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What Counts? Albert Einstein and the Philosophy of Training

– Derek M. Hansen –

Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” As a track coach and strength and conditioning coach, I am always trying to determine which components of the training program actually count, and which components do not really contribute to the greater performance whole. On closer inspection, we can argue that there are direct inputs that create useful, tangible adaptations (i.e. speed, power, strength, endurance, etc.), while other peripheral components can create an environment for positive adaptation or a synergistic effect even though they do not directly contribute to improvements. But determining which training elements, components or exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck is a difficult exercise in itself. Those who can identify the key elements will have greater, more consistent performances from their athletes, as well as less injuries and minimal instances of overtraining.

Controlling Your Variables

As a young coach, I was always intrigued by the observations of Bruce Lee. I also enjoyed watching his movies. Through descriptions of his approach to martial arts and his ultimate creation, Jeet Kune Do, I have been able to arrive at a philosophy of coaching that enables me to keep things simple and account for improvements as well as decrements in performance.

“In Jeet Kune Do, one does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subject. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the inessentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions.” Bruce Lee

Coaching the 100m sprint is a good measure of your ability to achieve pure physiological and technical gains with athletes. There are no game strategies, trickery or teammates to rely upon to make up for physical shortcomings. When you step into the blocks in the 100m final at the Olympics, it’s the athlete and his or her competitors running in their individual lanes – putting their faith in their preparation. The same goes for other Track and Field events, as well as other sports such as weightlifting and swimming. Ironically, it is often these sports where performance enhancing substances make the biggest impact.

Specificity is key when planning and implementing a training program for a given sport or individual event. Thus, performing the actual event would be considered the most important training element. If you do not spend enough time performing your given sport in your specific position, role or event at the appropriate level of output, it is very likely that you will not significantly improve over time.

Using the 100m sprint example, you could run only 100m out of starting blocks for every training session. Specificity advocates would say that such workouts would yield positive results and adequately prepare you for your competitions. However, adaptation may be limited and short lived using this method since an athlete would only be challenged in the same manner for every workout. As we know from basic training theory, periodic variation in the stimulus is integral to providing ongoing adaptation and prolonged improvement in performance. Doing sprints of varying distances – some shorter, some longer and in various combinations and volumes – as well as adding other training elements such as weightlifting, explosive training, plyometrics and even aerobic training will enhance preparation for the 100m sprint. The difference between good coaching and average coaching is determining the proper amounts, progressions, combinations and sequences of all of the training elements – in coordination with good technical preparation – and applying them appropriately to an individual athlete.

Many coaches grab every bit of information and training technique and integrate it into their overall program, hoping to add value. There is nothing wrong with striving to learn more to improve yourself as a coach and bolster your training approach. However, adding more without taking something out of the equation can lead to problems. Adding more training elements haphazardly can lead to problems of:

  • Overtraining. Adding more elements and exercises can lead to an athlete that is over-stressed. If this trend continues over the long-term, overtraining syndrome can result. It may take the athlete weeks or months to recover from this affliction. Adding is not so much the solution as replacing. A coach that is adding something must also take something away to ensure that a balance in training load is achieved.
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  • Interference. Some elements that are added may conflict or interfere with existing elements, particularly if inserted at the wrong time or day of the week. For example, excessive work in the area of endurance and lactic tolerance can dull explosive, alactic abilities. This is why you don’t see elite Olympic weightlifters running quarter-mile repeats with three minute recoveries.
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  • Accounting. The more a coach adds, the more complex the entire training equation becomes. It becomes much more difficult to make adjustments and transition from one phase to the next. It is also harder to determine which elements are the critical elements (i.e. those that are providing the most bang for your buck). Thus, when a problem occurs, it becomes a much more difficult task to determine where to make changes.
  • Once again, I am not saying that adding new training methods should not be pursued. I am saying that one should be conscious of the big picture and the impact new elements can have on the adaptation abilities of an athlete.

     

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

     

    The “Confusing Menu” Syndrome

    One of my favourite television programs of late is a reality show called Kitchen Nightmares in which world renowned chef, Gordon Ramsey (from Hell’s Kitchen fame) helps revitalize problem-ridden restaurants. One of the first things he does when evaluating the restaurant is review their menu. In every instance, these near-bankrupt establishments have too many items on their menus. Customers cannot figure out which items on the menu are actually good, while the chefs and cooks preparing the food cannot focus their talents on just a few good dishes. The result is low quality food, confused customers and a failing restaurant. The same can happen with a training program. Too many inputs, too many choices and no focus on what is going to provide the real payoff for the coach and athlete. You run the risk of bankrupting your athlete.

    “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee

     

    Classifying and Prioritizing Training Elements

    Table 1 below provides a graphical representation of the classifications of contributing (and non-contributing) training elements. For illustrative purposes, I have identified potential training elements for an elite level 100m sprinter. The first column represents elements that will directly result in starting, acceleration and maximum velocity improvements for the elite level sprinter. For beginner sprinters of adolescent age, almost any type of training can result in an improvement. But this type of example does not provide us with the critical imformation for determining critical elements for effecting significant improvement at all levels of ability. For elites, over-use of non-contributing elements will result in a de-training response (i.e. they will get slower).

     

    table-1.jpg

     

    Additionally, the elements identified in column two of Table 1 are classified as indirect contributors, which can enhance an athlete’s ability to improve when training direct contributors. For example, improving aerobic ability, through the use of low-intensity intervals, can enhance recovery and regeneration abilities between sprint repetitions, sets and workouts. Use of electronic muscle stimulation can enhance muscle fibre recruitment velocities that can be applied in sprint training and plyometric sessions. The third column includes items that we cannot conclusively say provide assistance, but are often left in a program because we feel that the athlete can gain confidence by incorporating these elements in their training.

    Finally, column four elements are activities that would not provide any appreciable improvement for an elite level 100m athlete. Scientific evidence does not support use of these elements and even anecdotal evidence is non-supportive. Some coaches may still incorporate these elements at a volume which does not negatively affect performance (i.e. used as filler activities to add variety) while others over-use them to the detriment of the athlete.

    “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

     

    Recommendations

    So how does one go about choosing the correct amount and blend of training elements to elicit the best training response in an athlete? There is no black and white answer to this question. What is clear is that heightened awareness on the part of the coach is paramount. A coach must keep track of all of the inputs in a given training program and be able to understand what an athlete is getting out of the prescribed elements. You do not need to attach percentages to individual training elements, but you should have a good idea as to the relative importance of each input. Key factors that will help a coach to make the right choices for their athletes include:

    Experience

    The more hands on experience a coach has under their belt, the more able they will be to discern what is working for their athletes and what is not working. Knowledge is of no use unless you apply it. And regardless of what you read in a book or on the internet, or pick up at a seminar, you really don’t know how to make it happen until you have logged the hours with athletes and seen the improvements first-hand. Having said that, there are coaches who continue to do the same routines over and over again, expecting a different result – which is essentially the definition of insanity.

    Intuition

    Some of the best coaches that I have met have combined adherence to scientific principles with incredible intuition – resulting in profound results on a consistent basis with their athletes. To some degree, enhanced intuition does come with experience. However, it appears that some coaches are simply better at reading their athletes and understanding how to elicit optimal adaptation through good planning and timely rest and recovery. Unfortunately, intuition may not be something a coach can learn – it may be only available to a select few coaches.

    Quantitative Evaluation

    Every training program should have a means of evaluating its effectiveness. For sprinters, the stopwatch is the indicator. In the weight room, the amount of weight lifted is the key indicator. In field events, such as high jump, long jump and shot put, the measuring tape is the indicator of progress. Other athletes from team sports can also use these indicators to identify progress for qualities such as power, strength, speed and endurance. If you can’t measure improvement, it will be very difficult to determine if your training program is working. Qualitative assessment can also be used. However, if something looks better but there is no quantitative improvement in performance, it will not fly in the world of competitive sports – unless you are a figure skater or rhythmic gymnast.

    “The only real valuable thing is intuition.” Albert Einstein

     

    In short, training for the sake of training is not the best use of an athlete’s time. I often come across athletes who don’t improve, and when asked why they continue with the grind of training with no tangible results, they respond with, “I just like working out. The training itself is enjoyable for me.” If you are one of these people, all the power to you. But if you are hoping to make significant improvements, keep track of your training inputs and make sure they are paying dividends for you. Once you figure out what counts and what doesn’t, training will not only be simpler, but also much more gratifying.

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