The Fallacy of Specific Training for Older Guys

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

In fitness there is a lot of money to be made from specialization and niche programming. There are fat loss coaches, strength coaches, running coaches, speed coaches… the list is nearly endless. You see, the way fitness is sold to new trainers is that it is better to become an expert in a tiny niche and dominate that than to be an all rounder. You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? That gets thrown around a lot but the reality, like most things with fitness, is that if you scratch the surface even a little you find the truth to be very different because the full saying is actually, Jack of all trades, master of none, but often times is better than a master of one”. As Heinlein points out above in his classic quote on specialization only insects specialize. Humans are the greatest all-rounders the planet has seen.

Why do I tell you how fitness professionals are taught to market themselves?

Because when they have a single product to sell you – run faster, lift heavier, etc – the only way they can earn money from you is to make you believe you need that product. That’s called marketing. So they create an ad that addresses what are called “pain points” to make you feel bad about yourself. Common ones would be something like, “do you feel low on energy”, “remember when your back didn’t hurt”, and “wouldn’t it be great to fit into your skinny jeans again”? At this point, after having been poked until you’re feeling bad about yourself, the trainer miraculously offers up their program, which will have all the answers you sorely need.

In the case of specific training, and I’m going to use something unusual to prove the point, let’s look at motorcycle rider physical training. Motorcycle racing, like many sports, is skill based. As in, it is not the fittest or strongest who wins, but the most skilled. Can being fitter and stronger make a difference though? The answer to that is absolutely yes.

But here is where it gets interesting… In the strength and conditioning world there are two key parts to the year – general preparation (called GPP) and specific preparation (SPP). SPP is what you do to play your sport better. GPP is everything else that assists it but is not specific to your sport. For example, a motorbike racer might spend some time on a mini bike or motorcross bike to mimic the technical needs of racing without having to cope with the demands of the sport or risk big injury causing crashes. GPP meanwhile might be base cardiovascular training, keeping body composition within the correct levels, and all the other strength work that is not bike specific. At elite levels some of the year will be dedicated to GPP in the pre-season, but when the competition season rolls around training tends to be very specific so as not to needlessly tire out the athlete. At this time of year for MotoGP riders, for example, they have done one test only for 2020 on their new year bikes. The entire rest of their training is GPP at this point unless it is on a bike.

So that’s what the elite guys do – they spend as much time as they can on something with two wheels that has a motor – and then they fit their other fitness training around it. Fitness is clearly an important quality when it comes to high level racing. You can see this simply by having a look at how much they train. Mick Doohan used to train with world triathlon champion Miles Stewart. Troy Herfoss is fast enough on a push bike that he was offered a pro contract last year. Troy Bayliss used to train with an Italian pro cycling team. The Bostroms and John Hopkins used to do Ironman triathlons (minus the run as it would beat up their backs and knees too much). Cal Crutchlow makes sure his push bike is always packed into the LCR boxes so he can ride anywhere in the world. Scott Redding is a keen cyclist and boxes. And even Nicky Hayden (RIP) was sadly killed while on a training ride on his bike. It’s pretty obvious that fitness is a prized commodity among top racers.

But here’s the difference between them and you – you’re not getting millions of dollars a year to ride your bike. You have to look after your kids, pay your mortgage, and you get to look wistfully at your bike and take it out for a track day even now and then. In other words, there are far more important things for you to worry about than that last 0.1 second. You need to worry far more about GPP than SPP.

Don’t think for a second that GPP is weak and that without SPP you won’t be able to ride hard. (Remember that is just fitness marketing to suck you into buying a product). GPP includes:
Aerobic endurance
General strength (typically found in the 8-12 rep ranges)
Maximal strength (3-5 reps)
Strength endurance (15+ reps or the ability to make repeated submaximal efforts over time)

It will also include making sure your diet and body composition are in order too. No one ever wants to address their food but let’s quickly look at why it is so important for production motorbike riding:

A 80kg rider on a 200kg 1000c bike with 200hp will cover the quarter mile in 8.47s. That’s about the distance from the start line to the first corner at Phillip Island. Meanwhile a 70kg rider will do that in 8.37s. It doesn’t sound like much but if you’re pulling out 0.1s out of each corner that rider will be 1.2s in front by the end of lap one. If you’re comparing a typical track day rider at more like 100kg the difference is 0.3s (with a time of 8.67s). 0.3s on the exit of each corner is a 3.6s difference by the end of a single lap, or roughly half the time it will take a 1000c bike to exit the final corner of Phillip Island and make it to the start/ finish line. Lap after lap they’ll pull out that distance solely due to their bodyweight advantage. So if you want to ride fast an important component of that is making sure you are light as possible while not giving up any durability (I’m looking at you Dani Pedrosa).

So at this point, if you’re wanting to improve your lap times as a rider, is it better to spend big on more horsepower and come carbon fiber – both of which are pretty expensive – or maybe just buy a salad? It’s easy to see which one will have the biggest effect and be most cost effective.

Before we look at the actual training we need to understand the three most common types of strength training methods – weight lifting, power lifting, and bodybuilding. All three are sports that revolve around lifting weights. In the case of weightlifting and powerlifting there are two and three lifts respectively that are both competition lifts (therefore performing them is SPP) as well as being used to build general strength (GPP). In the early days of strength and conditioning coaches were usually retired weightlifters or powerlifters and their training programs reflected their own history and what they knew worked to make themselves stronger for competition. So the choice of which lifts to use for your training is largely based on their own bias from their own competition – but weightlifting is not motorbike racing.

For example, do you think it matters that you can squat 10kg more to ride your bike faster? The only way that answer is a yes is if you currently can’t squat at all. For everyone else you already possess enough leg strength to ride. However, the strength coach sells strength above all else and will tell you that if you squat more your performance will improve. I’ve seen these guys on track – they usually end up with leg cramps and having to sit out sessions because they lack the endurance. When you look at riding a track like Phillip Island it is easy to see why endurance is a more prized component than strength. There are 12 corners. There are actually only 8 changes of direction as some of the corners, for instance turn 11 to turn 12, where you don’t need to change body position at all. Over the standard 20mins for a track day session or 6-8 laps for a club race that is anywhere from 48 to 80 squats you need to perform. Easy to see why by the end of the day your legs can be shot if you do 5 sessions as it turns out to be about 400 squats. So strength endurance is a much more prized commodity than maximal strength and you can tell this from observing what the top guys spend their time on. However, the strength coach has his product to sell and he will continue to harp on about the benefits from high load strength work. The only way to test what actually works though is by lap times – either you are able to ride at higher speed for longer or you are not. If you’re talking about SPP for bike racing and trying to figure out what helps you make lap times then the only thing that matters is what helps those times. Everything else is wasting your gym time.

The other downside to chasing strength is the muscle soreness it brings. Gym folklore is filled with pithy captions about leg day and not being able to walk afterwards. That’s fine if you want to sit in your cubicle all day but if you have to go to the track and do 400 squats for the day it’s probably not a good idea to be so sore it hurts to move. It’s also going to impact your ability to stay relaxed on your bike, which is a key element in how it handles.

So what have we really got for a recreational rider or racer to maximise their on track performance? We have a diet that allows us to minimise body fat and keep body mass as low as possible and we have a training plan that is not focused on building as much as size or strength as possible but instead focuses on three types of strength and endurance work. That just sounds like a well structured GPP plan to me, or the exact type of plan that everyone in the world who isn’t an elite athlete needs. Because your job is not to worry about those last 0.1s but to be a good husband/ father/ employee/ boss. Being focused just on one of those elements sees you head down that path of specialization and unless you’re an insect it’s not a great idea. If you’re looking to ride faster you need to ride more and your fitness plan should support that, not see you end up acting like a powerlifter and wondering why you’re not getting any faster.