Training Specificity: Who Needs It?

(AKA Train for RAAM Without Doing Mega Miles)

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Bicycle Guide, May 1993 and ULTRA Cycling, Summer 1993

Later published in Endurance News, #67, January 2010. Download that publication here (68 pages; 2.6MB). View this article on the Hammer Nutrition website: Click.

While training for the 3,127 mile 1987 Race Across AMerica (RAAM), I ignored conventional wisdom by specifically avoiding major mileage in my training. In fact, only five times in the eight months prior to the transcontinental race did I ride 100 miles or further. Meanwhile, my colleagues were churning out the miles like there was no tomorrow, eventually building up to weekly 24 hour training rides and weekly totals of up to 1,000 miles. You see, while training specificity may lead one in a million Olympic hopefuls to a gold medal, it leads the rest of us in the real world to boredom, discontent with our sport, and sub-par performances.

The moral of this story? If you want to improve as a cyclist, utilize on-bike cross-training by dabbling in, training for, and competing in cycling disciplines and events totally removed from your primary focus. Diversity equals excellence in both a cumulative and activity-specific sense. This system works for me: I beat the one-in-three odds for finishing RAAM as a rookie, placed 9th, and at age 20, went down in the books as the race's youngest ever finisher, a distinction I still hold.

My understanding of this does not make me part of cycling's illuminati. I arrived at these conclusions through my frustration with doing the same rides and events year in and year out and my constant desire to try new things. Also, I had the good fortune to have RAAM '85 winner Jonathan Boyer, the first American to race in the Tour de France, as my mentor. But before he became my mentor, I was the lead Race Official of the RAAM and I watched Jonathan for the duration of that race. I quickly realized that he was onto something that the other racers were entirely missing.

Jonathan had done no rides of over 100 miles while in training for the RAAM. His diversified background on the European pro racing scene, coupled with his unparalleled grace and skill on the bike, netted him the first and only rookie men's win in the history of the Race Across AMerica.

The training regimen that I developed for the RAAM '87 and still follow includes mountain biking, fixed-gear, rollers, tandeming, bike commuting, USCF racing, and triathlons. I do events in all of the competitive disciplines and my actual non-event training includes intervals, speed work, hill repeats, speedy fartlek-type club riding, LSD rides, and plenty of just plain old rides. In other words, I really mix it up. Regardless of your focus, you would do well to follow suit. Here's why:

  1. Strategic adaptability. Consistently and naturally drawing on your far-flung experience will benefit your riding and racing ability across the board. What you learn in one competitive endeavour will help you in the others.
  2. Physical adaptability. You'll ride and race on several totally different bikes, making your body more readily adaptable to changes in position and riding style. This will increase your endurance and comfort levels in everything from touring to time trialing.
  3. Mental adaptability. Like Gumby, you'll be ready for anything. The confidence you'll have on any wheeled steed will make you a formidable and willing competitor.
  4. Superior bike-handling skills. Tandems, track bikes, mountain bikes, aero-equipped time trial/triathlon bikes, and bikes on rollers all handle differently. The skills you'll develop to train and race on these different bikes will make you a world class bike handler in your chosen focus, and across the board as well.
  5. Fresh body, mind, and soul. Training like this makes your cycling experience diversified and exciting. You can't help but love the sport when you experiment with all it has to offer, so you'll avoid the dreaded "train brain." Each new day's cycling will be a rush.
  6. Superior physical development. The minutely and grossly varied muscular developments and the different cardiovascular benefits that each discipline brings will make you a fitter athlete overall. As a multi-focus cyclist, you'll be fit enough for all kinds of endeavours, on and off the bike.
  7. Cross-train. Done properly and regularly, this type of diversified approach to cycling will allow you to derive major cross-training benefits without even leaving your favorite sport. So instead of doing leg extensions and leg curls, track race. Instead of leg presses, go mountain biking and do hill repeats. Build your upper body without leaving your bike by taking to the hills or muscling a tandem or track bike. Develop back, neck, glute, and shoulder strength by riding and racing an aeroed-out triathlon or time trial bike.
  8. Travel and hob-knob. Getting involved with these different disciplines will open up whole new worlds to you. You'll meet totally different breeds of cyclists, learn untold secrets and nuances of the sport, and just get around a whole lot more. You'll make more friends and cover more ground. Who knows where that can lead?
  9. Etiquette and respect. You'll develop an etiquette and grace on the bike that is far, far beyond what any one discipline can instill in you. You'll develop a much greater respect for the history and grandeur of the sport as a whole. You'll be more deeply steeped in the traditions and lore of the world on wheels. You'll be a more integral part of something much bigger than you ever imagined.

So, leave the train brain and mono-track lifestyles to the compulsive-obsessives. Instead, have more fun, keep life fresh, and become a superior cyclist through a diversified approach to our wonderful sport. You'll live longer and better, and be more likely to stick with the sport for a lifetime. And those are goals truly worthy of your aspirations!.