Posted on the Salvation site 2/1/09:
On the October 9th page of the public site (not archived on the current public site) there's a link out to an article I wrote about two exceptionally talented sport climbers we worked with, James Litz and Steve Maisch. In it I stated that:
"Their hardest ascents required years of specific training, practice, and rehearsal, which aren’t characteristics developed in the weight gym. But at some point we realize that repetition – like all training actions – produces finite results, and what got us here won’t get us there. We must remove the blinders. A new, different method or emphasis might unlock future progress.
They took some convincing. But when it comes to this I’ve no doubt about the benefits. Even though we believe that the more technically demanding the sport the less physical conditioning plays a role, we also believe that a chronic diet of super-specificity leads to a ceiling, and that conditioning might break through it."
Recently I received an inquiry regarding the idea that physical conditioning plays a smaller role in sports dominated by technique than in sports where fitness itself is the basis of performance. I would say that sport climbing at the level in this context, which is very gymnastic and technical, or jiu-jitsu at an international level are truthfully described by the statement. A field sport like soccer, or perhaps road cycling, running, or nordic skiing might be used as an example of a sport in which physical conditioning plays a more significant role than "technique", depending of course on the definition of each term. It's an interesting concept and an honest understanding of one's relationship to it will help determine how biased his or her approach to training may be. I believe that the tendency of the "physical" individual or the so-called health and fitness professional will always be to over-emphasize the physical. I'll say it again for the cheap seats, "the physical part is easy."
I feel like I have written this before, and recently so forgive me if I am redundant. If the strongest athlete is also (consistently) the fastest, or the most dominant, then strength and conditioning are vital aspects of sport performance. If, however, an athlete who might be considered to possess deficient fitness characteristics, i.e. not fast, and not strong, consistently turns in winning performance then technique may be considered more important. The whole point of the original UFC tournaments was to show that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, when applied by a small, comparatively weak man, Royce Gracie, who also happened to be technically proficient (to say the least), could be used to defeat bigger and stronger opponents. This lesson may be seen in many sports. I knew a girl who could climb hard 5.13 but couldn't do more than three consecutive pull-ups. Strength or strength endurance was clearly not an issue.
The underlying issue however is that strength and endurance are relatively easy to come by, given adequate attention and self-discipline, which are, apparently, not so easy to come by. And because these attributes may be easily obtained, and mankind is inherently lazy, some see strength and conditioning as a shortcut to improved sport performance. Of course, the results produced by a simple increase in fitness are sometimes shocking but in most cases it is increased skill or technique, or evolution of the mind that leads to the most radical progress in sport performance. Despite the "proof" of this, no one wants to practice technique. No wants to practice shaping their mind to the point that when let free the mind itself drags the body and the whole toward a distant point shining brightly with mankind's potential. Technical practice is difficult. Psychological training, and meditation, and the conscious reshaping of one's mental habits developed and hardened over years and years is difficult. No one wants to undertake these tasks. And when the easy way, the physical way is exposed as a comparative dead end, as ineffective, we trick ourselves into believing a fabricated truth. We tell and swallow lies.
To support this idea I offer the following behavior:
No top performing endurance athletes achieve their results on a diet of short, hard intervals and circuit training in the gym. Instead they build hours and hours of baseline fitness and then temper the foundation in races, and with a very small percentage of high-intensity interval training. Do you imagine that a bicycle racer who rides 20,000 miles per year isn't looking for a way to achieve the same results without having to spend so much time in the saddle? Do you imagine that someone has come up with a shortcut, a method to end-run all the effort and time and suffering, and that no one else had previously tried it? I thought I had found the shortcut. I was wrong. Others think they have found it. Some are even selling it. The true professionals are not convinced. And they are not being beaten by anyone taking shortcuts (except dopers). I believe we keep trying to force the square peg of high-intensity circuit training and heavy lifting into the round hole of endurance performance simply because we like doing it. We are addicted to the endogenous opiates produced by hard effort, and want to continue feeling their effects. But we also want to run or ride long distances for long hours. So, being human and weak, we trick ourselves into believing the work that gets us high can also give us the results we seek. And in the grips of that high we ignore our performance on the day, on race day, preferring instead to point out our performance in the gym, our performance compared to others, our fast time on some contrived circuit that means nothing outside of the narrow context of the weight room.
If this is the path we walk by habit, or by seduction or addiction, we are wrong. Sick, fucked-up, and wrong.