The Application of Specificity: Triathlon and Cycling

If you’ve ever taken more than a cursory interest in exercise training, coaching, or physiology, you’ve most likely heard the term specificity. In simple terms, specificity means: doing work, practice, or training that matches the demands of the sport in which you are participating. You wouldn’t expect to get better at doing pull-ups by jogging, for example. Specificity is incredibly important, and it’s one of the key components in planning a training and practice plan, but it’s often applied to training programs incorrectly.
One way specificity is misused, ironically, is when it’s overly specific. An example of this in cycling is when a coach sees that a client’s target race includes 4 circuits with a 1.34km climb at 5.5% gradient and subsequently requires an athlete to complete 4 repeats of an effort on a climb of 5-6% for 1-1.5km. Is this a bad workout? No, it simply misunderstands how physiology and training work. Specificity is also misused when it’s not specific enough. An example of this in triathlon is that a coach prescribes 1 hour of running, but fails to specify a pace, effort, or intensity at which to run.
Both examples above illustrate failures to understand the physiology of endurance training and adaptation. In cycling and triathlon, proper application of specificity allows coaches to tailor workouts not to exacting scenarios, but to individual energy systems. There are three energy systems, two of which are anaerobic and one of which is aerobic. Each energy system is at work almost constantly, and they blend together. However, they also contribute most significantly at their most effective duration. The chart below shows how these relate over time at maximal exercise duration. As you can see, each system contributes at a different rate over time.

In WKO4, TrainingPeaks’ proprietary training software, the energy systems are referred to (or measured) by terms that describe their functional characteristics or their limitations. The aerobic system is Functional Threshold Power (FTP), the glycolytic system is Functional Reserve Capacity, and the ATP-PCr system is maximum power (Pmax). These systems can recharge, regenerate, and fluctuate significantly. Ultimately, it’s clear that exercise of 5+ minutes, like most competitive cycling and all triathlon, are primarily affected by the aerobic system. This is why FTP (and w/kg at FTP) is often the gold standard of performance measurement. However, there are other factors to consider. Multiple repeated jumps in a cycling race can quickly wear out an athlete without anaerobic training, for example.
This is where specificity of training matters the most. Training the body, and in the process, the mind, doesn’t require exacting detail. Instead, it requires applying appropriate and progressive stimuli to elicit adaptations that benefit the range of intensities, and their proximity to other intensities, across the board. This could mean doing hard efforts at the end of long rides, or it could mean making sure you can get up the mountain halfway into a race that started with hard efforts.
In triathlon, specificity can be just as nuanced despite the relatively steady-state effort that a successful triathlon requires. Triathletes must manage their training to include both the skills that swimming requires and the advanced aerobic fitness that running and cycling require. An Ironman includes running, and far, on legs that are already significantly fatigued. Specificity for this event (which certainly can’t include race simulation very often!), demands running on fatigued legs, running after a bike ride, and the ability to maintain metabolic activity to keep up, as well as possible, with the demands of the event. In both cycling and triathlon, a knowledgeable and flexible coach, training can be the difference in providing the progression, the detail (in the right amount), and the balance that athletes need to maximize their fitness and overcome their limitations.

As an Exercise Science student at the University of Texas, Mitchell Sides assisted coaching the university cycling and triathlon teams. Since graduating, he raced professionally for Elevate Pro Cycling and started his coaching career at Source Endurance.  Mitchell has been using TrainingPeaks and WKO4 analytical software to help optimize workouts for each athlete. His athletes range from masters to college freshmen in cycling and triathlon. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at Midwestern State University in Exercise Physiology, a program known for cycling performance. Learn more about Mitchell.