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Matt Wilmoth


August 31, 2023

Training vs Competition

Training vs testing

Compete everyday calls themselves a brand for ambitious people. You cannot and should not do this.  The thing that professionals know that amateurs don’t is that there is a huge difference between training and testing. Understanding this point is crucial to your progress.

Testing is important. It’s how we measure progress. It’s how we stay motivated. Whether it’s a race or a competition or even just a max day at the gym regular testing can be a huge part of our fitness journey.

Everyday though isn’t testing. You won’t meet a world class runner that tries to set personal records on a daily or even weekly basis. They only try to do  that on an important race day. The same is true of team sports. NFL teams only play once a week and while they may work hard during the game week they are not competing all the time.  It’s training, We use training to get better on a day to day basis so that the next time we test we improve. Most people believe the best way to get better is to treat everyday as a competition. They want to go as fast as possible. They want to lift as heavy as possible and then want to win every work out. This is a very bad idea. Here is why.

Training plan and purpose

The overwhelming majority of your time in the gym or on the road or exercising is what we call training. Training serves several purposes including getting stronger but It’s also where we learn and refine skills.

Training requires a solid plan. I can’t tell you what that plan should include because there are millions of goals and everyone is starting at a different point. The key thing is that you should have one.

If you have no idea where to start find someone who has helped other people in your position and use their program. Depending on your level you might just be able to find a template program to work for you. There is a ton of value in hiring a coach to keep you on track but at a bare minimum get a plan. It takes time, experience, and knowledge to build proper programs. Writing your own without these is a recipe for failure.

Every day is not a race or a meet  or a comp  

Training should also be a lot easier than competition. I know everyone in the fitness world talks about how hard they work, and I am not suggesting you don’t work hard but there are differences between training and testing hard.

Take weightlifting as an example. Most weightlifters keep most of their training to loads that are challenging but they know they can hit. This is true in the programs I write. Usually, we want to leave a rep or two in the tank in every set. Occasionally we do things like a heavy double meaning work up to the heaviest set of two you are 100 percent sure you can do. Some body building will take some sets to failure but not all the time.

This is true of conditioning. The absolute best runners in the world do the majority of their training at what is called zone one. This is the lowest heart rate zone. They also do some high intensity stuff. What they don’t do a lot of is run their race pace for long distances`. They save it for competition day. Most amateur runners do the exact opposite. Easy runs seem too easy and so they up the pace to insane levels. Like truly insane. It is not uncommon for a pro runner who runs ins the 4 minute mile range for a marathon to do his easy runs at 7 minute miles. Its also not uncommon for a quick amateur runner who runs a marathon at an 7 minute mile to do a lot of training in the 7 minute mile pace. They treat every day as a race. It’s not.

When it comes to high intensity conditioning it doesn’t mean we go slow. Picking your battles in something like CrossFit is crucial however. If you are doing five to six workouts a week trying to win all of them is a long-term recipe for burn out. Depending on where you are in a training cycle you may need to do some of those at a low intensity or even cut back on the number of workouts and work on other skills.

Technique and training

Proper technique is the most efficient way to move. Now in the short term that may not be true. Everyone brings with them suboptimal movement patterns from life and when you first start these may actually be faster or better.

The problem is they put a ceiling on your potential. Part of the reason for training is to get better. We need to keep the speed, volume or weight at levels that allow us to improve movement.

When it comes to things like running its usually volume and speed. When it comes to weightlifting it might be weight or even movement variants. Doing cleans from the ground when you aren’t ready can affect the technique. The same thing when you put movements you are proficient with into CrossFIt workouts.

Intended stimulus.

When it comes to competition the stimulus isn’t important. Its important to win, to go fast, to get the result. Training though has an intended stimulus even if it isn’t explicitly stated.

In fact most coaches won’t tell you what they want from it but they tell you what they want you to do.

When it comes to strength training this may look like percentages of max, rate of perceived exertion or reps in reserve.  Basically how heavy it should be. If you follow this you will get what your coach wanted. Too many people forget that there is a reason why those instructions exist. I cannot tell you how many times I program something that we are supposed to build up to a heavy set or two over six sets. Even the heaviest sets should be something we could do another rep with. By set number three which should still be light people are missing. A lot of people see strength training as a chance to go as heavy as possible.

Conditioning is the same. Most people see easy runs and they pick up the pace. Your coach though wanted you to get a specific thing from that run or ride and you just changed it.

Too many comp days may lead to a host of issues.

Going heavier and faster isn’t bad but doing it too often or too soon can cause issues.

Controlling both strength and conditioning volume and intensity are key to avoiding injury. One of the biggest training factors in avoiding over training injuries is not doing too much moderate to high intensity.

In terms of training vs comp this means not doing too much high intensity. For strength training that means how many sets we do at close to our max. Doing too many competition level lifting sets risk injury and burn out.

The same is true with conditioning. Most elite endurance athletes limit moderate and high intensity work. Most everyday athletes do almost everything at moderate to high intensity. From running to HIIT classes doing high intensity over long periods feels like a great workout and it is. The problem is the dose. Beyond about 60-90 minutes a week you are at higher risk of injury and metabolic dysfunction. In other words if you treat every day like game day you will run yourself into the ground, literally.  

CrossFit may be competitive but every day is not a competition. Too many people think they should win every workout. This is not the plan. If you are training for a competition then your training should be to make sure you are prepped and ready for comp day. This might mean you use different movements and different weights than normal. It might also mean you go super hard sometimes and less hard others. If you aren’t training for a competition then you can use class workouts as a chance to test yourself just not everyone. You need to pick an chose whether its benchmarks or one work out a week you need to control how many workouts you try to win. Constantly doing things at full speed ahead every single day is more likely to lead to injury and fatigue.

Don’t be afraid to test just remember everyday is not game day. Pay attention to how you are training and focus on doing the stuff you need to do to improve and you will improve your next test day.

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