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Why Focusing On One Thing Will Make You a Better Athlete

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Look at any great runner, and what does her workout routine usually revolve around? A lot of running. Great runners run. The same goes for swimmers: They swim. And powerlifters: They lift.

While, sure, there is an element of cross training involved, their training is centered around one thing. And that's what allows them to dominate their sport and crush it.

It all comes down to the principle of specificity.

"A bedrock of exercise science, it basically states that your goal and training should parallel one another," explains Erica Suter, M.S., C.S.C.S., a Maryland-based trainer and strength coach. Want to squat more weight? Then you need to do more squats. Want to tackle your first triathlon? Then you need to swim, bike, run—and repeat.

It sounds pretty "duh," but a lot of women's workouts lack the specificity they really need. After all, it's easy to get wrapped up in the ClassPass mentality of trying a new exercise class every other day or obsessing over the advice to "keep your body guessing." Many women never get a chance to really become an expert in and adapt to any one thing. "If you want to get better at anything, one, even two days a week is not going to be enough to make significant gains toward that goal," says Suter. So, while you might exercise all the time, that doesn't mean you necessarily move in the direction of your end goal.

Luckily, this doesn't mean that you have to do the exact same thing every day. [Groundhog Day this is not.] And, honestly, you shouldn't, as doing so can result in overtraining and potential injuries. (See: 6 Reasons You Can Skip Your Workout...Sometimes) Instead, if you want to become a better runner, some days should be devoted to long, slow runs, some to sprint intervals, and others to hills, explains Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at Running Strong in Atlanta.

Similarly, if you are all about improving your max deadlift, you can take turns by performing them with heavy loads and light loads—and even switch up your routine with new deadlift variations. "The solution here is to vary your 'focused' training loads rather than the actual activity," says Hamilton.

While 90 percent of the time, to become a better athlete you just need to perform that one activity, there is still that 10 percent when you need to cross train. Cross training—performing a workout that balances your usual routine in technique, muscles used, or intensity—is critical to minimizing your risk of overuse injury. But even when you cross train, your ultimate goal should always be in the back of your mind, says Hamilton.

For example, if you're training for your first marathon, your cross-training options might include kickboxing, swimming, or the elliptical. Which is the closest to actually running? The elliptical is different enough to help avoid overtraining and overuse injuries, but similar enough that it will still improve your running performance. "The bottom line is that if you have a goal that is specific, training with more specific exercises will likely get better results," she says. How often you need to cross train depends on your specific workout. But in general, it's a good idea to get in some cross training at least once a week.

Bonus: More often than not (hopefully), your goal has to do with a sport or workout you actually enjoy doing. This alone can improve your rate of consistency and results.

Ask yourself what you most enjoy about your current workout routine, whether that's performing a certain lift or exercise move—or simply being outside. You can use that intel to help pick a sport and craft a performance-based goal that really fires you up and motivates you, says Suter. Ideally, it should be something that you can realistically practice regularly. If you can't easily get to a pool or open body of water, swimming might not be the right "one thing" for you right now.

Once you ID your goal or sport, aim to practice between three and five days per week, making sure to vary your workout intensity and duration with each session, she says. On the other workout days, you can use cross training as a way to mix things up and keep things interesting.

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