Training the Master's Athlete: the Principle of Progression
I remember a cartoon I saw when I was young. The cartoon had several panels, and in the first a young boy was carrying a newborn calf. In the next, he was a teenager and he was carrying a more mature cow. In the last he was a strapping, muscular man, and he was carrying a full-grown bull, complete with menacing horns, around the barn lot. The caption was something like, “do it every day, and do a little more every day.” In the world most people live in, progress is a simple and linear operation. But most people know that the boy/calf exercise is one that really won’t work. Linear though it may be, it runs up against limits.
I’ve seen coaches and individual athletes put together linear progressions of training that mimic the barn lot exercise. For instance, there is the beginning distance runner who sees his mile time shrink from a 12:00 to a 10:00 to a 9:30, rapidly and progressively. That happens because his initial training effect is making him a more efficient runner, training his VO2 max to a better place rapidly, and likely simply making him happier as a runner. And so he speculates (makes a “training plan”) over a period of months, convincing himself that he will be running 6:00 mile pace for a 10K. And here’s the reality: that is a bull he will never pick up, much less carry.
The principle of progression is only one principle among several that are the foundational principles of training. The way I learned it is this: you progress from simple to complex, from easy to hard, and from general to specific. That is true within a training year, but it is also true within a career of training. For those of us coming late to a sport, as I am in powerlifting, there is a limit to how complex, how hard, and how specific training can become.
In a general sense, progression takes place in the following way:
Basic conditioning. We all think of this as “getting in shape,” but it is more than that. Conditioning means that you develop the bio-motor qualities that allow you to complete athletic movements efficiently. So yes, you need to be in shape to run, but that means systemically training not only your cardiovascular but also your core so that you can “hold” the position of running efficiency.
Basic technical model. In track, this means mastering basic techniques of an event. For instance, if you are going to throw the shot put, this means understanding how to get into positions so that you can maximize release velocity and release angle. For a powerlifter, it will mean understanding, for instance, the ideal parameters, given your body type, (for instance, conventional vs sumo) that will allow you to deadlift the most weight.
For most master’s athletes, this is as far as progression can take you. I know that, as a decathlete/pentathlete in track, one who did not do most of those events before the age of 50, I will forever be working on the basic technical model of javelin throwing, for example. As a powerlifter, I will certainly be forever seeking the application of the basic technical models for the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift as I fight Time’s inevitable march.
If we were more elite athletes, there are two further areas of progression:
Specific advanced conditioning.
Advanced technical model.
Both these pertain to how elite athletes fine-tune performance that most of us can only dream of. For instance, I have seen elite powerlifters work “accessory” exercises to train against a weakness that only occurs in a single inch of the deadlift’s range of motion (an example of advanced conditioning work). Similarly, elite sprinters work on block spacings that will perhaps activate their back foot response a hair faster (advanced technical model). For most of us, we will do well to keep to basics.
The most important moment in a training plan is the origination. Know what the goal is. Describe the steps to get there. Know that it is not a simple linear progression, but rather a movement from simple to more complex, from easy to harder, from general to specific. For each step, have a goal that can be tested. Be patient, especially with technical development.
There are other principles that fit like puzzle pieces with the principle of progression (accumulation, overload, recovery, and others), and I’ll write about them later. For now, though, it’s enough to remember that there’s only so much bull you can carry. Be patient. Be smart.