|What is the Number One Training Requirement for All Olympic Athletes?|
With so many sports events for both men and women now part of the Olympics, there is great diversity of athletic requirements in order to be the best in each. Just about every human attribute can find its place in one or more of these events.
With such a range of attributes required depending on the event, is it possible to find common ground across them all, attributes that are key to every sport and that must form part of every Olympic athlete's training? If there are, is there one single training requirement that should be the top priority for focus of any and all Olympic training programs?
Before we begin analysing training areas, note that technique has not been included as a training area. While vital to all sports, it is highly sport specific and taken as a given that each sport will have a high level of focus on technical development. This article is aimed at assessing which training area is most important to supplement the technical training of each sport.
The best place to start in answering this question is to look at the main areas of physical training; strength, power, speed, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, balance and posture.
Strength and Power
A good place to start is to look at strength training, and for the purposes of this article we can look at it along with its cousin; power.
There is no doubt that, whatever the sport, training pure physical strength will be required to some degree. All top athletes require their muscles to be highly efficient whether it is commonly associated with their sport or not. Marathon runners require significant levels of strength endurance, while the more obvious weight lifters clearly require very high strength-to-weight ratios. Although the absolute strength required by each will be very different, athletes in both sports will need to incorporate maximal strength conditioning at some point as a key part of their training. Indeed, all Olympic events that require some level of physical demand will require some strength conditioning; rowing, cycling, throwing, swimming, football, hockey, boxing... take an athlete from any of these and more and they will have a comprehensive strength conditioning program.
Even the more technically dominant sports, shooting and archery, will require athletes to spend significant time working on their strength conditioning to deal physically with the rigours of Olympic competition.
So, if strength is a clearly common training requirement of all Olympic athletes, is it also their number one? This argument is more difficult to make. We can see from the examples already given that there will be significant variation in just the type of strength training required, let alone the importance it will have in an athletes overall preparation. While a weight lifter must spend a significant time working on strength, they must also be well trained in their technique, balance and particularly posture. Endurance runners certainly must not spend too much time on maximising their strength ability as it will actually more likely reduce their performance, due to their need for pre-dominantly type-I muscles fibres for endurance.
Move into sports such as cycling, rowing and swimming, and technique becomes ever more a dominant training requirement, while athletes in team sports will have significant tactical requirements to train both individually and together.
In fact, if you look at most Olympic sports, an athletes training program will mostly be made up of sessions working on areas other than strength, and it will likely not even be the single most time consuming training aspect. Even though spending less time on it doesn't necessarily make it less important, it is unlikely that strength will be the number one training requirement for all athletes.
A similar conclusion is reached when we look at power. While most Olympic events that require significant levels of strength actually should have a greater focus on power development, endurance events have a lesser need for power even than their need to develop strength. In effect, the need to train and develop power is even more specific to the demands of each sport than the need to develop strength, so power training is not going to be the number one training requirement across all sports.
The other 'big training area', developing cardiovascular capacity and efficiency will be a key training area for all Olympic Athletes. One thing that is definitely common across all sports events is the high demand for energy. Even short events, such as the 100m, have very high demands for energy relative to their duration. Making the body more efficient so it requires less energy is a key training goal, and making the body more efficient in supplying that energy is probably even more important. No matter what your sport, the more oxygen you can supply the body, the more effective performer you will be, so a well trained cardiovascular system will inevitably be key to Olympic success in all events.
Along with oxygen, the other key functions of the cardiovascular system in supplying nutrients, removing the waste products of energy production and regulating body temperature will all need to be highly efficient for Olympic performance.
It is also well documented that reductions in physical efficiency have a major impact on mental performance. When the body tires during competition, an athlete's ability to think clearly and carry out prepared and rehearsed actions significantly decreases. A highly efficient cardiovascular system will postpone effective levels of fatigue, and is therefore another important reason why significant cardiovascular training should be part of all athletes' training programs.
However, does this make it everyone's number one priority?
While good cardiovascular fitness will aid a shot put thrower, it is unlikely in most cases to be their main limiting factor affecting their performance. Strength, power, technique and muscular efficiency are likely to be the cause of reduced performance before it is restricted by a lack of cardiovascular fitness. So too the shooter. Time spent running at the expense of hours on the range is likely to have little if any benefit to their competition performance.
It seems the case, then, that while sports such as swimming, rowing and long distance running have high cardiovascular training work loads, with long hours spent pushing the body's oxygen provision systems to the maximum, and that all sports require a good proportion of their conditioning spent on the cardiovascular system, it is not the one that stands out above all else for all athletes.
While we may associate speed mainly with sprint events in swimming, cycling and other sports, look a little deeper and you will see that speed is highly important in all Olympic events.
In the end, the Olympics is about trying to finish first, and this inevitably leads to speed being a crucial aspect. Clearly, running in the quickest time requires you to travel at the greatest speed relative to everyone else over that distance, so even long distance endurance athletes must work on their speed relative to their event. But even in events where distance is the key objective, such as the javelin, pole vault and high jump, there is a significant need to perform the required techniques quicker than your opponents if you are to go further or higher than them. The simple physical equation 'distance = speed x time' perhaps highlights this need better.
Taking a wider look, speed plays a key part in effective performance in gymnastics, judo, tennis, football, hockey...in fact all sports with a dynamic element.
Perhaps not always focused on is the control of speed. Many look at a sport and can assess where absolute speed improvements can aid performance, but in many cases it is the control of that speed that holds the key. Hurdling is a key example. Many a great athlete has lost the Olympic final because they have run too fast, letting the adrenaline of the occasion get to them and end up over striding, leading to the inevitable clatter of the hurdle and despair as they see their rivals cross the line first. Equestrian sports also highlight the need for control, both in the dressage and show jumping, where controlling the speed of the horse is absolutely vital to top performance.
The closer we look at speed, the greater its importance seems to be across all events. But does it take the mantel of being number one? While speed is important in archery, making sure that the bow is released producing the greatest speed possible, it is not the most important aspect by a long way. When looking at other aesthetic events such as synchronised swimming, it is clear that while speed will play a part in various stages, it is not the critical factor.
With the more obvious physical conditioning areas ruled out, perhaps the often neglected areas may in fact be the key to success.
Flexibility has become a mainstay for all athletes throughout their training and competition routine. It is a common physical aspect that all athletes will spend time conditioning for optimal performance. With elite sport placing significant demands on the muscles, and resulting in high volumes and intensities of muscular contraction, rebalancing the negative effects this can have on muscular performance is crucial to not only maintain overall performance, but also to avoid injury.
Gymnastics is a prime example where high levels of flexibility are required. To even perform some elements of gymnastics, the muscles must be trained so they can achieve the required range of motion. To be able to perform them time and again without damaging the muscle fibres requires significant time in preparing and recovering the muscles in order to maintain there elasticity.
At the other end of the scale, too much flexibility can actually cause injury. Many sports involve high levels of stress and impacts on joints, such as the javelin and football. To withstand this, the joints require high levels of stability and strength, which can be put at risk if the joints become too flexible and the related muscles become too elastic.
If you also factor in that flexibility preparation forms a key part of most warm ups and cool downs, it is clear that flexibility is a key training area to get right and requires all athletes to spend time on it. But is it the number one factor, or should it be?
It is hard to see that any athlete devoting their main attention to flexibility will become an Olympic champion. Indeed, many of the previously held beliefs about flexibility have been challenged more recently, and in most cases flexibility requirements can be maintained effectively through simple routines without the need for too much time or focus spent increasing flexibility performance. Only in sports with high demands for flexible joints and muscles, or athletes with a particular problem with muscular elasticity, will require any significant, sustained focus on flexibility training.
Balance and Posture.
It may seem strange to view these as vital training areas that apply to all sports events, but as is the case with all modern sport, every aspect of physical conditioning must be incorporated if an athlete is to be effective, and balance and posture are no exceptions.
The key to understanding their importance is to look at them from an efficiency viewpoint. The top athletes, the ones that win the medals, are all highly efficient in what they do. There is a reason why you won't see any of these athletes off balance or with bad posture while they defeat all the competition.
Balance is simply the ability to maintain ones centre of gravity within ones base. Or, to put it another way, keeping your weight within the area covered by your feet. Draw a line from the top of your head to the centre point between your feet, and this line should be vertical. The greater the angle of this line, the more unbalanced you are. The more time you spend unbalanced, the greater strain it places on the body to maintain a balanced state. In effect, you become less efficient.
If you consider that most athletes actually spend most or all of their time on only one foot at any given moment (such as runners) you can see that balance becomes even more important, as instead of an area covered by two feet, they must maintain balance on an area of only one foot. As athletes are also performing many other actions while maintaining balance, you can quickly see its importance. Even in the swimming pool, a balanced athlete is an efficient athlete.
In fact, if you assess most aspects of technique in most events, it is about maintaining balance, at least in part if not all, while carrying out performance.
Posture has similar importance. The human body has a very complex structure, designed to be most effective when positioned in a certain way. The way we hold ourselves while we lie, sit, walk and run are all pre-determined by the structure of our skeleton and the way our muscles manipulate it. Poorly positioned bones, joints and imbalanced muscles all result in reduced efficiency in the way our bodies' perform. Making sure that our posture does not adversely affect our training and performance, and that conversely they do not affect our posture, is now widely acclaimed as being a key factor in achieving top levels of performance and reducing the risk of injury.
However, while balance and posture are key aspects, they cannot really be claimed to be the number one training requirement for all athletes, mainly because they are not always difficult to achieve. While critical, posture even for the most difficult cases can be corrected and then maintained effectively, while balance again is often achieved through the technical training of a sport without the need to significant amounts of focus purely on this area. While both need to be included within a conditioning program, neither can lay claim to being the most important.
So, with all the physical aspects of training ruled out, perhaps some of the other key areas of training can be attributed as the main one for all athletes.
Nutrition is now firmly established as of high importance for all athletes. Without appropriate nutrition, it is impossible for an athlete to achieve their best performance. It is also an area that can require significant training, learning when, what and how much to eat, particularly as our understanding of food science is developing at a rapid pace, and the temptation to eat inappropriately is also greatly increasing. Nutritional intake therefore requires continual monitoring and review to make sure that it is optimised.
While nutritional requirements are varied between sports and athletes, it is much more generic than physical training requirements, another potential argument for nutrition being the number one across all athletes.
However, while it may now hold the status as the most important factor for athletic performance, it does not take the title of the number one training requirement purely because it is actually relatively easy to achieve.
Eating well does not actually involve a lot of new practical implementations. While our understanding has greatly advanced, the changes needed to our diets for optimal nutritional intake are mostly minor adjustments, and whatever the required diet it can become habit in a relatively short period of time. While physical training and development can be a course of four years or more, nutritional training can take place effectively over a few weeks or months, with maintenance achievable with little further training required.
As with most things in life, it is the top few inches that most likely hold the key. The mind and body are inextricably linked in a way that we still are far from understanding, but it is clear that what sets out the very top athletes from the rest is their ability to perform mentally.
To become an Olympic athlete requires a long development process, usually over many years, of complete dedication to all aspects that go into making a modern day athlete. With our understanding ever increasing, so do the requirements placed on an athlete in their preparation.
There is also a seemingly infinite expansion in the focus and attention that athletes face; their media commitments, charity and community work, articles, comments, blogs. The distractions of modern day life are also forever greater, taking an athletes focus away from what they need to do to succeed.
While the psychological aspects of sport have always been important, the demands are clearly much greater in the modern era and are only set to increase. With our understanding of the psychological aspects of sport also improving, our ability to train athletes to manage psychological impacts also improves, and becomes an increasingly vital part of an athletes preparation.
It is clearly the case that an athletes potential is limited by the physical restrictions resulting from their genetic make-up. Some areas, no matter how hard an athlete trains can only be developed so far. It is an inevitable fact that becoming an Olympic athlete in a particular sport is restricted from some people for these reasons. However, with the diversity of sports at the modern Olympics, most people are likely to be well suited to at least one sport, and if they have the opportunity, it is going to be the psychological ability of an athlete that determines their performance, rather than the physical.
Any athlete suited to a sports event can be trained to succeed given the opportunity. Whether they do or not increasingly is down to whether they can cope psychologically with anything that might get in the way of their training and producing the optimal performance. For this reason, if there is one aspect, above all others, that is the most important to train, it should be training the mind.
Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University
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