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The Sports Continuum

The following is an excerpt/concept from my The Applied Nutrition for Mixed Sports Book/DVD examining what I call the sport continuum, the training continuum and the adaptation continuum.  These are separate but related concepts linking the requirements of specific sports, to their training, to the adaptations that are being sought.

These continuums are relevant because it impacts on the nutritional requirements for any given sport.  Too often I see dietitians give essentially the identical diet regardless of sport.  A good friend, a strength coach in Ireland, once told me a story about sending two of his athletes: one a track sprinter and the other a rugby player to some local nutrition type.  Both were given the identical nutritional program.   That’s absurd.

Clearly optimal nutrition for any given sport will depend on the demands of that sport and the adaptations being sought.  Determining those means first looking at where sports fall on the continuum.

The Sports Continuum

As noted above, the first thing I like to do is sort of subdivide sports into what amount to different categories.  While I’m quite sure you can subdivide them further (and I have seen such categorizations), I find it easiest to use three categories which I’ve presented in the graphic below.

The Sports Continuum


I’ve provided a few examples of each under their respective categories but simply you can see that there are three primary divisions.  The first are the pure strength/power sports with examples such as powerlifting, throwing, Olympic lifting, etc.  The short sprints in track (100m,200m) are more or less in this category as well although I’ll make some more comments about overlap in a second.

On the far right are the pure endurance sports.  Technically speaking anything over 4 minutes is primarily aerobic with the aerobic contribution approaching nearly 99% by the time you start extending the duration.  Distance running, cycling, those types of sports go here.

And in-between are what I call mixed sports.  This includes most if not all team sports along with some of the middle distance running events.  I’d also put combat sports like wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts in here for reasons you’ll see in a second.

Since it was relevant to me when I wrote it, I included speed skating  which has events lasting from about 35 seconds to 12 minutes.  While a 12 minute event might technically seem like an endurance activity, well…it’s complicated.

I should note that there is at least one other sporting category not represented here and that would be referred to as skill sports.  Things like archery, pistol shooting and such that are primarily technical would go here.  Since I don’t deal with those activities, nor see how they would have particular nutritional requirements, I don’t include them.

Before moving on I do want to make it very clear that the categorization above is not super clean and it would be far more accurate to see things as a true continuum.  But I have to designate some sort of category to put each activity into.  Just realize that it’s more continuous than it looks.

But ultimately the sports continuum leads directly into the next concept which is the training continuum.

The Training Continuum

The sports continuum leads directly into the concept of the training continuum which I’ve presented in the graphic below.


The Training Continuum

This simply extends the sports continuum by looking at the types of training that tend to be dominant for the different categories of sports.

Strength/Power Sports

For the strength/power sports, clearly strength/power training makes up the grand majority of it.  For athletes like Olympic and powerlifters, that may literally be the entirety of their training: this may be nothing but work with weights or include jumping or other strength and/or power training of various kinds.

For most other sports in this category there is the additional issue of technical and event specific work (not that OL and PL don’t have technical requirements, mind you, but these are sports where the training is the sport and not just an adjunct to it).

Tactics can become relevant in a lot of sports but there is typically little true “endurance” work done (at least not in terms of what most consider it to be).  Work capacity training, to improve the ability to handle volumes of training may be done but, again, true endurance work isn’t done.

Here you can also see where the categories start to get a bit more blurry than I’ve indicated.  Consider a 100m track sprint.  Certainly starts, strength/power training (weight room and jumping is traditional), top speed work is the primary type of training but even the 100 has a speed endurance component.  Various types of work capacity or tempo training are done although at fairly moderate volumes.  And while I’d still consider the 200 in this category, it has an even greater endurance component although still far less than even the 400m event on the track.

Pure Endurance Sports

For the pure endurance sports, of course, the majority of training is going to be based around endurance training of varying types (see Methods of Endurance Training for all the information you could ever want to know). Of course, this has to be combined with sufficient quality work (top speed, lactate buffering) along with tactics and such (racing tactics are often critical in longer events).

Weight training is still the big area of debate for endurance performance.  Some sports do it and there may be benefits, for others it seems to have little benefit.  Addressing that would be another article entirely but, for the most part, pure strength/power training would still make up a relatively small portion of the total training time.

In this vein, it’s probably more accurate to think in terms of the primary or dominant training done for different sports for the above graphic.    It’s not that sports at either extreme never ever do work from the other extreme, it simply makes up such a tiny amount of training as to be more or less ignorable.

Mixed Sports

And again there are the mixed sports.  Here things get insanely complicated and athletes are often tasked with trying to find some balance between a bunch of competing biomotor capacities such as strength, power, speed and endurance.  Depending on the sport, the specific position (consider a soccer goalkeeper vs. a forward or a lineman vs. runningback in American football) and even the tactics of the team the mix of different training types may vary significantly.

In the combat sports, a similar mix of requirements is often seen, strength, power, technique, tactics along with some amount of endurance is going to be required in some mixture depending on the specifics of the sport, the athlete, etc.  But it’s usually going to be some combination (or perhaps we might call it a ‘mix’) of either the pure strength/power or pure endurance sport is doing.

And the above leads us finally into the adaptation continuum since the types of training done will determine the primary adaptations seen physiologically (and that’s what determines nutritional requirements which is why I go through all of this when I do seminars).

The Adaptation Continuum

.Below I’ve presented what I call the adaptation continuum which is just the logical extension of what I’ve looked at so far.


The Adaptation Continuum
Click to enlarge


So, once again, the type of sport determines the primary type of training done and that determines the adaptations seen.  Of course, I could have gone at this from the other direction and looked at the types of adaptations being sought since that could be thought to determine the types of training done.  Maybe I’ll do it the other way around at the next seminar.

Strength/Power Sports

In any case, the strength/power group is, as you’d expect, primarily seeking adaptations in the actual skeletal muscle proteins (myofibrillar proteins); the lack of a major endurance component simply doesn’t require a lot of adaptation to mitochondria and most sports in this category are too brief to make acidosis an issue.

We might include various neural adaptations here; this includes both technical issue along with more ‘physiological’ neural factors (think nervous system output type of stuff).

Pure Endurance Sports

In the pure endurance events, we are looking at factors related to endurance performance.  These include increases in mitochondrial number and activity, various enzymes, capillary density, blood volume and red blood cell count, etc.  Things like buffering of acid are important here and raw power output and other neuromuscular aspects (for field sprinting) can also become relevant.

There are adaptations in the heart, potential increases in efficiency of movement; technique can be relevant in many endurance sports.  But for the most part, the adaptations here are energetically based, few endurance athletes need big time increases in muscle size so increases in muscle size or what have you is a very secondary goal.

Mixed Sports

And again we have the mixed category where things get the most muddled and the specifics will depend heavily on the sport and other specifics of the situation. Once again the mixed sports, in a very real sense, have to ‘cover’ at least some of the adaptations of both the strength/power and endurance categories although rarely will they go to the extreme seen in either of the pure sports.

A mixed sports athlete won’t need nor have the strength/power of the pure strength/power athlete nor the endurance/VO2max etc. of the pure endurance athlete.  Again, depending on the situation some balance is going to be sought although it can vary quite a bit across the sports.

Which is a nice segue into some concluding comments.

It’s Really a Continuum

Please don’t take the above categorization as being quite as discrete as I’ve presented it.  I divide things like this mainly for convenience but it’s critical to realize the things are a lot messier than I’ve made it appear.  Rather than discrete categories sports are better thought of as falling on a true continuum.

Again consider the strength/power category.  At the very extreme we have OL’ing, PL’ing and even the throws. Tehse events that revolve around a single maximum attempt with little to no endurance requirement at all.  Even there it’s not quite that simple, an OL’er might have to follow himself with only 2 minutes under certain circumstances and a PL has to be able to get through 9 attempts across a long day.  But those activities are far more similar than they are different.

But then we get to the 100m sprint lasting ~10 seconds which has a speed endurance component, reflected in the training done.  By the time we get to the 200m things are even more complicated.  At ~20 seconds to completion it’s on this weird cusp of speed with some endurance near the end.  The 400m (~60 seconds) is technically a middle distance event and belongs in the mixed sports category but there are 400m runners who come at it from the speed end and those that come at it from the endurance end.

In the mixed category, as I mentioned above, things get really muddy.  There’s always some mix of both strength/power and endurance required but it depends heavily on the sport.  Soccer certainly has a speed component but body size per se isn’t a big issue.  In fact too much mass would be a detriment.

Compare that to rugby where larger individuals are seen because they are busy running into one another.   Rugby will do more weight room work (for size, strength and power) than soccer.  American Football, depending on the position (again, consider lineman who needs to be a wall who can explode over and over again to a back) can have requirements ranging from “be a brick wall”to “100m sprint speed with cutting ability”.

But American football players will, on average, dwarf rugby players. Rugby goes non-stop and has a much higher continuous endurance component because of it; too much body mass is detrimental because a 300 pound guy won’t be lugging himself around the rugby pitch (field? rink?) for 2 long halves very effectively.  Contrast that to the stop and go nature of American football (along with side changes and the other differences in the sport).

In the combat sports, there is an equally odd mix again depending on the sport.  Olympic wrestling is 3X2 minute rounds putting it more on the explosive strength/power end of things while a 15 round boxing match requires more endurance.  MMA is somewhere in the middle (multiple 5 minute rounds under most circumstances).

The middle distances of most endurance sports (sport scientists often refer to a ‘mystery zone’ between about 2-8 minutes where nobody can quite figure out what’s best) require a heady balance of speed, power, endurance, acid buffering, etc.  And athletes may approach it from different directions depending on their strengths or weaknesses or that of their competitors.

Even in the endurance sports there is variance and things are more discontinuous than discrete.  Rowers who start from a dead stop need the strength/power to get up to speed and then suffer for about 6-8 minutes.  Runners don’t need that type of starting speed but the eccentric component is one that may benefit from some weight and jumping work (some studies show benefits to running performance from explosive training); and with race time dropping there is still a requirement for top end speed.

Cycling events can range from shorter criteriums (with a huge requirement for explosive ability out of the corners) to 6 hour road races to insanity like 24 hour mountain bike events or the RAAM.  Even there the type of cyclist (sprinter vs. climber vs. all arounder) can determine a slightly different mix of training types and requirements.

But even with that said, I still find that sports within each category are more similar to themselves than they are to sports in the other categories.  Yes, it’s murky in some places and would be better presented as a true continuum but that’s too much of a hassle to draw out so three discrete categories it is.  Given that, in the pure categories at least, there is typically a dominant training type (pure strength/power vs. pure endurance training) I don’t see a real issue.  The mixed sports cateogory is where things truly get the muddiest but, again, there’s always some mix of training being done.

And of course, the sport type which determines the types of dominant training done which determines the adaptations seen have important implications for the nutritional requirements of different sports.   That can all be found in my Applied Nutrition for Mixed Sports Book/DVD Bundle.

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2 thoughts on “The Sports Continuum

  1. What is your opinion of where Tennis lies on the continum Lyle?
    I’ve been told it is mostly anerobic but also read that it is highly aerobic.
    It’s certainly stop and go, and people can play for several minutes without stopping.
    But typically points are less than 30 seconds each, with 30 seconds recovery between.
    In terms of diet and training recommendations what other sport would it be closest to?

  2. Mixed, definitely. It’s got requirements for strength/power, speed, quickness and has metabolic requirements for both short-term explosive power (average volley) the occasional longer volley and, of course, the length of a full match (requiring a good bit of endurance).

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