantly different. You’re running on a uniformly solid surface with a bit of a spring to it, which is unlike any surface you’d be running on outside. It involves running in place, so you experience none of the weather effects or wind resistance that you’d experience when running outside. Because of this, you practice a different running gait than you normally would outside - and this can be a problem if you later have to switch over for a competition. Running on a treadmill will make you better at running on a treadmill - but sooner or later, you’d certainly want to run outside if your goal is to be better at running outside - and most running competitions do take place outside.
You might also want to consider other factors - clothing, shoes, and so on. Are you running in the same shoes that you’re going to use in your race? Have you recently changed shoes and do you need to spend time breaking them in before your body becomes accustomed to them? Are you wearing clothing similar to what you’d be wearing in the race? Are you running on a similar surface (track, pavement, dirt) to what you’d be running on in competition? Similar weather conditions? A similar amount of changes in elevation?
You can also see other methods of training that would clearly hurt by reducing specificity. Ankle weights may make you burn a few more calories each time you run, and make you feel like you’re building more muscle in your legs, but is that worth it since it entirely alters your running gait and causes you to train a running gait that you won’t be using in competition? Why not leave the leg strengthening to some dedicated weight lifting sessions (which would be better than half-assing it anyway)? Why randomly run on sand?
Now, as we all know, this doesn’t mean that we need to train with maximum specificity at all times. Particularly during the off-season, far away from a competition, adding in some additional variety to help keep things excited and cover up some of your weak points is a good idea. But when preparing for a specific competition, you’ll want your specificity to increase as you get closer to your competition date, including a taper and a peak just like you’d do for a powerlifting meet.
The idea is simple - the closer you get to your competition date, the more specific your training should be. If possible, you should even train using the course that you’ll be using in competition. Ditch the variety, and focus on the training that matters so that your body can adapt to the exact conditions needed for your competition.
Not everyone has to train to maximum specificity, or to compete, either. One mistake a lot of coaches make is treating everyone like a serious athlete, including the people who are just looking to be a bit stronger, a bit healthier, and a bit more durable. They don’t want to compete, their training doesn’t have to be the absolute best - and they can be discouraged by overly-aggressive programs, especially if they’re not having fun. If you’re one of these people, and not competing or aspiring to compete, you can just… not worry too much about it. Find a mix of cardio methods that you enjoy.
As an interesting aside, I know quite a few serious athletic coaches who recommend against their athletes using treadmills in their training, for a variety of reasons, including the claim that the electrical energy from the treadmill will somehow damage your body and prevent you from achieving meaningful adaptations. While these reasons may be BS, there’s a grain of truth that would have been far easier to find if they had just applied the principle of specificity.
So - if you’re training to run outdoors, there are better places to spend your time than on a treadmill. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not anywhere near ideal. Besides, it’s more fun to run outside anyway.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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