As competitions begin again and people become more comfortable being around others, how we are going to train is going to be impacted. Many of us will begin to look for groups to train with to fill a social void that we had been lacking over the pandemic. While this group format of training can be fun, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. In this post we are going to look at the pro’s and con’s of different training styles people will be using as we return to training for competitions. Before we dive too far into this though we need to take a look at the different intensities that we will be experiencing in our different training styles. This involves training alone, class, with a training partner, a group, and then competitions.
The graph above represents the different styles of training we will cover. These are rough estimations of intensity levels with a couple different styles people will participate in training wise. individual or training alone, in class, (which for a competitive athlete is more of a fun deload that helps with a social construct of training,) training with a partner, training in a group and competition. As you can see each of these has a rough estimation of intensity. These intensity levels can vary depending on the workout, and the group, so use this as more of an average and a way to think about the interplay between the groups, rather than an end all be all guide to intensity. We have listed both competition and individual training at 100. Individuals were listed at 100 because there is a much broader range you can achieve while training alone.The Intensity you elicit inside of this range is much easier to control training alone, there are fewer external factors that come into play.
Competitions might not be classified as training, but with the density of competitions starting to happen it is easy to compete too often, this will ultimately become your training if this is the case. As they start to happen again, it also allows us to fill a big social need a lot of us have been missing in our lives so we are looking at examining the interplay of competitions into training along with these other styles of training.
Most people are shifting towards the group, and competition side of things both with the CrossFit Games season kicking off and as live competitions start to open up. As we can see this has a high level of intensity but there are aspects of training you are going to miss out on and possibly become stagnant, or injured in your training. We will now break down some pros and cons of each category, and take a look at how we can best use these different groups to interact with each other over the course of a season.
For those pursuing serious goals of competing this is a necessity. Whether this involves doing your mobility work on your own, strength work on your own, aerobic work on your own, or skill work on your own. If you take this sport seriously there are going to be times where you have to put in the extra hours alone working on the things you need to develop to become the best version of yourself on the competition floor. For many this can be a daunting task, and can hold individuals back from achieving their best possible self. The mental fortitude needed for a task like this is large, and not everyone will be able to handle that much time alone in their head. It can be a scary place, but if your goals truly mean a lot to you at some point in time it must be done.
Working off of a self guided program allows you to develop capacity in areas that you need to work on. Whether that be gymnastics, strength, strength endurance, aerobic capacity, aerobic power, power output, or a skill. Our program meets us where we are at in this style of training and doesn’t push us too far or too little. If we dose something with too much intensity, which you might see in a group program, or the less regulated intensity of a group we may get better at suffering, but we might not get the adaptation our body is needing to continue to progress. There is a common misconception that suffering leads to improvement, which it can, but it can also just lead to getting better at suffering. Capacity development comes with meeting the individual where they are at, and giving the right stimulus at the right time the correct amount of time in a week. This is hard to do on a group program, which usually caters more towards enjoyment of training than broad training protocols for many different individuals.
In this modality of training we have much better control over regulating our intensities. We have the ability to have a range from almost 0 to almost 100% intensity. You just have to make a decision in your mind whether you are going there or not in order to get to 100% intensity. The average intensity of this group stays a little bit lower than the other groups; the range is still much broader. With this model we are more likely to listen to what our body is giving us on a day in day out basis. If we need to dial it back we don’t have outside pressure or stimulus to push our body past something that might be detrimental to long term training and success. We are able to listen to our aches and tweaks a little bit better, and adjust for ailments. This may come at the sacrifice of pushing hard and learning to suffer, or “Just deal with it.” But it will set us up for a longer career, which almost always leads to more success.
The above points might make it seem like this is the ideal style of training. Broader ranges of intensity you can control, able to listen to your body for long term training success, a plan dedicated specifically to you. Although these all seem like great things, this model of training still isn’t an end all be all style of training. As humans we are social creatures, and we need the presence of others to truly sustain anything long term. While this category has the most variance inside of it, it can also lead to boredom and thus a lack of intensity, and a loss of love for the sport and or training, ultimately burnout. We then shift into one of the groups below and may not be able to maximize our potential in the sport by doing so.
There is also an intensity factor that can be brought much better in group formats. So while the range is a lot broader in the individual side of things, it also comes with more work and focus to reach some of those higher intensities. So if you are an individual that isn’t self motivated toward your goal this format might be difficult to really elicit the progress you are looking for. On the counter side of the argument you may just need to learn HOW to bring intensity before getting into this model of training. Groups can be a perfect way to learn how to bring this intensity and what it feels like. So starting out with a group program and shifting to an individual one would be another option for individuals who still have to learn how to bring intensity.
The Class can act as a lot of things for individuals. In this ost pandemic it is acting as an excellent way to meet a social need that many of us lost out on, while simultaneously bringing some intensity to training that some of us might not be able to achieve on our own. For those with serious goals of competing this can be used as several different training tools. We can use this approach to elicit a little bit more intensity in training, a deload, or get touches on a bias that we may not experience in your regular programming. In the end though, this should take up a small fraction of a competitive athlete's programming, and finding ways to get group experience with other athletes should be a priority for most athletes.
Because this is more of a group program, and group training, there will most likely be a point at which, the athlete that is following this, plateaus, or doesn’t make progress relative to the rest of the field of the sport. In order to adapt to a training stimulus there needs to be either intensity, volume, or density, and then a progression of those, mixed in a variety of different ways. Volume might be low while intensity and density is high, Intensity might be high while volume and density is low or moderate ect. Group classes do a good job of pushing the intensity envelope. While this might push you and create adaptation for a while it can also leave you lacking the volume and or density dosing needed to advance your performance in the sport. Oftentimes, depending on the class workouts it will also leave out the complexity of fatigue factors that the sport can elicit.
While this can serve as a small intensity dose, it also can run its course very quickly. Often if we are working out with the same group of people or those that aren’t as skilled as we are our intensity levels start to drop, more than likely this will be a subconscious drop rather than an intentional drop, but one we start to recognize a pattern we can begin to initially fall into the intensity needed to take a W inside of a workout.
If the athlete is in a spot where they have done a lot of volume building and they are looking for some intensity in their training. Assuming there is nothing else in the area, class workouts can provide this intensity. If the athlete is just looking to get some fun in during a deload and hang out with their community this is an excellent way for the athlete to go about this. Often during the off season doing class workouts is a good way to take the stress and pressure off of training hard all the time and decompress from the pressure of the sport.
So while there are some benefits to group classes in filling a social need, and eliciting a little bit more intensity than you may be used to training alone, too much of this style of training can lead to plateau’s, or just a rhythmic going through the motions. Subconsciously this might be the case, but if a competitive athlete is looking for a deload and a way to bond with their community this is a good route to go for them.
The intensity bump you get while with a training partner can help to elevate your game to the next level. A training partner is something as simple as someone that consistently does your workouts with you or a couple of workouts a week. When beginning to examine training partners there are a couple different categories training partners can fall into under this definition. The first being someone that is at or slightly above or below your fitness level in all things. This is the ideal scenario for a training partner, but as we know we don’t live in an ideal world. Most people will have a training partner that is at their ability in most things and then greatly above or below their ability level in others. This, if the mindset is focused correctly, can also lead to massive gains in performance. There are subconscious holes that individuals can fall into with training partners that can leave the individual stagnant again, and or burnt out in a short period of time so it is important when training with a partner that both individuals mindsets and expectations are in the right place! Finally you might just have someone who is with you in the gym at the same time you are not close to your ability level but hits your workouts with you every once in a while. This individual can even give you a boost to your performance as shared suffering tends to make us push that much harder. The other aspect besides intensity that a training partner brings is accountability. We aren’t able to rationalize skipping training days, or even sections or our training when we have a training partner that is relying on us. If you are someone that is or does struggle with motivation, having a training partner for accountability can make a world of difference.
Ideal training partners are hard to come by, but most often we are going to find people that are at our ability level in most things and then greatly above in others. When we have someone at our ability level we can grow and push each other each day. It allows us to produce more intensity than if we were training alone all the time. This is going to lead to better adaptation, but also has a higher risk of burning us out due to that increased intensity. In a two person group individuals are more forgiving about performance and rationalize an off day a little bit better. We are still able to listen to the body and inform that individual whether you have it that day or not. Because it is a more intimate relationship and there aren’t paradoxes being created around multiple different personalities setting in, we can pay attention to aches and pains and don’t have to tell our bodies to suck it up. As we add in more individuals to this group the number of personalities increase and the number paradoxes will increase.
If your training partner is greatly ahead of your ability level it is easy to fall into the mindset of complacency when competing against that individual in something that is a weakness for you. Maybe not at first but over time this thought process can creep in. If you are always losing to that person in X workout, you will be conditioned to lose to that individual. This might also subconsciously take over on the competition floor as well. If you can develop a mindset of pushing hard during those workouts and have the ability to stay focused on that, while also seeking others that you can beat on these given workouts to give you a little bit of a confidence boost, you are going to have a lot of success with a training partner that has a higher capacity than you in something.
More than likely you will both be following the same program, when this happens it’s very difficult to get specific progressions that will help you achieve a higher level of performance. So while the intensity of training with someone else can help, often we may need another aspect of training to improve the given area you are looking to improve. A training partner is an excellent way to find intensity, and accountability but if it is done daily we can often bump into stagnation especially if it is a program that isn’t designed uniquely for each individual with individual work on their own. This allows the individual to follow a specific progression to attack a weakness, dosing that individual with the needed training stimulus and just enough to cause adaptation.
The pinnacle of intensity. Training with a group. This is what most people search for when they are starting out looking for fitness, and or a few years into the sport. This is also one of the fastest ways to make improvements in training. We can learn A LOT about the sport training in a group and we can get the best of both worlds in regards to training partners. In a group we have more variety of abilities, we will have those that are greatly ahead of us in certain areas, and those that are around the same ability level. This leads to an ability to always be racing which can help us to avoid the subconscious lack of intensity or stagnation. This is also a great way to fill a social need that individuals are looking for right now. Another overlooked aspect of being in a larger pack is the opportunity for play. When we are having fun and have a group that likes to goof around with elements of the sport we begin to challenge the capabilities of the basic movements of the sport, making them easier when playing the sport. Think of it similar to drills in field sports. If this is a characteristic of your group this is going to help develop skills you may not have, or advance skills, that will make those in the sport easier.
The dose of intensity that you get here is lethal, which will cause immense adaptation, but also can lead even quicker to burnout, and or injury. The social pressure of being in a larger group can cause us to ignore aches and pains we shouldn’t. This can either lead to a severe injury that will force us to take extended time off, or burnout. As stated several times now anything other than individual training will leave you short of developing some specific qualities for the sport, and as with any group if the mindset isn’t challenged correctly there is a potential for stagnation and burn out to happen.
The intensity that is brought on a day to day of training in a group is close to that of a competition. It’s as close as you are going to get without actually being at a competition. This is great for building up in a competition and using intensity for training tools. It can allow us to feel new levels of pain in the sport we may not have felt before, and allow our body to adapt to the work at a much greater capacity. With that being said, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and if we are not being careful we can burn ourselves out, and or, incur lasting injuries. Burnout happens when we are pushed too hard for too long and don’t give our CNS the time it needs to decompress. As intensity increases so too does our sympathetic nervous system tone. This can lead to a lot of things, the worst being early retirement in the sport, but also GI problems, CNS regulation issues, sleep issues, and the list can go on in a never ending negative feedback loop. So while we do get the most bang for our buck we might not want this to be a year round endeavor, and look to have scheduled time off from this model of training.
We also can develop skills a lot better in a group program. We have the ability for more play in a program like this and it can lead to a better understanding of one's body in space. For example playing with different HS walking, holds, or gymnastics tricks can lead to better forward movement on your hands. Making HS walks in competition or workouts second nature. The same can be said for barbell movements, or other skills like triple unders. Our ability to create games in a group leads to more fun, and that fun allows us to adapt even quicker to training.
There are a couple of things that group training can lack though, so while it can yield the best results it can also leave you a little stagnant in some of your performances IF you need specific training to improve a certain aspect of the sport. A group training program often won’t account for imbalances in the body to improve a specific movement, endurance of an isolated aspect of a movement IE tricep endurance for a burpee, or something like pressing power to pop out of a burpee. These are things that would have to be accounted for in an individual design. The imbalances of group programs can also carry over into our joint and tissue health as well. There might be some corrective work we need to look at doing on our own or through an individual design.
As well, the intensity of a group program can start to take its toll on the body. With the added social pressure of performing and working out with the group, athletes have a tendency to ignore what their body is telling them, which can lead to long lasting injuries. Something that might act as an ache or pain will manifest into a true injury after repeated days of ignoring it. This is where the leader or the coach of the group needs to come in with a firm stance on not letting the athletes participate if they are worried about their long term health. The biggest concern of working out in a group is not having the athlete pay attention to what is happening in their body, and pushing too hard for too long. Outside of this everything else isn’t as drastic of a concern. The intensity of training in the group will take care of a lot of performance factors.
While not necessarily a training stimulus, you may see, know, or are, the individual who jumps on the opportunity to compete at every chance they get. If this is the case this has officially become your training as you can easily start competing every other week if not every week. Either way competing as much as 1x a month lends itself to never being able to fully train, or go through a training cycle. Competition will bring that intensity up to 100% with the added allure of prize/money, fame, and internal pressures to see your name climb on the leaderboard. As we have stated previously, intensity leaves out key components of training that are needed to improve overall performance in the sport. Volume, and density. Perfect timing of a competition would end up at the end of a training cycle, as this would allow us to test the efficacy of the training cycle, or the end of several training cycles.
Putting It All Together
Now that we have gone over the different styles of training for an athlete in the sport of fitness, how do we combine all of these things? Which is the best way to train? How do we know when to switch formats of training? As with anything in life a lot of these answers will come down to “it depends,” there isn’t necessarily one style that works the best for every individual, and it should vary depending on the time of year. Below we are going to lay down a rough guide line of how to combine methods of training throughout the year to get the best results and keep your body as healthy as possible. It might make it easier to imagine (or look at the picture below) as group vs individual as an inverse relationship. We will illustrate where you might want to be on that scale or graph over the course of the season, as this is where we will begin to see changes and shifts in the program.
So how do we incorporate this into our training? Where do group classes and training partners fit in? As many people have heard, in the sport, we now need an off season. The off season extends for a couple of months past your recovery period and should be atleast a full 12 weeks cycle worth of work. During the off season we would recommend following a program tailored to you and developing yourself individually. This time period is going to be setting the base that will allow the individual to push the intensity with a group later in the year, and sustain a longer time period of pushing hard. This doesn’t mean that we get rid of the sport or take out group training. We just slide the scale more towards the individual side of things. As a general rule, touching the sport with others 1-2x a week is enough to keep a feel for the sport without getting too burnt out. During this time of the year we don’t need to hammer on the body, we can ease our way back into training. It’s more about healing and building.
For the first 2-4 weeks our off season should consist of healing the body and resetting any imbalances that we might have accrued over the year. A “recovery” portion. As a guideline a shorter season (IE the open and maybe some local comps) will have a shorter recovery period, and individuals can return to training sooner. After this recovery portion of the off season we need to take a look at what the athletes needs are for the year, and begin building the base. At this point in time we can begin to look to add some group training sessions back into the design. This is where having a coach, and an individual design comes in handy. The coach can schedule the work around the group training sessions to make sure you are progressing, and schedule the group training session at a point in time in the week that makes sense for your schedule. It will also be beneficial to train alone, or have a training partner that is following everything you do. This would be someone that doesn’t take the sport super seriously or is just getting into the sport, as a more serious dedicated athlete should have their own design they are following seeing as every athlete's needs are going to be different and every athlete is going to have a different progression for those needs.
Because a competitor can have some lower intensity in classes, and may need to find some fun in the sport again, it is okay to hit a couple classes during this time period. It will give them a different bias than their coach might be giving them. These classes can also be a valuable tool for keeping the body healthy. Depending on what the programming for them looks like. While the intensity gets an increase, the volume usually also comes down in a class. With only 60 min to fit everything in you typically see intensity rise and volume drop for class workouts. So if that athlete does a pretty good job of self regulating, this can help them to recover from the tough season they just went through. Class workouts can be used all throughout the year as a tool, but we probably don’t want to hit them too much when entering into a competition prep phase. Typically we will see these as more valuable tools when the athlete is needing a break from the mental grind of training. Dosed every once in a while throughout the season they can really help to bring some fun back into training.
After we are done with our off season 2-4 healing and rebalancing work, we can start to look into training with training partners. Especially as we set and lay out a plan for the year ahead and enter into a prep phase of training. As we talked about, a training partner can help us to push the intensity a little bit more and get us working a lot harder than we normally would on our own. So if we have someone that is willing to train with us, after our off season we should try and take advantage of that as much as possible. Keeping in mind some of the negative effects that can happen with working with a single training partner for too long.
Ideally we would have some sort of training partner for every session. Having multiple different training partners will allow us to push hard on some days while dialing it back on others. As mentioned above, a training partner can be anyone who is well above, or below your ability level. The ones who are at or above are going to help you bring some intensity into training, and the ones that are below will allow you to put it on cruise control a little bit more. This means that some of those negative side effects to having a training partner will be negated and won’t rear their ugly head as soon as they might, training with someone who brings it everyday. As humans we need to fill our social needs, and with the amount of time we spend in the gym, that social need will need to be filled via training with other individuals in order to not take time away from our training to fill that social need elsewhere.
Training partners for most people can maintain throughout the year, and will almost carry over into the group training format, and it’s possible you found that individual from the group training format. But, for a competitive athlete, a training partner is a staple and allows them to check a lot of boxes, more than just pushing hard in each session.
We stated before that group training could be left in 1-2x a week when you are in your off season. As we transition into your prep phase and look for the training partner, we may either want to drop the group classes down slightly IE 1 to 2, or 1 to 0, pending on how much we are training with our training partner, and how much intensity we are bringing on the daily. Conversely if we aren’t training a ton with the training partner, we might want to bump those group workouts up 1, 1 to 2 or 2 to 3; especially if you are now starting to add more sessions into your training. As well, if we feel like we have a good balance at the time we don’t need to adjust the number of sessions at all.
As we get into full competition prep mode we can begin to start bumping those group sessions up to 60-90% of your total training sessions in the week. The intensity will be a lot higher so we have to pay attention to things like injury risk, over training, and CNS tone. The sessions that you aren’t hitting with a training group should ideally be done with some sort of partner at this point in time. Intensity is king during competition prep, but remember there is a balance.
This time period should consist of around 3 months, we will end up putting individual needs relatively on the back burner and the sessions outside of the group sessions will become more recovery, and or maintenance based. There will be a lot of aerobic system support in these sessions as the intensity will be too high in the group sessions to really develop the aerobic system, and the athlete should be learning how to deal with the pain of competing. Keeping the aerobic system developed will help with reducing injury risk during this time and keep you fresher heading into each group training session.
During our taper it would be best to lower the number of training sessions with the group so you can feel fresh and ready to rock heading into the competition. A safe bet would be dropping the group sessions down to 10-33% of your total sessions during your taper. You will still need to touch and feel the intensity during this time so you don’t want to negate the sessions all together and come out surprised at a competition by how fast everyone goes. This is, of course, unless you have been severely over trained and continuing to touch intensity will dig you further into a hole.
While these sessions are the most potent and can serve to help drive adaptation, that is the number one thing we have to remember about them. They are potent and shouldn’t be relied on year round. It’s best to shift towards this end of the spectrum only briefly before a comp and then pull back during your taper.
We also want to remember that each one of these training formats is also on a spectrum that will vary per individual. Someone that does really well with intensity can handle more group sessions throughout the year, but will probably have to keep their volume a little bit lower. Someone who doesn’t handle intensity well will probably have to limit the number of group sessions they are doing weekly but keep their volume higher. It is a give and play system that really depends on the athlete, their motivation levels, their physiology, physcology, and injury tolerance. This is why it is always important to learn the athlete and not just provide them with a program, and for an athlete to have a coach that they trust that they can bounce ideas off of and ask for guidance. It is the coaches job to guide the athlete through these murky waters, look at biofeedback signs, decide when it might be best to pull back or push ahead. You don’t need to hammer it year round to be successful and following a guided plan will allow you to stay in the game even longer.
In summary, after our two week recovery period, it would be advantageous to find a training partner. This training partner can be of any level. We can add classes in here, but these should be used more as an opportunity to find some fun in the sport and training again rather than pushing the intensity. If possible we should have some group sessions around this time but only 1-2 a week as this is an important time to work on our weaknesses in the sport. As the year progresses and we enter competition prep we should begin to switch our training from more of an individual style of training to a group style and bring the intensity here.
Hopefully this brought some clarity to how you should model your training if you are a competitive athlete, as well as a better understanding of the pro’s and con’s of each training system. It will take some playing around to really figure out what it is that you or your athletes need, so be patient with the process and let things unfold before you make a judgement on whether something worked or not. Please let us know if you have any other questions!