THE TWO TYPES OF CONDITIONING

by M. Doug McGuff, M.D.

In any sport, including BMX, there are two categories of conditioning. Each category has unique requirements that are very different from the other. It is therefore important that we define clearly these two categories and keep them separate in our minds, and in our training. The two categories are Physical Conditioning and Skill Conditioning.

Physical conditioning is the type of training activity done to improve our physical strength and our metabolic condition. Physical conditioning has generalized applicability. Improvements in physical conditioning will improve your performance in any sport you participate in; indeed it will improve your performance at school or work. Physical conditioning will improve your sport performance relative to your current skill level. If your skills are very good, improved condition will make a big difference for you, particularly early in the race where strength is very important. If your skills are less advanced, improved physical condition will still improve performance...again mostly in the first straight, but also in recovery between motos. Someone with less skill has to work much harder to get over doubles, through rhythm sections etc. Commonly, I race with riders in classes as young as 16 expert (I am 40 years old). I often get the holeshot, only to get picked off over a big double or in a complex rhythm section. Improved conditioning allows me to make it through 3 motos of harder work so that I have a chance in the main. Most importantly good physical condition give me the ability to put in time on skill conditioning.

Physical conditioning is brought about by applying a stressor to the body. This stressor is perceived by the body as a negative stimulus. Having received the stimulus, your body, acting as a biological organism, makes an adaptive response. That adaptive response will be some desired physical improvement. When done properly, physical conditioning should not consume much time. This is because we know that our workout is a stimulus which should be of a high intensity. When a workout is of high intensity, you cannot stand to do it for a long period. Secondly, we know that the workout is a stressor, something that is a negative thing. Therefore, we want to incorporate the amount of stress that will trigger the adaptive response, but no more. Too much training will produce more stress than the body can recover from and adapt to, and will result in overtraining. Overtraining exceeds the body's recuperative and adaptive capability and results in weakening. Therefore, the type of physical training we will outline in this book will be of high intensity but will require little time. This allows your body to recover and become stronger and leaves more time available for the other part of your training program: skill conditioning.

Skill conditioning are the things done to improve your riding and racing ability. While physical conditioning is very general, skill conditioning is very specific. BMX skill conditioning will only improve your skills in BMX. Practicing skills outside of BMX will not help, and will likely hurt your BMX skills. This is a very important concept to understand: skills are absolutely specific. You should practice skills exactly as you expect to in competition. You should not try to combine skill practice and physical practice. For example, you should not practice with a hard gear and race with your normal gear. Even though it feels easier when you go back to the normal gear, it will mess up specific skills. The leverage point in the gate changes, the number of cranks to the first jump will change, so your stride changes. You should not ride with ankle weights either. This will change the specific neurological pathways involved in riding and will confuse your nervous system. Get your physical conditioning in the gym using exercises that target muscle groups specifically. Get your skill conditioning by practicing exactly as you compete. Practice makes perfect only if perfectly practiced.

You also need to get out of your head the notion of cross-training. The idea that riding a motorcycle or a mountain bike will somehow improve your skills on a BMX bike is not at all supported by science. The entire notion of cross-training is a marketing tool for a shoe company that wanted to sell an entirely new line of athletic footwear. Remember, skills are very specific and do not transfer. Balance and coordination are not general skills transferable to all sports. Anyone who has seen the Dave Mirra tour on ESPN may recall Dave trying to learn wakeboarding. If skill was a generalized thing, he should have been pulling spins and flips on the first run. Instead, he spent the day getting a lake water enema. By the same token, Tony Hawk ought to be able to get on a BMX bike and at least clear a double. My money says don't count on it. Look, a concert pianist does not try to improve his or her piano skills by enrolling in a typing class. If you want to improve your BMX skills, you need to get on your bike and ride it.

The best practice is racing itself. Next best is practice done at the track. Specific skills include gates, sprints, jumps, manualing, rhythm, and cornering. Sprints are considered by most in BMX to be a physical conditioning activity. While some physical conditioning occurs, improvements are mostly due to improvements in skill. Subtle improvements in body position, leverage factors, economy of motion and technique are what really improve your speed. This is why starts and sprints are cornerstone skills.

Skills can be practiced under two different scenarios, and they are not both good. Long duration skill practice is not a good option. If you skill practice for too long, you develop two different styles...a fresh style, and a tired style. These different styles involve different pathways between your nervous system and your muscles. This can produce confusion that can ruin your skills. Rather than having an automatic, ingrained way of jumping, your body will have two styles, or pathways, and ,in the heat of battle, confusion about which pathway to choose will inhibit proper performance of the skill. If we do our physical conditioning properly, and we pay attention to full recovery, you should only have to rely on fresh style.

The best way to practice skills is using brief sessions repeated frequently. Rather than two continuous hours of rhythm section, do 10 minute sessions with 5 minutes rest. If you get tired, take a run and rest 10 minutes. If you get too tired, quit. Come back later in the day, or the next day. It is much better to put in 15 minutes every day than it is to put in 2 hours once a week. This pattern of practice avoids the fresh-tired confusion issue. It also allows for repetition. Repetition of a skill, in a non fatigued state, exactly as it is performed in competition is the key to improvement.

In general, I recommend focusing on 1 or 2 skills per session. However, remember that specific BMX skills are always incorporated in a broad focus environment. I therefore recommend linking the skill with 1 or 2 complete hot laps. If you constantly practice the track in sections, you will tend to segment the track during a race. If you watch, you will constantly see riders hesitate out of the first turn. In practice, everyone practices the gate and first straight. However, everyone is so used to shutting it down out of the first turn that you can actually see this habit manifesting itself in the race. So practice your skills in brief frequent sessions, but be sure to tie it all together with a hot lap at each practice session.

In the chapters that follow we will discuss in more detail the specifics of physical and skill conditioning.

This article is an excerpt from BMX Training: A Scientific Approach. To order the complete book, send $30.00 (check or money order) to Ultimate Exercise, P.O. Box 1882 Seneca, SC 29679. Credit card orders call (864)886-0200.