I have found off-feet conditioning to help athletes recharge or reload better, depending on hesitation and budget, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Alternative means of conditioning aren’t new, but we are getting better at prescribing conditioning to support athlete performance outside of running. Off-feet conditioning, or energy system training outside of running, is an area that every coach will likely need to navigate eventually. For decades, athletes have cross-trained to be ready for their sport, often with mixed results ranging from amazing transformations to limping into the season with injuries. I try to add a little wisdom at the end of this article to make sure science is actually applied with some logic and reason.
Most coaches will agree that it’s getting harder to keep athletes prepared to play when resources, specifically time to train, are decreasing. I personally have found off-feet conditioning to help athletes recharge or reload better, depending on hesitation and budget. Trust me, if you are committed to getting your athletes better, this framework covers the essentials while building a way to think outside the box without getting too radical. Off-feet conditioning works, but it’s not perfect, so get informed or audit your program with a combination of science and practical recommendations.
The Coaching Dilemma
Like a tough riddle, the challenge with off-feet conditioning is to either replace or complement running to support athlete performance while facilitating mechanical recovery. Some coaches treat it like a cheat code in a video game, but I see it as a compromise to the equation. The goal of off-feet conditioning is to decrease the demand on the joints and muscle groups, while facilitating cardiovascular conditioning of the heart and lungs.
Coaches are very wise creatures, and getting athletes off their feet is a good idea because sometimes the grind can just be too much on the body. Usually coaches look for a way to be slightly more general so specific muscle groups can rest or dramatically complement the training with muscle groups that are fresher. This sounds good on paper, of course, because it looks like anything that breaks a sweat will work, but I now see more injuries coming from “Plan B” training than ever before. The same principles of training are true with off-feet conditioning, but the difference is how clever a coach can be to ensure the replacement doesn’t cause any collateral damage or unwanted complications.
Another practical issue with off-feet conditioning is the logistical nightmare of conditioning groups of athletes when you don’t have a lot of resources. A soccer team of about two dozen athletes can be conditioned specifically with practice on a grass field or generally with a running workout. Training a soccer athlete off-feet requires access to a lot of conditioning equipment or a pool, which is not always affordable for high schools or small clubs.
Outside of logistics, a coach needs to be a master of training, including the equipment that they use, and that means a lot of homework. A tempo running workout is fairly straightforward for a running athlete, but switch it to the pool, bike, or rower and it becomes nearly guesswork. Mix in different competences with each modality from a heterogeneous group of athletes, and the riddle of conditioning becomes very challenging.
Finally, the appraisal of success of integrating multiple modalities outside of practice is the name of the game. Note, I said practice and not running, since even running will be a slightly artificial stimulus if athletes are not used to certain speeds, volumes, or mechanical styles. I have seen coaches use an EXER-GENIE to run nearly in place, but some have trashed athletes with a simple running program on the wrong surface at the wrong time with values that were not foolish at all. Success can be seen in fitness tests, recovery variables, subjective or perceptual experiences, and can, of course, be biochemical and physiological in nature. Without goals and a way to objectively evaluate the success of off-feet conditioning—including injury rates and attitudes toward compliance—you are simply performing wishful thinking.
Science of Transfer of Conditioning and Testing
Off-feet conditioning is half art and half science, more or less. We don’t have enough research to know how alternative means in training actually transfer to specific running performance. When we get into grey areas, like active recovery and injury rates, things can turn into a Wild West of theory and guesswork.
I want to remind coaches that testing and training are not always interchangeable, and warn that even successful conditioning comes with a cost. Here are five questions that you should always be juggling in the back of your mind:
- Does the conditioning plan have a similar muscular recruitment for local or peripheral adaptations?
- Will the training develop systematic or global adaptations that expand the athlete’s capacity to handle the demands of sport, training, and recovery?
- Can you test and/or monitor the training effectively to see changes within the program directly with objective physiological evaluation?
- Historically, does the program increase, decrease, or maintain the same injury patterns as earlier approaches and normative rates?
- How does the restoration workout stimulate metabolic and vegetative responses without slowing down the recovery of fatigued muscle groups?
Before I start sharing the science of transfer in sport, be cognizant of the problems or injury patterns of each modality. Plenty of athletes have been injured by off-feet conditioning because they were very fit for running but not prepared for the demands of other activities employed. Several indoor cycling routines I have seen worked wonders biochemically for a coach’s prescription, but if the bike fit isn’t smart, some athletes tend to get strains and other small injuries. The number of runners who get swimming shoulder frustrates track coaches, who are sometimes responsible for baseball players getting jumper’s knee from overzealous plyometrics prescriptions.
Each athlete has certain capacities for other activities, and just because an athlete is well trained and elite doesn’t mean they are universally prepared elsewhere. Every modality is different, so while similarities will benefit systemically, the training can’t be seen as perfectly interchangeable. The New York Times had a great article on running and swimming heart morphology, showing why we need to better understand the subtle differences before assuming we can swap out conditioning neatly.Each athlete has certain capacities for other activities, and just because an athlete is well trained and elite doesn’t mean they’re universally prepared elsewhere, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
An area where coaches must be careful is correlation versus causation; specifically transfer versus similarities. Many conditioning programs will have similar “energy systems” if you look up the physiology in a textbook, but they don’t create the same results when either tested or in competition.
The best example is replacing running with cycling, as the similarities in leg mechanics are enough to expect carryover into each domain. If the exchange was perfect, we would see triathletes just choosing one modality and racing successfully by specializing. The sprint cyclist won’t win the 100-meter dash because they won gold in the pursuit, but even if a world-class sprinter adds cycling, it may not work in their program. Obviously, those are extreme examples, and coaches are aware that most athletes practice on their feet too much, so unloading the body and replacing conditioning can help an athlete get into great shape.
Just like training on their feet, athletes should know that the same rules apply with off-feet training and not to expect aerobic capacity to improve performance unless it’s a real limiting factor. Too many programs look outside the box when the problem is usually right in front of them. Conditioning matters, but if you are not fast to begin with, adding fitness on a base of speed deficit just prolongs the problem. In summary, make sure you know if you are trying to mimic, complement, or expand an athlete’s ability. Those three needs will guide most of the training, so be very clear about what you want to achieve before receiving training.
Conditioning matters, but if you are not fast to begin with, adding fitness on a base of speed deficit just prolongs the problem, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Several coaches have asked about common validity issues with non-specific tests such as bike testing for anaerobic power and ice hockey, for example. The point is clear that sprinting on the ground and fitness on a bike don’t necessarily convert to on-ice success. That point is true, coaches should use field tests and player tracking to know how athletes are performing in games and in practices.
Like Wingate testing being limited for hockey players, general conditioning is limited overall to athletes and is sometimes purposely not sport-specific, and that can actually be an advantage if the primary training is up to par. Coaches are usually not looking to improve performance with cross-training, just taking a break from specific training. Therefore, transfer will always be less than specific preparation, but will likely be more successful in the long run when a combined program is used.
Formulating a Conversion for Conditioning
In no way do I claim that a secret “Rosetta Stone” exists for exchanging modalities, but you still need to have something in place that is usable. I have used the analogy for years, as a lot of science and practice often gets lost in translation, sometimes literally. The key to creating a conversion is to accept that the values are ballpark estimates, not pure exchanges.
In my experience, the trick is knowing whether you are trying to create a physiological adaptation or a performance replacement. They sound similar, but most coaches will be surprised to see how programming changes when you have all the options and knowledge of the respective science. In short, alternative forms of conditioning outside of running are nothing more than mechanical, metabolic, and muscular adjustments. Most modalities have overlapping qualities, and the differences are the variables that coaches must be aware of.
Two reminders before applying the information. If you plan to convert (replace) conditioning, realize it’s going to be a poor fit and replicating won’t be perfect. If you plan to complement (balance) the training, you are more likely to be successful. Many programs use alternative training or “Plan B” to manage injuries small and large. This is not only possible, but also may be necessary to keep the athlete progressing.
I don’t really like using modalities as replacements to training elements that are more specific, as coaches often don’t feel like solving root problems and find other means to condition. When the problem spreads to practices or competition, the damage is likely done. Using other modalities for systemic effects versus specific conditioning replacement is easier and highly recommended. Sometimes just a few runs on a nicely manicured grass surface is gold though, so don’t be afraid to mix and match as needed.
Common Conditioning Modalities
I decided that the group of modalities below would be sufficient for coaches to have enough “paint colors” to get the job done. Other options exist, but the probability of accessing some of the lesser-known conditioning modalities is the most important. The list has personal bias, meaning I do favor some options more than others, but it’s based on the collective experience of other coaches as well.We are looking for conditioning as either a light recovery session or to support an athlete who may need a break from being on their feet, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you are not an expert or familiar with each modality don’t stress out, but I would invest time by adding it into your own routine for a month or two to get comfortable first. Remember: We are looking for conditioning as either a light recovery session or to support an athlete who may need a break from being on their feet.
I don’t recommend that an athlete pick up outdoor cycling unless they are young and have the right environment for recreational exercise. It’s fine to take a bike tour on vacation or even a scenic spin from time to time, but endurance cycling is not a good mix for athletes due to safety and the commitment necessary. Indoor spinning is one of my favorites, but you need to really put effort into understanding bike fit and writing workouts. Jumping into a spin class is okay to break the monotony, but usually fitness is about entertainment and health, not performance or recovery.
It’s shocking to some, but elliptical is great for warming up older athletes who are near retirement. In no way am I saying that the elliptical trainer is for broken-down athletes ready to shut it down; I just don’t like it as a way to condition athletes, including step machines. I know the Jacobs Ladder is something that athletes will request, and you certainly can include it, but the system is not as common on the road and may not be a good fit for everyone. Using an elliptical for conditioning is possible, but I frankly don’t use it for athletes unless they have the right model and are looking for very low intensity training for aerobic stimulation.
We should give CrossFit more love for increasing the popularity of rowing. Many rugby teams have also popularized the use of rowing, mainly because Australia is so interconnected with their sport science. While I like using rowing to save hip flexors that sometimes need a rest, be careful of the low back and invest time in learning how to do it properly. Just because it looks simple, it doesn’t mean you can hop on and grind out 2,000 meters without learning the motion. I also place rowing into programs with athletes who are more durable, but not for recovery due to the muscular demands.
Many may argue that boxing is not really off-feet, but I think “low impact” (legs) is a better term. Boxing burns up the body metabolically, and it’s simply fun. Grabbing a pair of gloves and the right mitts can turn a dry conditioning session into pure joy. Over the last 10 years I have become proficient in mittwork, as a lot of athletes need to be lean and they get tired of conventional training. I do recommend a little homework and working with a professional for a few hours, as I have put a lot of wear and tear on my shoulders and elbows from football linebackers and linemen lighting things up from heavy punches. I swear by boxing and recommend it for anyone because it’s so effective.
With LeBron James bringing back the love for this timeless machine, coaches are now searching for workouts to make training enriching. The system is good for athletes who need a break from the impact of running, but it’s specific enough to not feel “foreign” with athletes who want to jump into a program and not have poor responses the next day. Rocky 4 turned the VersaClimber into a classic conditioning option culturally, and I recommend using VersaClimber in the professional setting without hesitation.
Several NBA teams and elite soccer clubs have gone to ski machines as a way to challenge athletes off the court or grass. I am not a fan and discourage coaches from using the approach as a main choice of conditioning. Similar to rowing, the issues of mechanics tend to make me feel uncomfortable with athletes, as it’s a slow rhythm compared to cycling and other systems. I still use it as part of a conditioning circuit with experienced athletes, but I recommend looking at the research and experiencing it yourself first.
If I was not worried about bias, I would have added an asterisk or made pool training the star of this article. John Grace wrote a very practical blog on pool training a few years ago covering the basics, and certainly the use of pool training should be the first choice for athletes who are getting hammered and need something to facilitate recovery. Pool training is much different than any other option because of the hydrostatic pressure and ability to create multi-planar resistance. So, if you are going to use the pool, I would do more than just water running and explore everything possible.The use of pool training should be the first choice for athletes who are getting hammered and need something to facilitate recovery, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A few years ago, I dedicated an article to circuits, and it covered the science and design of them. I also included a few circuits I love, but while I included circuits for athlete preparation, I don’t consider them the best off-feet conditioning choices because most of the exercises are high reception strength options and not cyclical aerobic motions that focus on cardiovascular stimulation. You can get benefits from circuits if an athlete is deconditioned, but they are not ideal to prepare athletes for the high demands of games.
The list is not exhaustive, but it’s sufficient to get the job done with nearly any athlete. Some athletes who are swimmers or cyclists can add different modalities to their program, but the goal of the list is to give land-based running athletes a chance to unload the legs. Each modality comes with responsibility, as you need to know how to blend it into your program so the inclusion doesn’t cause incongruence issues or possible power interference. Carefully program the modality within the scope of your training and monitor the responses with a fine-tooth comb.
Add Conditioning Ingredients Carefully
My only fear with writing this article is that a coach will look at the list of conditioning options and go on a coaching “shopping spree,” overdosing on both the added work and the wrong mechanical inputs. The purpose of the article, as I mentioned early in the first paragraph, is to be wiser with selecting the right conditioning options, if needed. It’s perfectly acceptable to not include any non-specific conditioning, but if you are experiencing athlete burnout and/or injuries, it’s likely that conditioning off the court, track, rink, or grass makes sense.I’ve found off-feet conditioning worth doing in the long run because it really improved athlete capacity and helped keep athletes lean and disciplined, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have found off-feet conditioning much harder than I thought it would be, but it was worth doing in the long run because it really improved athlete capacity and helped keep athletes lean and disciplined. If you value keeping athletes in the best shape of their lives, think about bringing your off-feet conditioning to the next level by really taking it seriously. With a little time reading the research and some experimenting, you are sure to find the perfect recipe for your athletes.
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