By Carl Valle
I am not sure what is causing coaches to step away from conditioning athletes, but the “less is more” philosophy or overreaction to recovery is creating a dark age in energy system development. Over the last year, several coaches have asked me if they should bother doing any “extra” work or even test fitness at all, as practice seems to cover the bases on paper. The stark truth of the matter is that we are not better at conditioning athletes, as the same old myths about fitness exist, and even those who are proponents of aerobic activity sometimes spread misinformation. To clear up the confusion, I wrote a heavy science article that incorporates the experience of actually replicating the research with real athletes. To keep it practical, I made sure I covered what we do, rather than just summarizing the studies linked in this piece.
If you are a coach in team sport or even endurance sport, you will want to read and replicate what we are doing now with our athletes. I am confident that it not only works, but it works best because we learned from the best. Too many times, conditioning gets done haphazardly because the lack of transparency camouflages lazy programming, and in this article, I cover every element of building serious aerobic capacity in sport.Too many times, aerobic conditioning gets done haphazardly because the lack of transparency camouflages lazy programming, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another debate occurs over whether an athlete should train like a marathoner or a sprinter. Most of the time, coaches bash a 1-mile run test or talk about how athletes are still faster even if they do fatigue. Those arguments are simply silly and nearly enter the straw man realm that only look good on social media. Yes, speed is a priority, but not doing any conditioning isn’t a path that leads to maximal development. A few flying sprints or similar won’t take care of football players for 50 offensive snaps.
The point of this article is to show the value of aerobic capacity and having as much of that quality as possible. The only way to know if the variable—aerobic conditioning—is working is to measure the influence of your program, not just speed decay or speed reserve. If you take one thing from this article, it should be the notion that skipping aerobic conditioning is a mistake, but doing too much of a good thing is just as bad.
Is the Aerobic System Important and Do Practices Take Care of It?
The most complicated question I hear has two parts: Why bother at all with conditioning if athletes are practicing all the time? And if speed “kills,” how does aerobic capacity “fit” into the equation?
The answer is a long one since each situation is different, as the type of sport, development level, and even genetics will determine how an athlete should be trained. If athletes are getting enough from games and practices, is adding more training seen as a good idea? Those points are all valid and I hear them all the time, but the issue I have is not that athletes should be doing more work, but they should be doing more specific work and they need to sequence things smarter and with more precision.
The key to a good conditioning program for aerobic capacity is actually leg strength, as that determines the success of a program in more ways than one says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Most of the time, coaches, especially team coaches, practice too much because they are trying to get as much tactical and strategic output as possible. The issue is composition and what is done in the off-season. With teams that have athletes who are in long seasons, different forms of aerobic training are welcome changes to the musculoskeletal system, while short seasons may benefit more from scrimmage-type workouts or simulation-type practices. Conditioning is based on actual details, not philosophical details.
Ironically enough, the key to a good conditioning program for aerobic capacity is actually leg strength, as that determines the success of a program in more ways than one. Speed without a complete strength and conditioning program is fragile, since most athletes need constant access to the weight room to perform and stay healthy. The same goes for conditioning, as athletes who spend all their preparation time doing absolute speed and power work will find the transition too abrupt when practices commence and thus risk injury.
VO2 Max Matters, But You Need to Interpret Test Results
I see a lot of personal animosity toward VO2 max numbers from strength and conditioning coaches, and even some endurance specialists. Most of the resentment stems from the fact they don’t have access to laboratory data, so they assume those coaches who capture the numbers are elitist and/or only looking at one number. When coaches don’t have access to data, the usual response I see is to attack the process or score due to the threat of being an outsider.
This needs to stop, and we need to be more open to understanding why some athletes respond to different types of training. It’s easy to accept that higher VO2 max scores are only a health metric for longevity. In regard to performance, it seems that coaches don’t want aerobic capacity to have an effect because they are not as knowledgeable or their athletes (on average) don’t like conditioning. Nobody wants to tell athletes to “eat their conditioning vegetables,” as it makes the performance coach a bad guy. The positive news is you don’t need to do much for your athletes to get better, and you may be seen as one of the good guys for helping improve fitness.
Remember: The best metric is not just watts per kilogram for athletes, but their ability to sustain sport-specific running rates or similar with that power, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I don’t do the classic VO2 max test unless it’s part of an athlete’s cardiovascular risk analysis, but I do test athletes now because of new portable technology that is coach-friendly. I also add in the Moxy Monitor along with heart rate data, and field tests come alive. I want athletes to know that conditioning is important and, while they get plenty of it from practice, I want their off-season to make real gains in both speed and range (conditioning). Having an athlete in touch with their physiology is just as important as understanding their orthopedic responsibilities. Remember, the best metric is not just watts per kilogram for athletes, but their ability to sustain sport-specific running rates or similar with that power.
A common misconception is that a higher score in fitness means you will have a poor power profile. I have reviewed nearly 300 players in the NHL (off-ice testing), and those who had great verticals sometimes had great VO2 max scores and wattage on the Wingate. Some athletes who jumped high had very average conditioning abilities, but it wasn’t mutually exclusive.
Thinking that speed and endurance is one or the other is unfounded, and you really want excellent power and sufficient fitness, not an aversion to conditioning with the hope that everything works out. VO2 max scores will not follow improvements to speed and power, so you will have to both test leg power and evaluate physiological data to see why scores change in conditioning. Just looking at verticals and endurance testing isn’t enough—you still need to look at the workouts to see how those numbers were formed.
Workouts That Actually Work and Staying Away of Junk Reps
I have four conditioning workouts that are staples for me, and I’ve made concessions so they are more palatable for coaches who are worried that they are too hard or aggressive. For years, the use of the extended and easier work has helped many athletes from all sports, including those who feel that aerobic contributions don’t matter in direct performance. Yes, I have read the studies too, but the compelling research is prolonged data capture of who is healthy and performing, and why.
Here are the four workouts I have added and used during the off-season. One of them is from the circuit article I shared earlier.
1. Pool Circuits
My work staple is the pool circuit, as it contrasts the high-impact and eccentric load of other activities. It’s unique and worth every minute. Logistically, adding a pool does cause a few headaches from time to time, especially when traveling, but you can actually add improvements to fitness if you are working with athletes who score under the norms of your sport. I have taken an athlete’s VO2 max scores from mid-40 mL/kg/min to the 50s with pool sessions alone, with no other aerobic stimulation outside of warming up for speed work.
2. Tempo Strides
Strides ranging from 50-200 meters are fine for team sport athletes. You don’t need to do much to quickly gain aerobic conditioning, and because tempo strides are interval-based, most coaches are not worried about them. Several coaches have been vocal that anything outside of rehearsal of the game is just not specific enough, but I have explained why I believe specificity is a fool’s errand, for the most part.
Learning to run with great technique is a great skill to have, and the fitness it comes with is very practical for groups and those who need to get on the grass and unload a bit. I wrote about tempo running in more detail, but it’s okay to add some running without fear of injury or fatigue in the off-season if you are worried about doing too much during the year.
3. Paced Runs
Advanced athletes can add continuous runs over time if they have a nice stride and are durable from years in the weight room. I went into paced runs in detail in a conditioning mistakes article, and stand by the claim that it turns the average runner into magnificent. There are other variations that are similar, but 4-6 bouts of this 800-meter-runner-type workout can transform athletes who are good into athletes who are insanely fit. The whole “don’t train like a marathoner” concept makes sense, but who does that really? Are middle distance athletes really bad models if they are crushing the speed and power needs? In my opinion, they’re not.
4. Long Spin
Going for an easy ride of high RPMs (revolutions per minute) with a moderate wattage works wonders for those who just want to get low-impact stimulation. True, coaches are not big fans of the bike, but honestly, 20-60 minutes a few days a week won’t turn a hare into a tortoise. If you progress slowly, over the course of the seasons an athlete will sometimes see the bike as a nice retreat. If you jump into it too hard it will ruin recovery, and I explained in detail why in an article on cool-downs. If eccentric stress is extremely high, always resort back to pool training as bike routines are still taxing, but don’t get spooked from including them in your program.Whatever you do, choose training based on cause and effect, not tradition, unless the ritual is proven to work time after time, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Yes, many conditioning programs are junk reps. I know coaches find the classic 16 x 110 yards the bane of their existence, but where are the 160-pound offensive linemen? Whatever you do, choose training based on cause and effect, not tradition, unless the ritual is proven to work time after time. Occasionally adding in tempo running for large athletes won’t make a football player slow; in fact, some relaxed running will likely help those who sprint a little tight and only know how to sprint all-out.
The litmus test for me for junk reps or volume is when the workout just does more for the sake of doing more and has no target. A target is a goal that is clear and specific, and if you don’t see a true cause and effect with the training, then I recommend another course of action, usually rest or going super gentle.
Managing Speed and Power Side by Side with Conditioning
The most common fear with conditioning is that doing too much of it doesn’t help when the potential tradeoff is fatigue or similar. Coaches are almost scared that if they warm up too long or do aerobic work, they will slow down their athletes, or their larger athletes will lose muscle and waste away. Yes, too much conditioning is a problem, and the fear of doing too much is, in fact, a real argument.
We need to be careful of how much we prescribe, but abstinence is foolish too. Managing the composition and science of load means you need to monitor recovery and the ingredients of a program. Too much loading is too much, period, so instead of adding conditioning, you need to fight for what you may need to take away or modify.
General fitness training 2-3 times a week for 20 minutes will work if the type of training contrasts with the specific practice. Adding more junk training may work for swimmers or triathletes, but it may ruin a team sport athlete who has a much smaller aerobic engine. I have made athletes tired without getting them in better shape basically by looking at volume instead of physical adaptations. Repeated speed work will create unique adaptations that will help aerobic capacity, especially with quality work that is maximal. What it will not do is cover all of the adaptations possible, as I’ve mentioned before.Too much conditioning is a problem, and the fear of doing too much is a real argument. We need to be careful of how much we prescribe, but abstinence is foolish too, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Again, make sure the aerobic work stimulates enough positive capacity that the end product is better than using the time for other things or just resting. Often, just taking time away from all training works better than forcing an agenda that looks good on paper, but the body simply can’t respond to because it’s overloaded overall.
Video 1. Elastic power training is more realistic than jump height, as fatigue will always be present during heavy training periods. Adding force analysis is useful month to month, but simple weekly RSI or similar testing is practical.
The solution? One of the reasons to monitor barbell speed and hormones is to support the speed on the track or other venue. You can shoot and measure speed with timing systems, as it’s paramount to performance and is a direct measure, but biological systems and general neuromuscular fatigue are also useful to see how the capacity to handle work is trending. No magical metric is available for this, so you need to keep a good record and decipher it as you go.
My only suggestion that is nearly airtight is mood tracking, as athletes who are not motivated or interested in training will tend to improve less than those with good power numbers on a force plate or similar. The management of various mechanical and chemical loading is too complex for a paragraph or two, but efforts to go outside of speed testing explain why an athlete is slowing down rather than just repeating what a coach can see on a stopwatch.
Why You Should Blood Test Athletes Consistently
I don’t want to spend much time on biomarkers, as I have other articles planned for the future. What I do know is most teams that do blood testing think of the data as nutritional support or medical health rather than aerobic performance. It’s correct to look at blood work as highly variable and limited in the research, but combined with testing and other data sets, the biomarker scores can reflect aerobic adaptations. The core problem with biomarkers only is that without the integration of test results, the information is usually just an educated guess.
Without compromising for convenience, you must blood test with a rhythm that is meaningful. True, a screen once a year helps, but testing a couple of times a year doesn’t change the equation. You must test at least three times, with an emphasis on four or more. Testing twice a year is not monitoring, it’s just rescreening. It’s better to test more frequently than simply do a bragging rights test to show ornamental data.
Even cause and effect attempts at follow-up testing are severely limited because you need three tests to see a trend. However, too large of a time gap isn’t very useful either. Figure 2 shows the blood biomarkers needed to appraise how an athlete is improving outside of hemoglobin mass testing.
Other biomarkers matter, such as vitamin D and other nutrient status tests, because they prime the body to handle the rigors of training. Still, the aerobic power changes will come from red blood cells and the other biomarkers connected to the formation of hemoglobin. It is a bit of a mystery how plasma volume will trend over the course of a season, but you can model those changes with adequate accuracy if the athlete trains hard year-round or when they are tested.
All of the data will come to the same conclusion: If athletes are forming new and more red blood cells and they are training correctly, aerobic capacity will originate from systemic sources, not just peripheral locations such as the muscles themselves. Both the local and global systems need to be optimized for maximal performance.
What to Expect After One Year and Multiple Seasons
The cumulative training effect is a hard sell, but it’s the best way to get better in the long run. If you make a light investment in aerobic capacity—just enough to help keep the body in balance—you will see a benefit later that season. Even better news is that if you sustain an honest effort over time, each year nearly compounds itself, so by the end of year 3 the results are better than linear growth.Aerobic capacity, provided it’s just enough to support practices and not add more fatigue, tends to benefit athletes beyond breaking a sweat, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
With speed and power, athletes typically tend to level off and start fighting to make gains in the weight room or on the track. It’s humbling to hit a plateau, but if an athlete is sprinting fast for years, what is left to change if they have gone all-out for most of their career? Aerobic capacity, provided it’s just enough to support practices and not add more fatigue, tends to benefit athletes beyond breaking a sweat. Here are the examples we have noticed.
- Athletes feel better emotionally and have fewer mood issues during the year. I am not an expert in psychology, but I realize that athletes are human. We need to value their mental health, not just their flying sprints or power numbers on the force plate.
- Coaches have promoted relative strength ratios for reducing injury, usually in the form of squat-to-bodyweight numbers. We need something here for aerobic fitness, as athletes can’t just live on a diet of speed and power.
- Athletes tend to go too hard and break down the body more with added work, but flush rides that are mistimed or pool work that is inconvenient aren’t real solutions. Light aerobic work doesn’t facilitate repair, it supports athlete wellness if administered correctly.
These three benefits will show up in your monitoring program if you do it right. I don’t promise anything unless I see it firsthand, but I was very apprehensive with conditioning because I took the myth of fiber conversion too seriously. I thought a continuous run longer than a few minutes would turn a speed and power athlete into a skinny marathoner overnight. I emulated decathletes and cornerbacks in the NFL for a few years and the compromise was perfect—athletes were faster and could repeat their power better than the programs that only used pure anaerobic training.
I was wrong twice, not just from abstaining from conditioning, but also by assuming that my access to physiological resources on speed and power would be compromised. I found that we didn’t have good speed and fitness from adding conditioning, but power numbers were higher than before because our jumps were higher and our sprints were faster in-season.
Put in the Effort but Always Think Supporting Speed
A healthy perspective is to think about how conditioning is more than speed reserve. Speed endurance is specific, and while the research on aerobic training does support the concept that a bigger aerobic engine helps with repeated sprint ability, the big picture is the entire career lifespan and each season, not just recovery between repetitions. As I outlined earlier, don’t look at aerobic capacity as a way to keep athletes fit for the last part of the game during the last part of the season, but throughout a career.Don’t look at aerobic capacity as a way to keep athletes fit for the last part of the game during the past part of the season, but throughout a career, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Speed needs direct power and coordination, but without a sensible capacity to aerobically contribute to the demands of sport, it’s likely the athlete is driving without a seatbelt. Aerobic fitness adds more than just capacity for work—it helps reduce the strain of the specific stress from speed work that may cause unwanted side effects. It’s easy to do too much work and pile on aerobic training because it isn’t complicated to add volume, but conditioning is about the composition of work, not just doing more of it.