For decades, we have seen a wide variety of methods employed to improve speed and conditioning in team sports such as football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, lacrosse, and soccer. These methods often include the 300-yard shuttle, pole runs, 10×110-yard runs, gassers, down and backs, jogging laps, and more. Recently, it has come to the attention of many coaches that these methods are neither appropriate for developing true speed nor specific enough to qualify as relevant conditioning. I would say that, on the surface, this position is relatively fair, as it is difficult to imagine how these training methods relate to the sports at hand.
For example, a single play of football is referred to as “six seconds of hell” by many coaches across the country. This is then followed by a rest interval of roughly 30 seconds, so the work-to-rest ratio is about 1:5. There was a graphic floating around social media from Kurt Hester that approximated roughly 6.3 plays per drive with about 3 minutes and 26 seconds between drives. If we revisit the 300-yard shuttle or gassers, how do those compare to the actual demands of the game? Are we training milers or football players? What is concerning is that many coaches believe these slow, monotonous running modalities contribute to speed development.What is concerning is that many coaches believe these slow, monotonous running modalities contribute to speed development, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
I want to start by saying that I am not here to condemn anybody. Everybody has their own methods and strategies for athletic development, and they do what they truly believe is best for their program. What I want is to provide some information to hopefully give extra tools for coaches to think critically and make calculated decisions regarding speed and conditioning programming for their respective sports.
It is no secret that speed is one of the most highly regarded traits in all of sports and performance. Fast athletes tend to jump the highest, hit the hardest, and redirect and make game-changing plays more often than their slower counterparts. Because of this, speed is often at the forefront of athletic development, as it should be. However, it tends to be pursued in ways that are not conducive to speed development and may actually take away from the ability to produce and utilize the force needed to achieve top speed.
As mentioned above, the average miler development program of repeat gassers at painfully slow paces may not be the best way to improve speed. Increasing weight room maxes, while there is some correlation to strength capacity and speed outputs, is not the end-all, be-all for speed development.
Within team sports, we often see athletes working on various aspects of their game to improve. Trouble catching the ball? Go play catch. Trouble dribbling? Grab a ball and practice. Free throw issues? Get on the line and start shooting. It is intuitive that working on a specific task with the task is the best way to improve upon it.
So, if I want to get my athletes really fast, what should I do? Should I jog them around for 10-20 minutes in long repeat efforts? Personally, I prefer to sprint them. How some people have developed the idea that slow jogging develops speed is beyond my comprehension. Luckily, it’s not too late to right the ship!
What Is Sprinting?
Sprinting is a running effort that is at or near maximum capacity for each individual. Athletes ideally perform these efforts at distances that allow them to sustain speed for most or all of the rep duration. Additionally, recovery intervals are important in making sure that each rep is of the highest quality while also ensuring that the speed workout does not shift toward slow endurance work due to fatigue. This fatigued state of training is what some refer to as “the death march.”
If quality falls off during the workout, you can either find a way to restore it or cut off the workout completely. Examples of potential remedies are longer rest intervals, shorter sprint distances, or both. If your adjustments are not impactful, it is a sign the athlete is spent for that workout, and it is time to shut it down for the day. This is not to say that you should aim to sprint your athletes until they cannot reproduce high-quality repetitions, but to simply arm you with tools to use in the event that the quality drops.
You can’t expect an athlete to repeatedly sprint at maximal intensity when they are tired, as there will come a point of diminishing returns and possibly an ever-increasing risk of injury with each additional rep. Sprinting doesn’t have to be done in high volumes or long distances. Even max accelerations for just 10 or 20 yards are sufficient to stimulate the central nervous system and get a positive adaptation effect. However, to really work top speed, you will likely need to experiment with repetitions going into the 40- to 60-yard range depending on the athlete and their ability to accelerate to their maximum velocity. Just ensure that your rest intervals line up with the distances being run so that you stay ahead of the looming fatigue.
There are a few ways to monitor the quality of a given workout, the most obvious of which is timing. If you can develop a baseline level for speed work and time each repetition, you can objectively identify when the times start to trend in the wrong direction. In this event, you can refer to the above to attempt to rectify the situation. If this doesn’t work, you can individually start to cut the workout for athletes who are beginning to fall apart.
Using the eye test to monitor body language and mechanical efficiency for signs of fatigue is critical in making these decisions. As the body fights through an energy deficit, the muscles may accumulate several waste products that compromise coordination, speed, power, and movement economy, as the muscles are no longer firing in an optimal physiological environment. I believe these are some of the main reasons that maximal sprinting while fatigued may jeopardize performance and the athlete’s health.
While sprinting is not the only way to enhance speed, it is the most effective training method to do so. It also doubles as an extremely robust exercise that benefits other explosive athletic qualities that are difficult to emulate in other types of training. Plyometrics, biomechanics, and a well-designed weightlifting program (among other things) are also great for developing qualities related to speed to complement the sprint work. As always, find the mixture that fits best with your program and use it well! There are many ingredients involved in the speed equation for any given team or individual, so the way each aspect affects your athletes is an important problem to figure out and manage appropriately.
Prescribing Speed Work
Once we understand what we need to do to improve speed, the big question always becomes: “How do we do it?” This is a fair question, and the answer that you may not be looking for is that it largely depends on the context surrounding your athletes and development. I’m not referring to weight training; I’m specifically referencing high-intensity sprint work. Where does it fit in and how?
- Are you able to incorporate speed by practicing with more intent in the sport?
- Do the demands of the sport contradict speed, and therefore you need to set time aside to build it into your programming?
- How often should you implement speed work?
- Will it be bodyweight speed, resisted speed, assisted speed, controlled speed, or all of the above?
- How deeply will you dive into speed?
- Are you equipped to coach the technical aspects of it?
- Are you comfortable with long rest durations?
- Do you know where to begin and how to progress it?
These are all important questions to ask yourself before going all in. Have a sound plan, put it into action, monitor progress, and adjust accordingly.
Without getting too wordy, do what you’re comfortable with. Short-duration sprinting is likely a stimulus the athletes get in their sport, so maybe this is a good starting point from a safety and familiarity perspective. A rule of thumb I’ve heard many use is to give one minute of rest for every 10 yards sprinted. This isn’t always feasible, and it isn’t a make-or-break rule, but be aware that if you cut your rest durations too short, you will begin shifting to an aerobic conditioning model.Erring on the side of less overall volume and more overall rest intervals will likely be beneficial in your pursuit of speed development, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
Many would say this is the opposite of speed, and I would largely agree. Speed that has been ill-prescribed turns into monotonous conditioning, which has plagued programs for far too long, so let’s be tactful. You don’t need a ton of sprint efforts to improve the central nervous system, so erring on the side of less overall volume and more overall rest intervals will likely be beneficial in your pursuit of speed development.
What is conditioning? Many coaches believe it is the ability to arbitrarily run forever without getting tired; hence, the methods I mentioned above that many incorrectly utilize for relevant conditioning. I would counter this misconception and say that being conditioned means you are able to perform sport-specific tasks repetitively throughout the duration of the game while minimizing the impact fatigue has on performance. Conditioning being related to slow, monotonous running is the reason many sport coaches have pursued this as a means to condition their athletes to endure the demands of the game.
However, running long distances is not what makes an athlete resilient to the detriments of fatigue as a game or competition wears on. What it will do is make them more able to sustain their running paces for longer durations, but simply running for conditioning misses the boat. There needs to be a level of specificity that is gradually incorporated in order for the conditioning work to carry over appropriately.
Principles of motor learning say that task specificity with regard to the activity, the environment, and predictability lead to optimal carryover. If they’re performing the activity at suboptimal levels while under the influence of fatigue, you can count on the athletes learning how to perform low-quality movements. Conditioning does not need to be low-quality, mindless jogging, however; it should reflect what you want to see from your athletes as the game wears on.
As mentioned before, coaches are great at addressing other gaps in performance by practicing those specific aspects of performance. Somewhere along the way, conditioning became simplified to training milers. Just as this training will not improve speed, it also will not make your athlete magically fresh for the fourth quarter of a game. So, what will?
By structuring the demands of practice to simulate what will happen in the game, we can build athletes with a greater work capacity and general resilience to game-related fatigue. If it is unrealistic to do so, then finding a way to bridge the gap through other means is your next best bet. This would include keeping similar work-to-rest ratios as the game would require as well as sustaining a given intensity for these durations.
As referenced before, in order to condition specifically, you need to be familiar with how the game tends to unfold in a multitude of ways. For example:
- How long is the average play?
- How many plays per drive or per game?
- How much time is spent in the fast break versus the half court setup?
- How many offensive and defensive possessions per game?
- How much rest between possessions?
- How many players play the entire game?
- Can you simulate timeouts when athletes break down?
- How frequently are you substituting?
- Are there points in the game where the athlete can conserve energy and choose their windows to be aggressive?
Conditioning is not only a physiological resilience but the ability for the athlete to gauge and understand what level of intensity is required for the task at hand. If sustaining high-quality performance throughout the duration of the game is important, these are things that must be addressed. Not everything must be a dead sprint every single play or down.Conditioning should reflect what you want to see from your athletes as the game wears on, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
This is not to say that every practice needs to be structured exactly like a game, as it is important to find time to teach athletes the plays and correct mistakes. However, you can begin to challenge how well they retain your coaching material by starting the game simulation for conditioning purposes. Stopping the flow of this portion of practice after every single play to micromanage the players won’t be conducive to your goal of conditioning, so be sure that they’re at a somewhat proficient level of comprehension prior to throwing them in the fire. Athletes make mistakes. If they mess up on a play, sequence, or decision, you can sub them out for someone who knows what they are doing so that you can coach the player without disrupting your overarching goals of this portion of the practice plan.
As the simulation wears on, you’ll notice athletes begin to get lazy in their pursuit, execution, coordination, and overall performance of the sport demands. This is a great indication that they are gassed. Just as you manage your players in the game, you can practice making substitutions in practice as well. If you’ve got a few players who you rely on, you’ll need to manage the time they play and rest the most. The main reason for this is because you are asking them to perform at a high level and be an ironman at the same time. Unfortunately, you can’t always have both.
Pitfalls of Conditioning
At first glance, conditioning may appear as a pretty simple thing to incorporate into practice. Issues tend to arise as we try to progress these means of conditioning by increasing intensity, frequency, and duration and decreasing rest periods. Coaches begin to buy into the idea that they need the most resilient players in order to endure the demands of the game, and in going all in on this idea, they forget that they are training for a game and not the presidential fitness test.
Coaches often get so infatuated with conditioning, they ignore that the main goal of practice throughout the week is to prepare for the game or events that are to come. Every day of the week becomes a conditioning session, and the ever-increasing volumes take a toll on the body that it needs time to recover from. Not time as in minutes, but days and sometimes weeks. You cannot continue to take everything from these athletes daily without eventually paying a price. That price may come in the form of diminished performances, burnout, or injury.
Additionally, the entire team has been through an extremely demanding week of practice and is also expected to go out and perform at a high level when it matters at the end of the week. Well, looking back at the practice plan, they’ve essentially had three full games’ worth of reps over the last four days, and now they’re being asked to go out and be at their best. To be straightforward, this is an unreasonable expectation, and ultimately both parties may leave the field empty-handed.
The coach will feel like the athletes aren’t tough enough and will punish the athletes with more conditioning. The athletes give their all on the field, but no matter how hard they try, they simply can’t put together a string of meaningful performances while in this diminished state. It is a frustrating and disappointing reality that many coaches and athletes face in team sports every day.
Athletes don’t pour their hearts into practice every day while simultaneously choosing to give lackluster efforts when it matters in the game. Coaches don’t spend the majority of their time with a group of athletes with the intention to sap their performance capacity. A simple way to know when to draw the line on your conditioning: If the athlete isn’t moving the way you’d like for them to move in the game, it might be time to sub them out or end that portion of practice. You’re not in the business of creating bad habits, and running slow may be the least desirable trait you want to reinforce in your athletes.
Use Context as Your Guide
Speed is the most highly desired ability in the sports performance world, yet it is historically trained catastrophically wrong. We know that practicing a given task makes us better at the task, but somehow, we have forgotten that this also applies to speed development. If you want your athletes to get faster, they need to sprint frequently.
Traditional conditioning workouts such as gassers, 300-yard shuttles, down and backs, poles, and laps will not serve as an even remotely valuable substitute when it comes to building the capacity to create and sustain speed. The lack of acceptance for proper work-to-rest ratios can turn speed workouts into mindless conditioning very quickly. It is okay to rest longer than 30 seconds in practice, and the athlete is not wasting time by resting. In fact, they are recharging for more high-quality efforts. Normalize rest, and it will pay dividends across the board.The lack of acceptance for proper work-to-rest ratios can turn speed workouts into mindless conditioning very quickly… Normalize rest, and it will pay dividends across the board. Click To Tweet
Conditioning is also highly sought after in sports due to the idea that it builds athletes who can weather the storm and retain the ability to perform longer than their unconditioned counterparts. Long-duration jogging does not look like high-flying performances play after play, so it is unrealistic to expect this is what it will translate to when training athletes this way. While it may help them achieve presidential physical fitness in their PE class, it will not enable them to retain their valuable sport-specific skills and execution late into games the way that many may believe.
Use aspects of the game repetitively or simulate the game itself to build a bigger gas tank for the athletes to perform. Once the athlete begins to fall off, it is time to either let them rest or call it a day. We don’t want to create bad habits, particularly those that reinforce athletes moving slowly and losing the ability to make plays.
This is not to say that these are the only ways to develop speed or condition your athletes. It is simply to encourage program reflection and deep thought. Ask yourself:
- Does it make sense?
- Is it high quality?
- Does it look athletic?
- Does it match the demands of the game?
- Does it prepare my athletes for what is ahead?
- Is it safe and reasonable?
- Is it sustainable?
Allowing context to guide your training enables you to be more precise in your programming and help you reason out one training approach versus another. Not all training approaches make sense for all circumstances, so it is important for you to arm yourself not only with relevant contextual information, but various training methods as well. Pick what makes the most sense for your program to develop your athletes as efficiently and effectively as possible.
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