Off the Road – Specialization in Sports

by Russ Ebbets, DC

There comes a point in every career where the thought of doing the long jump and running a 5k, 10k or something longer is no longer a good idea. One is a speed and power event (the long jump) and the others are endurance events. To simultaneously train for both one is training two different energy systems in the body with conflicting physical demands. And the reality is more complicated than that.

There are five biomotor skills (speed, strength, endurance, flexibility and the ABC’s of agility, balance coordination and skill) whose expression allows one to do all things athletic. Different sports and different events require varying degrees of contributions of the five biomotor skills. As one gets better and better in a discipline the refinement of the skills becomes more important and their expression more apparent.

One of the determining factors for success in the long jump is the ability to generate approach speed. Generally speaking the faster one can run up to the take-off board, the farther one will jump. The US has a long history of successful sprinters who have made the transition to excellent long jumpers for both the men and women.

But remember, speed is a function of strength. There must be a subtle blending and balance of speed and strength. The huge, muscle bound guy may not be a fast runner even though they would tend to have a higher than average degree of explosive strength that would make them “quick” at least in their initial movements. It is this subtle blending and balance of these biomotor skills that makes for a great long jumper, sprinter or shot putter.

The long jump then becomes a blending of speed and explosive strength that also require a flight pattern and landing technique, skills virtually never addressed prior to one signing up to run a 10k.

The successful 10k runner needs to have the ability to modulate their effort for upwards of 30 minutes (or more). This process can be complicated by weather conditions (heat or cold), wind and the terrain of the course (hilly, flat, street, trail). One’s running form, one’s symmetric motion can also be a significant contributing factor into how efficiently one spends their valuable energy stores.

As one reaches physical maturity (roughly 18-21 years of age) the idea of a specialization is brought to the fore. The escalating challenge of competition requires one to focus and refine the biomotor skills of one’s particular event. While this may enhance the expression of one set of biomotor skills in one area it is usually to the detriment of other areas (i.e.- distance running usually deadens one’s ability to jump). One might have the “range” of being a good miler to 10k runner but the combinations of sprinting, jumping and throwing for a non-decathlete are essentially non-existent.  

This decision to specialize is both good and bad. Specializing will allow for a more refined expression of the skills necessary to succeed in a particular discipline, especially as the competition with other specialists begins to thin.

Specialization can present a problem when it starts to limit skills, movements and actions of the body to the detriment of “all around movement.” This becomes a situation of “use it or lose it.” The repetitive action of distance training (straight line running), jumping off one leg as in the high jump or long jump and the heavy weight training of throwers can combine to create continual, almost unrelenting stress on the body. For the unprepared body this may lead to overtraining, illnesses or injuries from this one-sided development.

Specialization is particularly problematic when we are dealing with children. Early specialization by a child in most disciplines (gymnastics is an exception) stunts growth and development. While baseball and soccer parents may champion the successes their 8-year-old son or daughter has had on a “travel team” the year-round regimen of relentless workouts, travel and competition does not promote well-rounded childhood development. This early specialization may in turn stifle long-term development. The future is spent on the present. Google the world record holder for track and field events who are 10, 12 and 14 years-old. Their careers never progress from that point despite their early promise.

In truth, one paragraph does not do justice to the early specialization problem. Discussing possible remedies may bring to light training options that allow one to safely specialize while enjoying a heightened level of fitness.

Planning design can do much to counteract the one-sided nature of specialization. Regular use of a dynamic warm-up allows both creativity and common sense in body development. A dynamic warm-up is a series of movement oriented exercises to prep the overall body and specifically joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles with movements that can improve one’s range of motion, condition dynamic stabilizers, strengthen neglected areas and provide a level of overall general fitness.

Periodic use of cross training is another alternate training method that helps maintain cardio-vascular fitness while reducing repetitive stress to joint complexes like the knees, hips and low back. The one knock against cross training is that most of the actions are linear in nature, similar to those of the distance running, without much variation.

Attention to flexibility (the only non-competitive biomotor skills) is another important key. A total body program is ideal. Richard Hittleman’s 28 Day Guide to Yoga is a simple and comprehensive self-study program that achieves the prescribed goals. T’ai chi may be another alternative discipline for those desiring more movement.

For those with access to weights a resistance training routine could prove to be an excellent method to strengthen the body in general. It needs to be underscored we are talking about a total body workout (front, back, sides and top to bottom) and not just bicep curls and the bench press.

There are inherent risks associated with long-term participation in any sport. The exacting physical demands on the body by specialization required at the higher levels of sport need to be factored into one’s overall training plan. As with most things this planning will require time and effort with research, consultation, trial and error until one finds a program that works for one’s individual needs.

Improvement necessitates change. Long-term stellar performance demands dynamic efforts that complement the repetitive nature of training and specialization. The benefits of this all-around approach out-weigh the costs (more planning time, doing some things you don’t “like”) and sweeten the rewards of participation. This “greater plan” will also help reduce the frequency of injuries, setbacks and poor efforts.

This may all seem like “a lot of work” and in fact that observation is correct. Much of what has been detailed here could be categorized as “general fitness” that needs to be maintained in addition to the specialized work. Maybe now it is clear why it is necessary over the course of one’s career to increase one’s work capacity (the volume of work done on a weekly or monthly basis) to continue to improve. Does one have to do all this “stuff”? No, not at all, but someone will and then you’ll understand the how and why of their success.

Why Early Sport Specialization Ends in Career-Ending Injury for Most Kids

Playing to Win Psychology Today

Rushing kids to specialize in one sport may not be best path to success


Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is the author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the High Peaks STR8 Maps trail guide to the Adirondack 46 High Peaks. Time and Chance, the sequel to Supernova was published in May of 2018. A Runner’s Guide will be available November 15, 2019. He can be contacted at spinedoctor229@hotmail.com.


Loading Conversation

Create Account



Log In Your Account