The Need For Specificity

This article covers arguably the most essential element for effective training; specificity.

Having specificity in training is not as hard as you might first imagine, however it’s something which many people lack, and inevitably stops them from reaching their potential.

Clearly, having specificity just means being specific in your training; but specific to what? The answer again is clear; you have to be both specific to the goal you are training towards and specific to your own individual needs. If for example you are training to run a marathon, you will struggle to run a good time if you have only trained on the bike. This is an obvious example, however when looking at the finer details of training, it is less clear what denotes good specificity.

Again using the example of the marathon runner, the bulk of the physical training will constitute running, however if you were to run a marathon every day, the majority of people would end up being constantly late for work, and potentially ending up with chronic fatigue/overtraining. So being specific doesn’t just mean training exactly the same as a key event every day, instead it means being smart with your training.

Have you ever turned up to a race in any sport where for the first time you are competing beside other people, and have struggled to maintain your own rhythm or to run as you would do on a training run? Many people who feel like this during races do so because they have never run in a big group of other people. It takes a very focused individual who can turn up to a race with 200 other competitors, and not be influenced by everyone else’s pace and rhythm.

Again, this demonstrates the need for specificity in training. If you are training for a competitive race and are hoping for a good time, make sure some of your training is in as close to a race environment as possible, so you get used to not being forced along at 5 minute mile pace by the local world champion who has decided to enter the race for a spot of training.

The next danger is trying to add too many elements to your training programme which forces an otherwise good programme to become much less specific. A good example of this is altitude training. I have talked quite a bit about altitude training in my other posts but I’m climbing Everest so for me, that’s as specific as it gets. Many other people however decide that because Paula Radcliffe and other elite athletes train at altitude, what is good for others must be good for them; but this is not always the case. There are many advantages to altitude training, such as increased red cell production, increases in EPO (erythropoietin) concentrations, and angiogenesis (growth of new blood cells), however there are a whole host of positives and negatives which have to be measured before deciding altitude training will benefit sea level performance. An example is that all the adaptations described above have the ability to increase sea level performance, however at altitude, you risk muscle wastage, altitude sickness and thus reduction in training, and the fact that these adaptations take weeks and months to become beneficial. There is a chance you will become worse off after altitude training, and hence this means that the value of altitude training for sea level performance is something to be carefully considered.

The final element of specificity in training is intra-exercise specificity. Using the example of a power athlete (combination of strength and speed components) such as a 100m sprinter, it is easy to show this idea of intra-exercise specificity during weight training. There are countless combinations that the sprinter could use to decrease their sprint times such as different reps, sets, and weights. A sprinter however will aim to mimic the requirements of the sport by lifting weights (70-80% 1RepMax) in an explosive fashion, thereby replicating the movements seen during a sprint. Whilst the athlete could lift light weights for many reps in a ‘muscular endurance’ type approach, this would not be specific to sprinting and thus power athletes match the way they lift weights to the demands of their sport.

For an example of training specificity in a cardiovascular situation, take the example of a squash/tennis/badminton player. Instead of 60-100 minutes of constant running, more specific would be 60-100 minutes of interval training to replicate the start-stop nature of these games.

Alongside specificity in training, is specificity of the individual. Athletes are often described as finely tuned individuals who know their bodies inside out. The ability to listen to your body is a skill which develops with training and will enable an individual to know what training works best for them. In conjunction with the training that works best for the individual, is the training that the individual actually needs. Using the example of an Ironman triathlete; saying that cycling is their weakest event identifies the specific element requiring work, however it isn’t very specific for a training plan. From identifying the specific element, the next phase is narrowing down the need of training as much as possible; for example the Ironman triathlete may struggle to maintain peddle stroke pressure for the duration of the cycle. This means that training time is not wasted on hitting the apex whilst cornering or improving hill climbing times which the athlete is already good at. Instead their training focuses around lower limb muscular endurance and lactate threshold training in order to reduce their triathlon time by the largest possible margin.

As mentioned above, perhaps the most important concept to grasp which will help you be more specific in your training is the use of time. Time is a finite quantity so you have to use it well. Think about the most effective and specific use of your time to achieve your goal. If you are training for a long distance race, think about whether a 45 minute fast-paced run is as beneficial as a 1.5 hour medium-high paced run in achieving your goal. This video provides quite an inspiring take on the value of time:

Before and after each session, you should remind yourself of the need for specificity. Think to yourself, is the activity I’m going to do beneficial to my overall goal? If not, can you justify your use of time in doing the activity?

Once you have finished the training session, evaluate what you have just done. What did you get out of that session, and did its result agree with the initial aim of the session. Training with specificity is greatly aided with good evaluation. Evaluate every session you do, and if needed, instigate change into your training regime.

In summary, remember to keep your training specific both for the training purpose and the individual, then decide if what you are doing is beneficial to your overall goal. Remember also to keep an element of diversity in your training; time spent away from your chosen sport can be as equally beneficial. Most importantly, be productive with the time you are given.

It would be impossible to detail here the specific training requirements for every person, so if you want more information specific to you, go to my website ( and feel free to contact me.