Habits of Highly Effective Athletes: Practice Sport-Specific Technique & Skills
Welcome to another week of the Habits of Highly Effective Athletes series—this week’s might seem, at first, like a reprise of last week’s discussion of cross-training, but practicing technique and skills is a totally different type of training that I will bet you’re not doing often enough. This is definitely the training I’ve struggled the most with (and have seen other athletes struggle with). I think that’s for 4 major reasons:
- It’s hard to find the time to do regular training, let alone skill-specific
- With a sport like mountain biking or trail running, it can involve certain weather / trail conditions plus getting to the trails
- It can be frustrating AF, especially working those skills you kind of suck at
- It can be hard to motivate simply because it’s not a calorie-burner, so it’s a workout that doesn’t feel or present like a workout
OK, so those are all the reasons skill training sucks… but those aren’t great reasons to skip it. Sorry.
Who Needs Skills Training?
Every. Single. Athlete. Whether you’re a road cyclist who needs to work on starts, corners or sprints, a mountain biker trying to get over logs, a runner tackling hills on the road or gnarly singletrack, there are elements of skill to every endurance sport. Let’s take a road race, for example. (Mountain biking is too obvious, of course there’s a skill component there!) In road racing, the start alone is a skill worth practicing: finding your pedal, putting out those huge watts for the first few seconds. Lots of people lose it there. Then, there are the corners. I see SO MANY racers drop out of the pack because they’re losing seconds in every single corner. Then, there are the downhills. Again, people over-braking (I struggle with this!), and losing valuable time. What all of those things have in common, with the exception of the power exerted on the pedal in the start, is that they aren’t related to your fitness or your actual wattage: those are skills that you can learn no matter how fast or slow or strong you are on the bike.
(Before we dive into this habit more, have you read about the first four?)
- Habits of Highly Effective Athletes: Stay In Your Lane
- Habits of Highly Effective Athletes: Fuel For the Work You Do & The Life You Live
- Habits of Highly Effective Athletes: Sleeping for Recovery and Better Workouts
- Habits of Highly Effective Athletes: Cross-Train… But Not Too Much
The Pros Don’t Stop Practicing
Just because you nail a technique once doesn’t mean you’re done. Far from it. In traveling with Jeremy Powers for three years, you know what I realized? Dude practices barriers, remounts, dismounts, sandpits, corners… All of that, regularly. The top pros are the ones who are constantly tweaking their technique and working to smooth it out, make it as close to perfect as possible. It’s a lifelong process, not a quick-hit, got-it-once-and-I’m-good.
How Should I Practice?
If you already know what you need to be doing, that’s great. Get out there and do it. Some sports, like cyclocross, are easy to know how to practice. Make a set of barriers, work on your remounts and dismounts and runs.
But if you’re new to the sport, I HIGHLY recommend expert help, either in the form of a clinic (and I have some advice on being at a clinic here), or by hiring a coach (not as expensive as you’d think!) for some one-on-one skills training. I can honestly say that if money is an issue, I’d opt for hiring a coach for a skills session and then buying a super cheap training plan versus hiring a coach to make my training plan. Skills will get you a lot farther! (There are also some great online options, like Ryan Leech’s courses, that walk you through daily practices for skills.)
When Should I Practice?
Daily is GREAT, but more realistically, I’m a fan of a couple times a week, regularly. It should be on your schedule, written out. The best I ever was at mountain biking was when every single morning, I went out in y backyard for 15 minutes to practice log hops and wheelies, so if you can get out every day, that’s awesome. But commit to a couple times a week and I guarantee you’ll see results.
What If Conditions Suck?
Mountain bikers and trail runners will say $hit like this all the time to get out of skills practice. But just because you can’t hit singletrack doesn’t mean no skills for today. For mountain bikers, a curb, a line in a parking lot, a backyard with a log—anywhere you can have your bike will do. If it’s too cold or wet or whatever outside to get out on the bike, practice your clipping in and out of your pedals on the trainer instead. (Also a great skill for road racers and cyclocrossers, since many starts have been wrecked by the inability to clip in quickly!) For trail runners, there are road hills, medians with grass/snow/other awkward $hit in them. Run on road and shift to off-rad wherever possible to get used to a mixed-up terrain. Even hopping on and off curbs will be helpful!
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