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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Map of Athletic Performance

by Rob Miller


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“Recently it occurred to me that physical adaptation to athletic training follows a predictable pattern that depends not only on a consistent commitment to continued improvement, but an intelligent approach to that commitment that not all training methods possess. This article is the story of my synthesis of this pattern into a concept I call The Map.”

Training is a confusing subject. Conflicting points of view have a way of making productive dialogues a rare event. For me as a dedicated rock climber, it’s been a slow process to understand this. Being an athlete whose sport is somewhat uncommon – at least when I started 20+ years ago – it meant that there wasn’t much for me with regard to effective and established training protocols. So I ended up trying all kinds of things in an effort to continue to improve at my sport. Most of the time, new methods would work for a while, but not for any length of time, and I never had a sense that I could repeat it.  The metaphor, “not seeing the forest for the trees” perfectly describes my experience with training and all the many “methods” to choose from. It’s hard to move beyond the hype and gather any real benefit, and I believe that many athletes struggle in similar ways.There are many different camps in the world of training, and each camp emphatically states that they have the best method, so much so that I felt a lot of confusion instead of understanding. Applying various new approaches to my training would work for a short period of time, but I would invariably go backwards, overtrain, or lose momentum. The constant companion to my desire for improvement as an athlete has been the desire to understand the process of how improvement occurs. Training was always a means to further the original goal of being a better climber, but if I couldn’t repeat the positive results, what did I really understand?

Conflict is a necessary ingredient for further growth and refinement, and there will always be differences. This is the way of the world and not something to try to eliminate, argue with, or fight against. When it comes to athletic training, I have developed a basic understanding of how the body responds to physical stress, and that response has everything to do with athletic gains and consistent improvement. It’s everything I wish I had known as a passionate novice athlete that wanted nothing more than to excel quickly. Over the past few decades I’ve accomplished a lot, but all that athletic experience may not be as valuable as my understanding of how important strength training is when it comes to getting consistent athletic gains.

Recently it occurred to me that physical adaptation to athletic training follows a predictable pattern that depends not only on a consistent commitment to continued improvement, but an intelligent approach to that commitment that not all training methods possess. This article is the story of my synthesis of this pattern into a concept I call The Map.


Eight years ago I was introduced to CrossFit and fell under the illusion that I had found a magic bullet for my training. I was wrong. Throughout my career as a climber, I had experienced some noticeable results from running, and even surfing, but like I said earlier, those results were not repeatable and would eventually begin to take away from my climbing. Entering into a gym environment was an entirely new thing for me; working in a generalized training program such as CrossFit was even more unusual. The initial gains I achieved were exciting, but that improvement only lasted a few months. I spent the next few years both chasing and defending the idea that CrossFit was an effective program for anyone, elite athlete or housewife, even though the same thing I had experienced with previous training methods was happening again. This ultimately became a conflict of interest while being paid to travel the country teaching CrossFit Certifications and owning an affiliate gym. In retrospect, the value of my association with CrossFit derives primarily from my introduction to multi-joint barbell movements and the experts I met that taught them. The full potential of the barbell, however, wasn’t realized until these recent post-CrossFit years.


Origins of the Map

Three years ago I sold my share in CrossFit Santa Cruz Central and disengaged from CrossFit altogether. To make it complete, I put a personal call into the founder and CEO of CrossFit, leaving a voicemail that said I was leaving the program. It was interesting that I never heard back from him directly, even though I was one of the original professional athletes who helped lend credibility to the program. This further confirmed that my decision was the right one, as it was obvious that there was little integrity inside that operation to begin with.

Results are miraculously explained in CrossFit with the “black box theory.” No one knows why (the Box, after all, is Black), but their deadlifts keep going up. No one knows why but their “Fran” times keep going down. Even accomplished athletes such as myself (and there will be others) have extolled the virtues of CrossFit while never really understanding what about CrossFit was responsible for those changes. After many hours in the gym and after many certifications, both as participant and paid instructor, it was only after walking away that I really understood some essential elements of training that had been lost on me because of all the hype.

Now fast forward two years. The scene is my home in the Redwoods outside of town. I have a rack, two bars, iron plates, bumper plates, a flat bench, and a small whiteboard in a very small garage. Without any frills, I have the bare minimum of what I need to continue my own training, my family’s training, and the few clients who come up to the house who are interested in basic barbell training.

One of my favorite clients who I had not seen since leaving Santa Cruz wanted to get started again. During the several years we had worked together, he had many athletic interests, from surfing and skiing to climbing.  A friendship developed out of our mutual interests and our professional relationship. I did not realize how much time had passed until we started talking about his training. I asked him what his goals were, and what he wanted from working with me again.

His reply was, “It’s the same as it always was – what we do here (he gestured to the garage gym) has to compliment what I do outside, not interfere with it. Right now – and this is specifically why I’m interested in hooking up with you again – I’m really into rock climbing. I feel like I’m making some good progress and I want to be able to keep that up.”

“We can do that. First, let’s make sure you’re getting the most from your climbing.”

I drew a series of circles on the white board that looked something like an archery target. The smallest ring around the bull’s eye I labeled beginner. “This is where a climber learns the basics. Becoming familiar with different kinds of terrain develops the necessary skills to become well-rounded. Progress is steady, and that’s why this ring is labeled “beginner.” It’s not defined by how hard you climb.

“The first performance plateau every climber experiences is when they’ve hit this boundary right here.” I pointed at the circle separating the beginner’s realm from the intermediate. “They’ve developed enough skill and capacity as a climber that recovery from climbing doesn’t happen at the same rate. They’re able to do more work at a greater intensity and this impacts the body more significantly. It may take a full week to recover. When you don’t realize that your progress isn’t linear anymore, that’s when you’ve hit this plateau.” I pointed back to the circle that separated beginner and intermediate on my impromptu Rate of Adaptation Map.

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