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The Five Elements. 3 - Technical and Neuromuscular Strength

There are five elements which I believe are at the heart of performance and each has its role to play in contributing to an athlete’s success; physiology, psychology, technical and neuro-muscular strength, tactical understanding and finally an athlete’s lifestyle

Over the next few blogs I’ll continue to briefly introduce my reasons for including each one of the five elements, some will of course, be obvious, whilst others might not be at the top of your list.

Element 2 – Technical and Neuromuscular strength

Technical and neuromuscular strength begins with the process of learning techniques and skills which involves the brain telling the muscles what they need to do via the nervous system

. What then follows is repeating the movement patterns so that they become as robust and repeatable as possible before finally adding the strength, power and endurance required to maintain good ‘form’ for as long as required.

If we look a bit closer at each part of this statement, it will help us to understand the importance of technical / neuromuscular strength as one of the five elements.

Part 1: How do we learn techniques and skills?

To answer this well, we need to break this question down a little more.

Firstly, what is the difference between a technique and a skill?

If we start by saying that a technique is a basic movement pattern that is beneficial to your cause; a simple example of this is learning to swim quicker by trying to catch with a higher elbow. We can repeat this technique or a number of different techniques strung together in a more contextual situation and it becomes a skill. As a different example, the techniques involved in cornering on a bike include: pushing the outside pedal down, pushing the inside handlebar down and looking around the corner. Combining these three techniques together at the same time then becomes known as a skill, e.g. you will have improved your cornering skills

Secondly, how do we learn these techniques and skills?

To learn these techniques and skills in most cases the brain needs to tell the muscles (via the nervous system) what to do and what not to do in order to coordinate the movement and apply the correct magnitude of strength for the movement. This is a vast and complex area and overlaps considerably with element number 2. Psychology. There is much debate about the process of learning techniques and skills in the world of psychology; including whether it is best to learn through conscious or unconscious processes. Conscious processes tend to be more explicit, breaking down a skill into its individual components e.g. a swimming stroke broken down into drills. Unconscious processes tend to be more implicit in their nature.

For example; focusing more on the effect of the movement on the external environment; visualisation or game playing. This is an area that interests me a great deal and I’ll write more on this at a later date.

Thirdly, what do these techniques and skills consist of

The most obvious examples of techniques and skills are, of course, discipline specific; swimming technique transferred to open water, cornering techniques on a bike transferred into descending or riding in a group and running technique suitable for running after a hard bike. However, there are often areas that are missed.

Amongst the most basic skills are the fundamental ABC’s (Agility, Balance, Co-ordination) along with a good understanding of proprioception (the ability to understand the position of your body in space). It is worth saying at this point that these are not skills that we learn once and can then put them away in the locker knowing they will always be there. Like any technique or skill, the ABC’s and proprioception need to be constantly revisited and revised. This is particularly important as we go through our teenage growth phase (have you ever seen a teenager after a growth spurt try to run down a hill with limbs flailing everywhere?) or, as an older/more mature adult, when we try to change our technique within a particular discipline after years of performing it in one way.

Part 2: How do we create a robust technique?

Once the basics movements have been learnt and developed into skills, these movements can be made more robust by repeating them and gradually layering stress. Stress can be a number of different things to anyone individually but to take the example of swimming one might suggest the following progression:

  1. Swimming in a pool

  2. Swimming in open water

  3. Group swimming in open water

  4. Group swimming in open water in a race

If an athlete has techniques that are able to produce the desired outcome in all of these situations you might say that it is robust. What is even better is if the athlete has developed a range of techniques and then has the skill to select the most suitable technique (or technique combinations) for each given situation.

Part 3: How do we improve strength and power?

This is possible the shortest and easiest section to introduce. It is important that these movements are made more productive by strengthening the muscles that produce the movement. This is what most people would generally regard as your traditional gym based S&C (Strength & Conditioning) training. Of course, this does not always have to take place in a gym and more creative or discipline specific solutions can easily be found.

For most triathletes their first contact with technical /neuromuscular training is in swim training (less so in other disciplines). It is my belief that a well-rounded program will take into account the demands of each discipline, the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete to provide the correct balance of training around technique, skills, strength and power. Whether this is as an S&C session on it’s own, strength work within a session or a combination of both. If the aim is to move an athlete further along the road of performance success the technical and neuromuscular strength is an essential part of any training programme.

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