Breaking the Law of Specificity

The single most powerful concept in training plan development for all sports is the “Law of Specificity.” This rule says that the greater the similarity between practice and the desired performance, the more effective it is. Training exercises should resemble competition in terms of movement pattern, speed, force and environment. Simply, the Law of Specificity says, “practice what you want to be good at.” Playing tennis is a great way to improve one’s tennis game, but a terrible way to train for basketball; the best way to train for cycling is to ride a bike. The Law of Specificity has been tested in physiology laboratories and found valid for numerous tasks, but is not absolute. The punishment for breaking the Law of Specificity ranges from wasted time to poor performance and injuries, yet competent cycling coaches assign a variety of non-specific exercises, and their riders continue to excel. If the Law of Specificity were absolute, any training other than riding at “race pace” would be a waste of time. Of course, races involve efforts from coasting to maximal sprinting, so any road riding could be considered race pace. The Law of Specificity also allows for degrees of similarity between training and goal performance. An exercise that shares movement pattern and speed but not force, such as base riding at race cadence, can be effective training. Matching force and movement pattern but not speed, as in low-cadence-high-force pedaling, is also effective. Running is far less effective in developing cycling ability and is detrimental for a competent pedaler. Why is this the case if running movement speed, pattern and force are not so different from standing cycling?

Physiological Basis of Specificity

The Law of Specificity arises from the facts that particular muscle fibers in a given muscle are activated when that muscle is activated, and that only activated fibers become trained. Training of a muscle fiber has two principle benefits: fibers become easier to recruit in later exercises so that one can generate higher forces with less mental effort, and they develop energy releasing pathways that allow them to support longer and harder exercises sessions. These changes only help athletic performance if the athlete can recruit the changed fibers in competition. As an athlete first learns a movement pattern, the brain chooses particular combinations and sequences of fibers to activate. If the movement is successful, those fibers will be activated each time that movement is needed. Repetition reinforces the fiber recruitment pattern. As the athlete produces greater force, more muscle fibers are recruited, but still only a subset of the available fibers. For example, researchers have found that different biceps fibers are activated in isometric contraction depending if the palm is turned towards or away from the body. The distribution of activated fibers is not logical. It’s not the more inside or outside fibers for a particular move. It’s literally which fibers among neighbors were selected when the individual first learned the move. This explains the movement pattern component of the Law of Specificity. By making the target movement, one trains the fibers that will be active when one makes the movement in competition. The muscle fibers used in running are not the same ones used in cycling. In fact, the firing patterns of the leg muscles are different depending on where one places one’s hands on the handle bars and whether one rides seated or standing, so training should include riding the major hand positions, and standing as well as seated, with the majority of time done in the most common racing position: seated in the drops. (If this position is not comfortable and sustainable, the rider needs a bike fitting).

When one makes a moderate force, relatively few muscle fibers are activated compared to when one makes a higher force with the same muscle. This fact explains the force component of the Law of Specificity. Only by pushing on the pedals with race-specific force will one train all the fibers that will be needed when racing. And of course races will include every level of force on the pedals from just turning them over to maximal effort, so all levels of effort have a place in training, including easy efforts as riders who train hard exclusively generally find it difficult to race efficiently. The brain recruits different fibers depending on movement speed and frequency. Partially this is based on muscle physiology, and partly on the fibers activated when the movement was learned. This fact explains the speed component. Only by moving legs about as fast as they will move during a race will one develop the race-specific coordinated muscle firing pattern. Since races involve low-cadence hill climbing, moderate-cadence cruising and high-cadence sprinting, racers train a wide variety of cadences, with the emphasis on the 90-110 rpm pedaling that makes up the majority of most races. The final component, similarity of environment, covers range of factors. The obvious ones are heat, cold, humidity, rain and altitude to which the rider must adjust to perform effectively. There are behaviors, like choices of equipment or clothing for special conditions, that one must learn before one can compete effectively in those conditions. There are also less obvious elements of environment that deserve consideration for riders about to face them: being alone (riders doing their first travel races, or riding a solo breakaway), having a noisy audience (athletes doing their first national-calendar races), or a possibly hostile audience (Olympic Athletes). Bike racing is not done on level ground going straight or on a trainer. One must practice for such environmental factors as turns, climbs, descents and varied pavements to be able to make the necessary pedaling efforts in those conditions. One might expect duration to be part of specificity, but it is not. Riders certainly should do training sessions that approach or exceed the length of their target events so that they can learn what they need to know about nutrition, hydration, clothing choice and chamois lubrication, but it is not the case that training precisely race distance or time is better for performance than training a bit longer or shorter, at least for road bike racers.

The Limits of Specificity

The Law of Specificity suggests that racing is the best way to prepare for races, and this is true, but not the whole story. A beginning cyclist who attempted race-specific force and movement speed would be contradicting the physiological basis of the Law of Specificity, the need to recruit the muscle fibers needed for racing. This becomes clear for the time-trialist: A rider who hopes to one-day win a professional time trial by riding 30 mph for an hour who starts out by trying to ride with event specific force and speed of movement would be riding 30 mph, but would only be able to do so for a few seconds or perhaps minutes. In that time, the rider would be recruiting high-force, fast twitch, rapidly fatiguing muscle fibers in large numbers, where the winning pro would recruit larger numbers of slow-twitch, fatigue-resistant fibers. The beginning can’t practice event specific force and speed and simultaneously recruit the appropriate fibers. A deeper understanding of the physiological origin of the Law of Specificity allows the rider and coach to move quickly past this challenge: The goal of time-trial training is an increase in the force the rider can generate sustainably, and that is best achieved by riding a high but sustainable pace.

Beyond Specificity

Training plan design should be informed by specificity, but the designer need not be a slave to that law in it’s most basic form. Racing and then lying around to recover between races is good training at some times, but most of the year, the effects would not be as good as doing some training that differed a little more from racing and doing more of it. The rider needs to be conditioned enough to sustain race pace without rapid fatigue or injury even to begin benefiting from racing as training. Certain forms of non-specific training, such as base riding, may be less time-efficient, but they are not ineffective, and the larger volumes of non-specific training that can be tolerated more than make up for decreased efficiency. Riders train to recruit the appropriate muscle fibers to prepare physiologically for racing, but training also provides the opportunity to practice essential skills such as cornering, eating and drinking on the bike, taking a feed, choosing appropriate gears for the conditions, and riding in close proximity with others through varied terrain. Training exercises can also prepare a rider for the psychological challenges of racing. The ability to remain confidently on-task when the situation is challenging is equally important with physical preparation for racing. Thus for a rider who is deficient in such toughness, a non-specific exercise that builds focus and confidence can be positively transformative, even if it does not affect laboratory measures of fitness. Off-bike resistance training is very non-specific training for cycling: It does not match racing for movement speed, force, pattern or environment. Coaches who are slaves to specificity have been unwilling to assign strength training. Off-bike strength training has been shown in laboratory studies not to improve lactate threshold power or VO2-max, justifying the decision to omit it. Still, experience-based coaches continue to suggest strength training, and their riders continue to win despite “wasting time in the gym”. More recent studies show that resistance training can increase the time an athlete can continue to produce a VO2-max level effort, justifying the performance of strength training. How can non-specific resistance training in the gym help a bike racer? Return once again to the underlying source of the Law of Specificity: Strength training recruits such a large proportion of fibers in the muscle worked that there is some overlap with the fibers used during cycling, in particular, the fibers that are recruited when higher forces are required for super-hard effort. Many other exercises are practiced by bike racers and suggested by coaches. Bike racers have experimented with yoga, Pilates, plyometrics, and one-legged drills among other exercises, and some swear that these non-specific exercises are the secrets of their successes. The Law of Specificity by itself is not adequate to determine if one should or should not do a particular exercise.

Healthy Skepticism

In racing season, there should be very little non-specific training. If a rider is considering a suggested exercise as a way to improve his or her cycling outside of racing season, the Law of Specificity is a good place to start but not the whole story. If the exercise is similar in movement pattern, speed and force to racing, it’s probably good. If it is not fairly similar, it should be approached with skepticism, but not necessarily dismissed. If the exercise serves a purpose beyond specificity, such as developing a skill or psychological fitness beyond that which would be achieved by riding the bike on the road in a the normal way, it is worth considering. If it is somewhat similar to road riding but allows a much higher volume of training to be achieved (riding trainer in the winter in snow-country for instance) it is certainly worth consideration. If it recruits and trains the same muscle fibers that will be recruited during competition, it will probably help. Non-specific exercises condition the athlete, preparing him or her to handle the specific intensity of bike racing. Non-specific training is less efficient and takes energy away from racing as training. In racing season, the majority of energy and time should go into racing, and recovery from racing and just as much non-racing training as will allow full recovery for the next race. Out of race season, somewhat non-specific training may be the best training. Racers should be willing to break the Law of Specificity, but should do so judiciously and appropriately to the time of year.