EPC Tips - Skill Proficiency

Feb. 12, 2015

We're continuing in our thought process for our "6 Components for Endurance Sports Success," our third component we'd like to address is Skill Proficiency (here's components I. Aerobic Conditioning & II. Muscular Stability in case you missed those).

All sports, activities, and human movements are learned skills. As newborn babies, we are capable of only laying in one spot, with minimal skill to move. As humans grow and develop, we quickly gain strength and learn new physical skills, from supporting our own head, to sitting, to crawling, to squatting to standing and finally walking. From there the pace at which we learn new skills occurs rapidly and seemingly with minimal effort. We begin to learn more complicated, although still basic skills like running, jumping, skipping, throwing and catching a ball, and riding a bicycle. Then, if you’re fortunate enough to be introduced to higher level complicated movement skills, you might learn how to swim, swing a golf club, or perform gymnastics to name a few. Every one of these learned skills requires practice to be able to get to a point where they appear to happen effortlessly. For some people, this effortless appearance of skill comes more naturally than others. One thing that holds true is that the more skillful you are at particular movements the better you are able to become at the activity and the higher level of performance you can likely achieve.

Learning and practicing proper technique is crucial to mastering any skill.

Proper technique, in and of itself, can often be argued or debated within circles of experts in a particular area of movement. Regardless of the agreed upon “correct” technique, finding a technique that works for you and practicing to improve it leads to improved skill proficiency. In most endurance sports, the specific movements required to participate are relatively basic skills we learn as children (swimming, cycling and/or running being the most common). Unfortunately, with perhaps the exception of swimming, most endurance athletes feel they already ‘know how to’ pedal a bike and run from a mechanical standpoint, therefore neglect the aspect of developing effective technique in their sports. By learning effective movement techniques and spending time practicing them (as elite athletes do) you are able to improve your own strength, stability and range of motion specific to your movement, leading to improved movement efficiency. These factors enable you to perform your movements with more power, less energy, over longer periods of time and with less chance of injury.

You will often overhear athletes and coaches talking about or read about the importance of an athlete’s Vo2 Max (the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can utilize). This number is often used as a comparison between athletes or to measure the potential they may have in endurance sports.

While an athlete’s Vo2 Max is certainly an important value, another equally important (if not possibly more so) is the measure of an athlete’s efficiency.

Take two similar runners with identical Vo2 Max values; the runner with greater running efficiency will out-run the other with less efficiency because she is wasting less energy and therefore can sustain a higher percentage of her Vo2 Max for a longer period of time. In fact, movement efficiency is so important that a “hard working” athlete with a genetically lower Vo2 Max can out-perform the more “naturally talented” athlete with the higher Vo2 Max by being more efficient and wasting less energy. And the longer the test (or race) the more noticeable the effect of improved efficiency is.

It could be said that success in endurance sports is directly related to efficiency. In the study of physics, efficiency is the ratio of output to input. In the equation (r = P/C) P is the produced output and C is the consumed energy. The produced output (P) can never be higher than the consumed energy (C), therefore efficiency can never be higher than 100%, with the higher the percentage equaling less wasted energy (in endurance sports, energy not directly being used to move yourself forward). Your goal as an endurance athlete is to achieve the highest level of efficiency through skill proficiency so you can tap into the highest percentage of your given Vo2 Max. We do all the training we do to maximize our endurance, strength and speed to achieve the highest Vo2 Max possible, but if we neglect the skill proficiency piece of the puzzle, we are limiting the percentage of the trained Vo2 Max we can tap into. On race day, it eventually all comes down to minimizing the the amount of energy wasted that leads to fatigue that slows us down. Look at the elite fields at any high level endurance event and the abilities of the top level athletes are very similar; they all have similar Vo2 Max values and they all train and race at near similar speeds.

The athletes that cross the finish lines first are not always the fastest athletes in the race, but rather, they are usually the athletes that slow down the least.

They are the athletes who waste the least amount of energy and are the most efficient. Improving one’s skill and technique equates to less wasted energy, higher efficiency and faster race times.

Skill proficiency and the subsequent improved efficiency can be developed in two ways. The first being the concept of simply time spent performing an activity. This is in line with the “10,000 hour theory”; stating that if you spend enough time doing a particular activity (10,000 hours according to the theory) you will become highly proficient at it. But what if you don’t have 10,000 hours to wait for this improved proficiency and you want to get better at your sport in less time?

Good news, you can!

With specific and deliberate practice through technique drills you can accelerate your learning curve.

We can improve our individual muscular strength, stability, mobility and flexibility by performing an endless variety of exercises off the playing field in a gym or our own homes. While this practice is critical to long term development and success in sport (see previous article addressing this concept), these exercises are rarely specific to our exact movements we are trying to improve in our sport. Performing glute bridges for example, is a great exercise to improve hip stability, however we do not come anywhere close to performing a glute bridge in our actual competition. Performing technique drills however do just that; technique drills typically take you through a very specific movement pattern (often broken into a smaller segment or skill of the movement) pertaining to your specific sport. Technique drills effectively incorporate sport-specific development of strength, stability, mobility, flexibility, balance and/or coordination. For this reason alone, all elite level athletes perform technique drills in their training programs throughout their entire year and all age-group athletes should do the same.

We’ve all seen the poor swimmers at the pool with the wonky arms, sinking hips, or dropped elbow. We’ve also all seen the cyclists with the bobbing upper body, or crazy low cadence, not to mention the runners missing any knee lift, or dropping their hips with every step or extended ground contact time and loping strides. Don’t be that person! Your skill and technique can be easily developed with deliberate and consistent practice, throughout your entire training year. It’s in your control.

In fact, aside from dropping excessive body weight, improving your skill and efficiency of movement is probably the fastest and easiest way to improve your race times!

I’ve seen so many athletes come to me with technique issues, and by spending just a small amount of time every week addressing these weaknesses, they have seen enormous improvements in not only speed and endurance but also the enjoyment of their sport.

Written by Cody Waite, professional XTERRA athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Endurance Performance Coaching. Check out EPC’s Personal Coaching, XTERRA Group Coaching, and Custom Training Plan options.

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