A question that often pops into athletes’ and even coaches’ minds is what aspects should my athlete be training right now to maximise his/her performance?
Approaching the beginning of a season or nearing competition time, it is often in the back of an athlete’s mind what exactly he/she needs to focus his/her training on to see the optimum results on the field: “Should it be endurance so I can last longer than my opponent?” “Should it be maximum strength so I will be stronger than my opponent and able to push him/her off the ball?” “Should it be speed, so my opponent cannot catch me or keep up with me?” “What should I train?” Too often, for some reason or another, athletes tend to focus on maximum strength approaching competition time and even sometimes throughout a season. This is not at all recommended as strength will begin to plateau after a few weeks or a couple of months, maximum. Also, focusing on maximum strength throughout a season can sometimes have negative effects on performance, as central and neural fatigue can onset amongst other undesirable factors like over recruitment of slow twitch fibres and possibly even injury.
Approaching competition time, hypertrophy is not required (for most sports). Although it will improve strength, it will probably decrease relative strength and result in a loss of speed in the athlete
So the question remains; if not maximum strength, what should my athlete train in order to achieve a personal best in the upcoming World Championships? The answer is simple; the key factor in optimising athletic performance is explosive power. Explosive power is the ability to produce a high volume of force in a short period of time (usually milliseconds). It is required in every sport (except maybe Olympic lifts); a footballer has milliseconds to shoot at goal before the defender tackles him, however the shot must also be powerful to reach the goal and beat the goalkeeper; a sprinter must produce enormous quantities of force when his foot comes in contact with the ground (Usain Bolt’s ground contact time is on average 0.08 of a second), in order to reach such high speeds (up to 44km/h);
equally (and probably surprisingly for some people), a long distance runner needs this explosive power, Mo Farah ran 10,000 metres at an average speed of 21.8km/h at the Olympics in London, almost half of Mr. Bolt’s average speed but over a distance 100 times greater, so obviously explosive power is required in every single stride to be able to maintain that speed for so long.
Both athletes completely airborne; takes power. But to do it at 44km/hr or even 21km/hr requires explosive power.
So how do I train explosive power? The secret to becoming more explosive is by improving your rate of force development (RFD). The RFD is basically the time it takes you to reach your peak power (highest amount of power you can generate). This can be done by one of two ways; either decreasing the time it takes you to generate maximum force or increasing the force you can generate in a given time. The traditional way to achieve this and train to optimise performance is to split the training period into three mesocycles. The first, generally done in pre-season will focus on hypertrophy and building muscle (at least 6 weeks required to alter internal structure of the muscle); after that, maximum strength will be the focus of training (hypertrophy is done prior to max. strength as the larger the cross-sectional area of the muscle, generally the greater force that muscle can produce). Finally, as competition time approaches it is essential to work on explosive power to optimise performance. This is the key ingredient to achieve optimal performance, without this mesocycle the previous two are of little or no benefit.
This is the most common protocol that elite athletes undertake every season and is proven to be beneficial and work. However, the notable problem is that the athlete will really only peak once per season and if the athlete is in a sport that lasts a number of months it’s extremely difficult (impossible actually) to keep improving performance levels week after week using the same training protocol, because the body will begin to adapt to explosive power training after about 6 weeks performance will plateau.
How can this obstacle be overcome? Only very recently a new format has been theorised to optimize performance throughout a season rather than just peak once every couple of months. It is an intriguing concept and may be especially advantageous to team sports where the competition period continues over a number of months.
Andy Kavanagh MSC, NSCA-CSCS