While being generally fit and active is important for quality of life, when it comes to higher performance, competitive sport, or bucket list feats of physical prowess it’s important to complete appropriate training. Ensuring that you are training properly can improve your performance, enhance the experience and help you avoid injuries.
So what is training specificity? It means that you train the movement patterns, muscles, cardiovascular system and skills in a way that is specific to the activity or sport in which you are participating. A good training program should break down the movement patterns and skills required to excel and help hone each portion to improve the whole performance.
Take a sport like rowing: While it’s important to spend lots of time in the boat and on the rowing machine to see results, time in the gym also matters. Training squats, deadlifts, leg press and plyometric leg movements can all promote the rower’s overall strength and power they can produce with each stroke in the boat. None of that will matter if you haven’t also spent the time to develop oar handling skills, boat balance, and the cadence of how to pull the oar(s) and so on. It is important to train from both angles for an athlete to perform at a high level.
Even if you’re not planning to compete in the next rowing competition, activity specific training still matters. We have many beautiful multi-day hiking trails here on Vancouver Island, and slow training walks on even flat level surfaces are not the key to successfully completing those hikes without injury. There is a huge difference between a nice relaxing dog walk on a gravel path and planning to cover 10-15km daily for five days through mud and over rough rooty terrain with a 25-40lb backpack on your shoulders, like on the West Coast Trail. Specific training for that kind of hike should involve day trips with your hiking footwear on and at least a light backpack on uneven terrain. Multi day hikes require endurance training, so sprints, heavy strength training or agility sports won’t be as valuable in the lead up to the main event as long slow multi repetition endurance based activities.
The same principle applies to any other activity where you want to excel: If you play pickleball, training your footwork and agility will help get you to that ball you might have missed before. Training your grip strength and endurance can help improve rock climbing and bouldering. Improving your flip turns will help shave seconds off your lap swimming. Even when it comes to basic daily living, specific training can help: ensuring that you can squat down to chair height and get back up without your arms for assistance means you’ll never get stuck on a low public toilet. Practicing your balance helps reduce the chance of falling.
None of this is to say that doing other activities for cross training doesn’t have value - it absolutely does, both in terms of maintaining general fitness and enhancing performance, as well as preventing repetitive strain injuries and balancing out muscles. But if you want to see improvements in a specific activity or aspect of an activity, a training program specific to the movements, muscles and skills required by that activity is key.