Monday, February 28, 2011

Adopting a Faux Contest Cycle

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Iron Radio.  It's a group of high level strength athletes - a powerlifter, a strongman competitor, a bodybuilder - talking about some aspect of training, often with a fairly interesting guest.  As I read this description to myself I have to say that the show is a lot more entertaining than it sounds.

On a number of episodes the guys talk about competing, whether it be in bodybuilding contests or powerlifting or Highland Games meets or whatever is appropriate for their sport.  I started thinking about competitions and their effect on training, and the way competition is often viewed by traditional martial artists.

Competing on a regular basis (which can mean doing so every few months or even every few years) serves a couple of purposes. 

One is to gauge one's progress.  If you're a powerlifter I think the value is pretty clear - a competition gives you a chance to see if your lifts have gone up or down, and by how much, under judged conditions.  In other words, you can't cheat your way into apparent progress by modifying your lifts.  If you're a bodybuilder you can see how you're placing - but that's a little harder to interpret, given that your placings will depend on the competition, and if the quality of competition changes your placings will change.  In martial arts you have the same problem - even if you find a contest and judging criterion that you think are appropriate (which is a whole other topic) you might get better yet fall in the rankings simply because more very good competitors enter the contests in question.

So the value of competition to a karateka is mixed.  If you come in 2nd in sparring in 2008, then come in 4th in 2009, did you get worse as a fighter?  Maybe - but maybe you got better and a few great fighters entered the contest in 2009 that weren't there in 2008.  Even if the competition is the same, perhaps the judges were different.  And the ability to point-fight well might not really be your goal as a karateka, in which case the value of competition is mixed.  Maybe you got more powerful - which is great, but wouldn't help you much in a point fighting tournament.  What if you're interested in self defense?  A competition that could accurately measure your ability in that area would be... odd, and very hard to find.

There are, however, (at least) other reasons to schedule competitions or similar events for yourself on a regular basis:
  1. Having a contest/ peaking event will help you periodize your training.  It is impossible to maintain the same elite level of fitness all year - to be very fit you have to cycle a little bit, hitting high targets, then backing off before overtraining sets in, etc.  If you have an event - a target date - to train for, you can plan your schedule with rest breaks and so forth more efficiently.
  2. Having a contest will help you stay motivated.  Nothing works as well for motivation as a target date.  You can always put down the ice cream, but if you're scheduled to be in a grinding fight or on stage in a bikini in 2 weeks it's remarkably easier.
Now many karateka scoff at competitions for a variety of reasons, many legitimate, but many events will serve these purposes other than tournaments.  Promotions are a good example - going for a higher rank works just as well, on all counts, as an upcoming contest. 

You can also do an informal event.  For example, Clarence Bass (a fairly famous author in the area of fitness and fat loss) used to schedule an annual photo shoot for himself.  Everyone knew when it was going to be, and he had to be in tip-top shape for that day.  Weight Watchers weekly weigh-ins serve the same purpose, as do weddings, Memorial Day (the first day of the season you hit the beach), and others.  You can replicate this in karate.  Give yourself a date - maybe every 6 months or every year.  On that date have your classmates (or wife or mom or whatever) take a cheap digital camera and film you doing your 5 best kata (or spar everybody in class or do as many pushups in 3 minute as you can).  Tell everyone when the date is.  Put the video on YouTube - no matter how badly (or well) you perform.

If you're not using a belt test or an actual tournament you have to do a few things:
  • Make your peaking event (video shoot, photo shoot, just a test like doing a certain number of pushups or burpees in a certain time) public.  Tell your friends and classmates when and where it will be, then publish the results - on your web page, blog, YouTube, whatever.
  • Make the date a hard date.  If you get the flu the week before, do it anyway - your performance will suck, but that's part of the process.  The danger of having a "soft date" - where you give yourself permission to postpone the event - is that it becomes too easy to slack off on training and just push the date back.  The whole thing won't work if you allow yourself to do that.  On the other hand, if you break your leg, don't try to film yourself doing kata.
Now you organize your training around that "contest" date - even if it isn't a real contest.  Ramp up your training in the time leading up to the contest - make sacrifices to sharpen your skills as well as you can.  After it's over, ease off for a while.  Work on your more basic skills, strength development, whatever.  Take a little rest.  If you need to gain lean body mass, bulk up a little away from the "competition," then lean out as you approach it.

If you care about these things, you can time it so you're leanest during the summer, when you're more likely to be shirtless.  And make sure your schedule doesn't interfere with anything important.  If certain times of year are especially busy at your job, peak right before the busy season so you have extra free time when work is busiest.  You get the idea.

If you're just trying to get "in shape," photo shoots on or around special dates are always good.  Peak around a family reunion, anniversary, holiday, or birthday.  Pick something that works for you, and remember - make it public and stick to it no matter what!


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