Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You are wrapping up with practice when your coach yells out “Everyone, get on the line.” The whole team hustles to the line and does the same conditioning workout as the day before.
This program can be anything depending on what the sport is. For baseball it’s often running poles, basketball players run suicides. There is nothing wrong with doing these things for conditioning. The problem is this is often the only thing athletes do for conditioning.
This type of conditioning doesn’t have an end goal other than making the athletes tired. It’s often saved for the end of practice when energy and motivation is low and can even be used as a method of punishment. All of this results in sub-par efforts and thus brings about sub par results.
It is because of this current state of conditioning in sports that we will break down, in a simple and easy to follow plan, a method of creating a “smarter” conditioning program.
Step 1 – Understand the physiology behind conditioning
Conditioning is all about being able to create usable energy in the human body. To do that we have three primary systems. These systems are:
The Phospagen System (Duration: < 15 seconds) – Designed for very high energy but has low endurance capacity.
The Glycolytic System (Duration: < 3 minutes) – Designed for intermediate energy production and intermediate endurance capability.
The Oxidative System (Duration: > 3 minutes) – Designed for low energy production but very high endurance capability.
These systems all work in unison to create energy for a body in motion. Even though they serve different purposes, they work together to create enough energy to perform. When looking at energy production, I prefer to look at it like a pie. The pie is a full circle cut into three slices. The size of each slice is determined by how much each system is contributing to total energy production.
For example, when running a marathon, you expend low levels of energy but you must maintain it for a very long period of time. This means that your primary system for creating energy will be through the oxidative system. As was mentioned above, this is only a portion of the pie. However, because your needs are almost exclusively low energy and extended duration, it is a very large chunk of the pie while the other two systems are much smaller.
So to become better at running marathons, you would be best served running long distances and training that oxidative system. Would it be beneficial to train the other two systems as well?
Trick question! We are looking at the pie as a whole rather than just the largest slice. The larger that pie can become, the greater the energy production. As we train our oxidative system, we increase the size of that slice but we cannot neglect the other two slices entirely. Though they are not the bulk of our energy production, they still aid in total energy production.
Would it make sense for someone running a marathon to go out and only do 100-meter sprints? Absolutely not, but sprints incorporated into their training to a small degree would be beneficial. The phosphagen system would contribute slightly to total energy production, and the runner would be able to work at a higher level throughout the race.
Step 2 – Analyze the demands of your sport
Analyze your sport based off its energy demands. The best way to do this is to keep it simple. Ask yourself these questions:
In my sport do I…
- Sprint at max effort with frequent rest breaks? (Phosphagen)
- Run at high speeds with random sprints and rests mixed in? (Phosphagen and Glycolytic)
- Maintain a sub-maximal yet relatively high intensity for a short duration? (Glycolytic)
- Move constantly with random bouts of slightly higher tempo? (Glycolytic and Oxidative)
- Maintain low intensity but long duration? (Oxidative)
How you answer these questions may be determined by your play style as well as your training goals. For example, in basketball, teams can play an up-tempo/fast-break style or they can slow it down and take advantage of a set offense. This affects the level of conditioning that is necessary. A team that plays a fast style has much more intense bouts of sprinting than a team that plays at a slower tempo.
Understanding the demands of your sport as well as your preferred style is important because that is how you determine which energy systems are relevant. In this basketball example, we see that the focus should be primarily placed on the phosphagen system, but because of how plays can be drawn out, training of the glycolytic system is also important.
One of my pet peeves is when I see mixed martial artists running long distances or doing triathlons. Though they need to be able to last the length of a fight, fights rarely exceed 15 minutes. The longest fights can be around 25 minutes. So why exercise for durations exceeding that? Are they fighting at low intensities for an extended period of time? No. Even though there is a need to address this oxidative system, it is not the priority. Just like it wouldn’t make sense for a football player to run slow for an hour, it also doesn’t make sense for a fighter to do the same.
Step 3 – Create a plan that addresses the demands of your sport
Once you have established what your sport demands of you, choose your plan of action. When training, intensity is a big determining factor. I prefer to look at track events as the best guide for how to best target each physiological system.
- 200 Meters for Phosphagen = High Intensity, Maximum Force Output, Max Speed
- 800 meters for Glycolytic = Medium Intensity, High Force, Low Endurance
- 1600 meters for Oxidative = Low Intensity, Low Force, High Endurance
An easy method can be to simply take these events and use them or similar distances, time or intensities as your training. But keep in mind that this is an oversimplification. Several details are missing.
For example, running backs have several factors that play into fatigue levels, including:
- The duration of each play only takes around 4 seconds.
- The duration of the rest periods between plays on a drive is no longer than 40 seconds unless there’s a timeout or other stoppage in play.
- Running backs don’t run in a straight line and have to train accordingly.
Athletes whose sports require significant change of direction should incorporate change of direction into conditioning to give them a chance to become acclimated to the fatigue-causing nature of these forces. Being able to mimic what the athlete will do is a key to creating a successful conditioning program.
Before we get into sample programs, it is important to recap the considerations that should be made when creating a conditioning program.
- What are the demands of my sport? (Duration and Intensity)
- What energy system is the primary contributor to energy production during my sport?
- What energy systems are the secondary contributors to energy production during my sport?
- Does my sport involve change of direction?
- What is the duration of each play or time between rest periods?
- What is the duration of the rest periods?
- What is my style of play or my goals relative to play style?
Once these questions are answered, its very easy to create a training program. Now, lets take all of this info and create an example.
Basketball – Point Guard
What are the demands of my sport? Short to Intermediate Duration/Intermediate to High Intensity
What energy system is the primary contributor to energy production during my sport? Phospagen and glycolytic
What energy systems are the secondary contributors to energy production during my sport? Oxidative
Does my sport involve change of direction? Yes
What is the duration of each play or time between rest periods? <3 minutes
What is the duration of the rest periods? <1 minute
What is my style of play or my goals relative to play style? Up Tempo
How often do I need to train? 3 – 4 days per week
Sample Conditioning Plan
Sideline to Sideline Repeat Sprints
• Sets: 5 of 10 touches (~45 seconds)
• Rest: 45 seconds between sets
• Sets: 10
• Rest: 60 seconds between sets
• Sets: 25
• Rest: 20 seconds between sets
Step 4 – Adjust your training to become more challenging
This last step is icing on the cake. If you want to be in better shape than your opponents from a conditioning standpoint, train that way. There are many ways that you can do this but for me simplicity is the key. Below are a few ways that you can make adjustments to your conditioning program:
- Shorter Rest Breaks
- Increased Intensity on Intermediate Duration
How can each of these take your conditioning to the next level? The answer is actually very simple. If you are accustomed to sprinting 100 meters, Sprint uphill 100 meters. If you have gotten used to sprinting without resistance? Do a Sled Pull for the same distance. There are tons of ways to tweak your workouts. Get creative and try new things, but the most important part is to have a plan.
I hope this helps to shed some light on how a conditioning program can be made “smarter.” Conditioning is often seen as a piece of the performance puzzle that is left unplanned and thus leads to minimal improvement. Just like we did with conditioning, you can easily do the same thing with any other type of training. If all of these things are done, the last step is to simply stick with it and be consistent.
As you become accustomed to the training, find different ways to make it more challenging and you will have success. Don’t work hard for minimal results by doing things just because you’ve always done them that way or because you have seen someone else do it. Train with a purpose and do what you NEED to do as an athlete. Work smarter and pave the way to larger successes and greater performance gains.