Transfer of training – A sneak preview of my next book.

Transfer of training is an extremely important issue in the training of athletes.

Let me explain this, because what is training? Training is the planned, goal-oriented process consisting of the repetition of physical exercises with the intention to improve the performance of an athlete. It is what athletes do and what the coaches come up with: yes…… physical exercises. And already the core of the problem presents itself: which exercises does the coach chose in order to improve performance in competition? Which exercises does he chose and which ones does he ignore? We aren’t even at the stage of deciding the amount of reps, sets or rest intervals of a chosen exercise yet.

The menu of possible exercises is a large one. But the first decision is an important one. Are we looking at the short term, tomorrow’s workout, or in the long-term, becoming Olympic champion in 8 years. This is also important because the menu changes over time. There are many exercise that might be used for the training of elite athletes only, but not for juniors or beginners and the other way around. In the process some exercises that fulfilled their purpose in an early stage of the athlete’s career disappear from the menu, while other exercises already executed during the first workout of an athlete are still there in the very last workout of the same athlete.

As you can imagine, transfer is a complex subject and there isn’t a lot of scientific consensus about this subject. Not a lot is written about it and what is written is hard to read and to apply, although Dr. Bondartschuk has done a good job writing some books about it.

So basically, what is transfer? Transfer is the thought that by choosing and executing certain exercises from the menu, these exercises will somehow directly or indirectly translate or contribute into a better performance.
You can imagine the discussions about the choice of exercises in order to improve performance. Some coaches are in love with certain exercises since they are sure these are an absolute must in the training of the athlete otherwise he/she will not improve. The same exercises however are on the “banned” list of other coaches. And here is the catch, the athletes of both coaches can be very successful!

Let’s start with the first choice to be made: the long term. Long term in this case means a timespan of years to even a decade or in other words, a large part of the career of an athlete. This choice is related to the long-term development of athletes and the choice between early specialization in a sport or event or the choice to perform more and different sports before the athlete starts to specialize.

We can find many examples of athletes who are/were the best in their sports, starting and specializing at a very early age. Tiger Woods in golf, the Williams sisters in tennis. At the other hand there are many examples of very successful athletes who started at a very late age.

I don’t want to go deep into this specific topic, but here is my take on this: I have seen and coached world-class athletes in the same event, at both the extremes of this spectrum.
Some athletes specialized early and were masters in their event, while anything else, other sports, other events, playing with a ball, was nothing less than a motor disaster. I think some athletes need many hours of rather specific training, while others are better off building a broad base of motor experience as a foundation for later success. The rhetorical question is always whether an athlete becomes really good due to early specialization or despite the early specialization (and would have been better off practicing a different or more sports before specializing).

Anyway, in many cases we start coaching athletes at a later age e.g. 16-18 years old, and by then we don’t really have to make a choice about early specialization or practicing different sports, since the athlete already went through that stage. This also creates doubts about the reality of a long-term athletic development system or LTAD. I know only of one example where this idea existed and worked, in the former GDR. The whole long-term process of athlete development was from the beginning to the end tightly integrated and controlled by the state’s sports authorities. Every coach knew he/she was a link in the chain, but knew what had happened in the link before and what was expected from him/her in the link after. It was a continuous process, developed by and controlled from above, therefore controlling every single link in the chain and no weak links.

Most coaches limit their choice of exercises, based on transfer of biomechanical and kinesiological factors. In other words they look at the similarity of the movement patterns of the exercises and the predominant competition movement patterns or clusters.
But transfer does not only depend on biomechanical similarities. One also has to take into account the metabolic and psychological similarities. For example, the duration and intensity of an exercise dictate the metabolic pathways being used. And of course the level of pressure under which an exercise is executed. It might be easy to display a perfect technique in training for a short duration or at lower intensity, but what happens in competition with high pressure, under fatigue with maximum intensity?

Short-term transfer is more related to the choice of exercises and their effect, over a short period of time, from minutes to months.
The key questions are:
• does an exercise contribute to a better performance?
• in which aspects (biomechanical, metabolic and/or psychological)?
• directly or indirectly?
• how much does it contribute (priorities)?
• when does it contribute?
• does the effect of an exercise change over time?

I don‘t have the answer all of these questions in detail, but will try to give you my opinion and some food for thought.

Many choices a coach makes are driven by insecurity, doubt, uncertainty, and answering the question: ‘is this really enough or sufficient?’ And all too often the answer is : “no”.
Or: ‘we also do this exercise, just in case’. And sometimes you hear this: ‘ if it doesn‘t hurt, just put it in the program’ .
In the end, this idea is dead wrong! Simply because performing any exercise will cost resources and energy, metabolic energy, adaptation energy, energy for recovery. And the athlete only possesses a limited amount of resources and energy. That is why some athletes end up spending 3-4 hours in the weight room, trying to get stronger and faster, making more hours and more miles, performing so many different exercises or drills and only increase the risk of flat or submaximal performances, overtraining or acute or chronic injuries, often without any improvement of performance. There the saying the more, the better not only applies to training volume or frequency, but also to the amount of different exercises and drills.

To what extent can an exercise contribute to improved performance?
Let’s assume you want to run 100 meters fast, which exercise(-s) would you use? I would begin by running 100 meter fast in training because then you have all the components in a specific way. Sounds logical? Yes, because we are assuming: what you train makes you better. So by running 100 meters fast you become better at running 100 meters fast. But in the longer term, after e.g. a few months you will discover that only running 100 meters fast will no longer improve your 100 meter time. This is because the principle of diminishing returns dictates that the body will adapt to a certain specific training load and therefore this training load will have less and less impact on performance, if repeated over a longer period of time.

The second idea is to break up the 100 meter race in different functional components and see which components need to be stressed specifically. Let’s say, the last part of the 100 meter race is OK, but the first part of the race, e.g. 30 meter is poor. So we reset our priorities and start to work on the start and the acceleration, making more repetitions of those, by running e.g. 30 meters from blocks or standing starts. But even then, in the end the effect of doing this will diminish.

Maybe adding strength training might be a good idea since the acceleration-phase has a strong relationship with strength qualities, such as explosive strength. Here you recognize the shift from very specific training, e.g. running 100 meters fast, to more general exercises which show less similarity to the intended goal, e.g. strength training with Olympic lifts, squats, leg press etc.
Let me use some symbolic numbers, say running a fast 100 meter in competition is 100%, running a fast 100 meter in training is 98% (running alone, less pressure, no crowd, nothing at stake). Let us call this 98% a high transfer potential. Now take performing a set of biceps curls, since the sprinter moves his/her arms and bends and extends the elbow while sprinting. This has a very low transfer potential, let’s say 5%. In other words, you can only have a very faint hope of improving your sprint performance by becoming great in biceps curls. A negative transfer potential means that performing this exercise has a negative effect on the intended performance. The transfer potential displays the likelihood of an exercise contributing positively to a competition performance.

It becomes more complex.
Many coaches think that a relationship between two variables is clear and linear i.e. ’if this, than that’. Unfortunately this is seldom the case. An example: one might think that by testing sprinters for their 1RM in squats, this will show that the best sprinters lift more in squats. But does this mean that lifting squats will improve sprinting?
Many coaches think so, but it might also be that by performing a lot of sprints the athlete becomes stronger in squat. Or it might even be that by performing more sprint training, one might become stronger in squats as well as faster in sprint. It doesn’t really mean that by doing squats you are going to sprint faster!

For example: in one European country, athletes and coaches interpreted the findings of sport scientists who found a strong relationship between explosive strength (vertical jumping ability) and sprinting performance. And they started to do a lot of jumping in order to improve their sprinting performances. In the end these athletes had abnormally good results in explosive strength tests, but they did not sprint any faster. An imbalance was created by confusing the end and the means or, cause and effect.

In our choice of exercise we have to be more or less sure that the exercise will positively contribute to an increased performance at a later stage. If you are not sure of this, leave it out!
Just the fact that an exercise exists or can be done, does not necessarily mean one has to incorporate it into one’s program or has to execute it.

“Just in case” is not a good argument for an exercise in be included in a training program.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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