Conditioning is important. But do you need to focus on conditioning as much as many coaches would lead you to believe?
Short answer: No, you don’t.
In a world where many coaches are out to improve physical and mental toughness, many use conditioning-type drills to do so. But is this really the smartest way to go about it? Could a coach be setting up their athletes for injury because they’re over-conditioning them?
The best way to get athletes into “game shape” is by having them play games. That’s tough to simulate in training for several reasons, yet we also cannot and should not submit ourselves to the idea of athletes under-performing in real competition as they “work themselves into game shape.”
Some coaches make their team’s conditioning an endless amount of sideline gassers or pole runs. Others make it slow, continuous, long-distance running.
The problem with both approaches is that sports are not played at a long, slow pace, nor are they played at jogs of about 60-80% intensity, which is the natural pace players will settle into when doing long spells of gassers or pole runs.
“But soccer players run 7 miles a game!”
“My lacrosse midfielders don’t stop moving!”
I can hear the outcry already. I’ve been to the games, I’ve seen them on TV; your game is not as fast-paced as you think. There’s more walking and jogging than full-out sprinting. It’s not a knock, it’s just reality.
So, why not train that way?
Many of the common conditioning tactics used for athletes are outdated. One example includes running miles at a time. All this does is reduce your top speed. Yes, it’s good for cardiovascular health, but there are other things you can do. Also, long-distance running can take a serious toll on the body. Is it really worth developing knee pain or shin splints when there are so many other ways to condition? Also, mile times rarely correlate with better performance in team sports.
There are smarter ways to train your athletes. Realistically, all team sports are played with more rest than all-out effort. I also consider “rest” walking or light jogging, not just standing still or sitting down. With that, there are a lot more ways to get into good shape than simply running yourself into the ground.
Before we get into specific drills I like to utilize with my team sport athletes, I want to talk about a few other ways athletes can improve their conditioning.
Change the Way You Breathe
The way you breathe is extremely important. And it’s something that is very overlooked.
If you’re taking breaths into your chest and not your belly, you’re shortchanging the amount of oxygen your body is receiving. You’re actually forcing your body to work harder when you don’t breathe into your belly.
When you have improper breathing patterns, it hurts your mobility and stability. I’ve seen athletes’ passive range of motion on a hamstring test improve by 5-10 degrees simply by working on their breathing pattern.
I believe practicing 90/90 breathing, even at rest, can help athletes breathe more efficiently during competition:
Improve Your Movement Efficiency
One of the biggest issues with being poorly conditioned is your fatigue forcing you into poor posture or poor movement patterns. Poor movement efficiency wastes energy, so you have to work harder to accomplish the same thing. If you don’t move well, you’re going to get tired a lot faster.
I’ve worked with plenty of hockey, basketball and lacrosse players, and we rarely do a lot of direct conditioning work. We go after the big rocks and focus on fixing their movement patterns. If you can improve how the body moves, you won’t waste as much energy.
If you’re adding more conditioning work on top of poor movement efficiency, it’s like trying to put out a burning house with a bucket of water. You’re not doing much good, you’re just going to be weaker and less powerful.
Athletes are the best at compensating movement. No matter the cost, we’ll get it accomplished. The issue is you’re not getting the most out of your body if the right muscles aren’t firing at the right time.
Let’s use hip extension as an example. We use hip extension to accomplish movements like jumping, sprinting and deadlifting.
Your glutes are supposed to drive these movements. But poor mobility, poor posterior strength and improper training can impair the function of your glutes. This means your back and hamstrings are working double-time to lead a movement they’re not meant to. This is going to lead to chronic low back pain and tight hamstrings.
Instead of simply accepting that you’ll always feel the need to stretch your hamstrings and low back, why not get to the root of the problem and improve your glute function? Learn how to Deadlift properly and Squat properly. Coaches often overlook movement quality because they’re so eager to get into high volume training and so fearful of “being outworked.”
Going off this, developing good posture will make you a better mover. Rounded shoulders and flared ribs do not create an ideal position for athletes, and posture generally degrades with fatigue. So when someone with bad posture gets tired, things get even uglier and more inefficient.
I love loaded carries such as a Farmer’s Carry for improving posture and posture endurance.
The movement and function of one shoulder is connected to the opposite hip, and vice versa. This diagonal “sling” connection is something we all need for walking, throwing, swinging and sprinting.
If you have issues in this connection, you will constantly be compensating for it, resulting in impaired movement quality and a higher risk of pain/injury. I believe Chop and Lift variations are a fantastic way to improve this connection.
Traditional Conditioning Drills
I do spend some time specifically focusing on conditioning with my athletes. Usually, it’s 6-8 weeks before their preseason camp begins, and we don’t spend particularly long doing it. Why?
- In today’s environment, most athletes don’t stop completely playing a sport for several months in a row. So, their conditioning rarely falls off a cliff. I believe cleaning up dysfunction is often a more valuable use of our time than focusing on conditioning.
- Conditioning is one of the easiest athletic traits to improve. It takes a long time for a trained athlete to make significant gains in speed and/or strength. It doesn’t take very long for athletes to get into “game shape.”
Even during the short period of the training year when conditioning is a focus, we keep things reasonable. We allow athletes to rest at least as much as they work during the drills, and usually quite a bit longer. The reason we want more rest is because we still want the athletes to move fast during the drill. We don’t want them plodding along at a snail’s pace because they’re super gassed, because really, what purpose does that serve? If anything, that type of work is making them slower and less explosive. So if they’re always tired during training, you’re teaching the body how to be slow. You don’t want that. They may get slightly “tired” during some points of their early-season practices, but if their practices are well run, that’s built-in conditioning that accurately reflects the demands of their sport.
We first like to build a base of conditioning and then shorten that work to build more speed and power. We may do some tempo runs or long shuttles, but we never run miles. We want to move well and run fast, not simply be capable of jogging with poor efficiency for long distances.
If an athlete moves well and possesses solid strength, power and speed, odds are they already boast a solid base of conditioning. And if not, they’re just a short period away from getting there (especially when they’re young).
Even improving mobility, posture and how your muscles fire can help boost your conditioning without ever going for a run. Coaches should think “less is more” when it comes to conditioning for team sport athletes. Too much conditioning work decreases developments in strength, speed, power, movement quality and resilience to injury. “Too little” conditioning work, meanwhile, can often easily be corrected in a short period of time.
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