In this article, I’m going to explore the concept of training to achieve and maintain a state of athletic readiness. For some, especially those who have tied their identity to their sport, this can be a little challenging.
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At the top of my list of mistakes that amateur athletes make with their training programmes is following the example of elite athletes. The belief that an elite athlete training programme is “the perfect programme” or even something particularly special is a mistaken one.
The level of specialisation required to be an athlete who performs on the world stage is not healthy for an amateur athlete, who must (a) live in the real world and (b) deal with the demands of real life.
The adaptations that those athletes must undergo to win at their sport are adaptations to the demands of that sport and that sport alone.
Those adaptations might not be too damaging if the sport is essentially a natural human activity (running comes to mind).
However, if the sport is something fundamentally man-made (cycling, for example), those adaptations that make you better at the sport will actually make you more vulnerable to injury from the activities of daily life.
Of course, this could be considered a reason for not training or competing in sport at all. This is not what I’m suggesting. In fact, as someone who has participated in sport my whole life, I believe competitive sport to be very useful for a whole bunch of reasons. Among them…
- Having a competitive goal helps people to stay on track.
- Competing in an event can reveal mental strength we didn't know we had.
- Many sports include a social element, something which is increasingly important in our modern world.
So, this is not an excuse. Rather, it’s a call to consider whether there is a better way, especially if we want to maintain athletic ability as we grow older.
I believe there is, and I refer to this as a state of athletic readiness.
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Defining Athletic Readiness
Maintaining a balanced level of health and fitness year-round that enables the person to train for and compete in any athletic event they choose with the minimum amount of specific training time. It’s a state which the person can easily return to after competition.
Of course, this is an easy definition to write but, like all definitions, it’s a bit woolly and needs the addition of some detail.
The Scope of the Athletic Readiness Concept
Historically, the focus of most athletic training has been on the physical training itself. Depending on the knowledge of the coach providing the programme, there might have been an aspect of tactics or technique included. In exceptional cases, the programme might have included some sort of nutrition advice, although this was generally very vague and revolved around the MyPlate or the USDA dietary guidelines. Both are concepts which have been adopted by governments around the world and which don’t necessarily serve athletes or the general population very well.
The scope of the state of athletic readiness is all-inclusive. It’s a whole-life approach to being in the best shape possible.
The modern way of thinking tends to be incredibly reductionist. This means that we’re encouraged to think of the different parts of our lives as separate and distinct.
While this is useful as a way of simplifying what is a very complicated set of interconnected systems, it’s a very poor way of actually ensuring health and athletic performance.
Most of us have had the experience of heading to the gym or out on a run after a mentally draining day at work, only to find that we just didn’t have the necessary mental energy to get the most from the workout. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that we were physically fine but our day at work had left us without the mental wherewithal to perform at our best.
My most notable experience of this was early in my triathlon career, when I used to swim at 5.30am, 6 days a week. I loved those swimming sessions; they were the highlight of my day. That is, until I started to have issues with my employer, completely unrelated to my sport. To cut a long story short, my job became so unpleasant that, try as I might, I could no longer get out of bed for my swim sessions. There was nothing wrong with swimming; other parts of my life had spilled over to negatively affect something I loved doing.
With that in mind, athletic readiness includes…
- Daily health habits
- Stress management
- Mobility training
- Strength training
- Cardiovascular training
It’s not limited to the items above either. In fact, anything that could impact your health and fitness should be included on the list.
The Idea of Athletic Readiness Standards
The second part of athletic readiness is defining what it actually looks like.
While I have long hesitated to publish basic performance standards because I’ve seen how they somehow become a “thing” in their own right, I think this is something that’s worth exploring. After all, if you have no way of measuring your state of athletic readiness, how do you know that you have achieved or are maintaining it?
The other issue I see with performance standards is that they’re used as a goal in themselves. So, for example, if I achieve a double bodyweight deadlift, I can claim that forever. For the standard to be useful in the athletic readiness context, this has to be something that I could achieve 365 days of the year.
In trying to come up with these suggested standards, I’ve had conversations with people from numerous sports and training disciplines. I’ve read the standards that other people have published. And I’ve considered whether an arbitrary 50th percentile - or other number - of the competitive population in a sport or discipline would make sense.
In the end, I’ve concluded that each of us needs to come up with our own set of these because, although we might all want to achieve athletic readiness, we all have different leanings when it comes to sport.
As much as I love rugby, I’m 50-years-old, 180cm tall and weigh 78kg on an average day. I’m not really built to play rugby and my age might make recovering from the knocks difficult. That doesn’t mean that you might not want to play rugby at 50.
I love watching jujitsu. The physicality, the “chess game” and the intuitive knowledge of joint angles and positioning fascinates me. I’m not sure it’s something I want to do, for similar reasons as the rugby. Not to mention, I live in almost the middle of nowhere and the nearest jujitsu school I found was nearly 200 miles away!
I spent most of my adult life taking part in endurance sport. If I’m going to compete, that’s probably what I would choose to do. My background, my physical characteristics and my mindset are suited to that type of activity. It certainly won’t be the only thing I do, and in fact, I don’t identify myself as a runner/cyclist/triathlete anymore.
The point, once again, is that we all have a slightly different physical and mental make-up. Which means that we all need slightly different standards for athletic readiness.
Having said all of that, here are some standards that I’ve found useful for myself.
Possible Athletic Readiness Standards
Deadlift - 1.5x BW for at least 5 reps (I use 2x, but this puts it out of reach of many endurance guys)
Squat/Front Squat - BW for reps (at least 5, aim for 10)
Bench Press - BW for reps (at least 5, aim for 10)
One arm kettlebell military press - 0.3x BW for 5 reps (both sides)
Pull-ups - BW for 10 reps
5km Run - 21:45
2km Row - 7:30
400m Swim - 7:00 (taken from the standard to be allowed to compete in surf lifesaving events)
Mobility and Stability Standards
Functional Movement Systems screen or similar, achieving a minimum score of 2, ideally 3 on all movements.
(Space is limited so that full description of FMS screen is impossible: PDF Description)
Body composition (BMI below 25 and/or waist-to-height ratio below 0.5
Defined nutrition plan
Adherence to the plan 95% of the time
Sleep 7-9 hours/night (wake without alarm clock)
Walk 30 minutes per day
As you can see from the items above, universal standards are very difficult - if not impossible - to construct because we will all have a bias towards things that we’re good at.
For example, Dan John has a set of standards in his book "Intervention". These seem reasonable to me. Other authors have suggested double bodyweight deadlifts as a starting point, while many triathletes and cyclists would be lucky to pull their own bodyweight. For them to achieve double bodyweight for a single might take a number of years of focused training. Those same athletes might easily run 5km in 21:45, whilst my powerlifter friends would pull 3x BW, but take 30 minutes to run 5km.
What this teaches me is that standards are, to a degree, specific to the person.
What standards would you add? Which would you modify? Why would you make these choices? Put your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the page.
Expeditions into Specialisation
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, the beauty of having an athletic readiness mindset and an associated set of standards is that you will always be able to train for a specific challenge without having to spend an initial 12 weeks just getting fit and building a base.
If you were to put just 13 weeks towards training for an Ironman triathlon from this place of athletic readiness, would you do the best possible race you could do if you dedicated your life to it for a period of years? Probably not. Could you do much better than average whilst avoiding the health and injury risks of long-term specialisation? Absolutely yes.
Sometimes, you need to apply a variation on the Pareto Principle to your training: It's relatively easy to get the first 80% of what's needed for a performance but incredibly difficult (and risky) to get the last 20%.
You certainly wouldn’t need 26 weeks to get a good result like people do when they are stuck in the specialist train/detrain cycle.
Once most people with an athletic readiness approach finish training for their specialist challenge, they get a change of scene. They get to avoid the boredom that comes with being a specialist athlete all year round.
If they train every spare hour for something, as soon as that goal is achieved, most people will stop training altogether so that they can focus on other important things like family time or that unfinished DIY - that’s what I refer to as the train/detrain cycle.
As much as it can be tempting to specialise in one sport, the long term effects of doing so might not be as positive as we hope it will be.
In this article, I've argued for a more balanced position, one where we work towards a set of sustainable standards that will put us in the top fraction of the population for physical ability.
This will allow us to train for and compete in any event within a reasonable period of time with far better results than many of those who train year in and year out for the same sport.
Remember, specialisation is for insects... and pro athletes.