By Carl Valle
At times it can be frustrating to watch Twitter wars, but I value the exchanges, provided the coaches debate in good faith. Nearly every time I see a disagreement over conditioning principles, it becomes a cherry-picked research debacle or a series of deflections (straw man arguments). The main reason we see far more details on conditioning is that it takes the direct, acute need of physical power and adds biochemistry to the equation. Physics is very observable and more direct with measurement; internal physiology is far more difficult to decipher.
In this blog post, I approach the sports conditioning challenge in three different ways for the coach. The first is simple: I summarize the nine common paths that lead coaches astray. Second, I provide a perspective that may explain why some research doesn’t give an accurate depiction of what is going on and share evidence of why we need a different logic angle. Finally, I share workouts that may help, as I have made a lot of mistakes in the past with conditioning and learned from them.I think professionals feel that conditioning comes from the practice of sport, so any research on the topic is done haphazardly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I will not spend too much time explaining the need for conditioning, but I believe that it’s time to be honest about conditioning methods and science in team sport. Usually, the practices focus so much on game simulation that the average strength and conditioning coach now just wants to do hamstring injury reduction exercises and monitor GPS player load. In short, I think professionals feel that conditioning comes from the practice of the sport, so that any research on the topic is done haphazardly. Don’t worry, I address the problems of “conditioning without the ball” in detail, and cover those and other points with solutions that are realistic.
Using Vague Terminology with Conditioning Concepts
The first problem with coaching theory is that periodization sometimes ruins the stronger science with bad terminology. “Energy system development” is a broad term, and even conditioning and fitness may be lazy wording. When we think conditioning, we sometimes believe it’s either distance running or anything that creates a sweat. If we are to move forward, we need to migrate away from vague language such as “cardiac output” or “building an aerobic base.” I have been guilty of throwing the terms out too, so it’s more of a problem with the profession as a whole than with just a few coaches. One solution is to get back to more direct methods and not complicate things, and just call it like we see it.
The best example I know is “work capacity” by the well-meaning coach who is still dangerous when left to their own devices. The best way to fix this issue is to migrate to more detailed measures of change and more specifics with target adaptations. There’s way too much descriptive language (talking) and not enough targeting of cellular adaptations (that show up on field tests, on the podium, and in the wins column). Instead of calling something “work capacity,” just accept that it’s likely a lower intensity and higher volume of familiar training that is specific instead of glorifying busy work. High repetition lunges are just high repetition lunges, not something that will create adaptations that will shock the world.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with coach’s jargon, but if it’s too far away from simple biology, we can veer off the path to improvement and then be chasing around a mirage. Perhaps we can reboot the language and get back to our roots, as the eyeball test and honest language tend to fix vague terminology.
Focusing on the Demands of the Sport Instead of Preparing the Human Athlete
It’s easy to watch a sport and check out work-to-rest ratios and length of games. It’s far harder to look at practices and seasonal training, and it’s extremely difficult to look at career development. Still, post sport is often neglected because life after the game or event doesn’t reward those involved. Concussions are one example of this, where many in sport just want athletes to perform well in their prime, and after they hang up the cleats and skates, they are no longer important. When designing training, think about the person, not about the performance.When designing training, think about the person, not about the performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Of course, the challenge most coaches will face will be what to do in training to get results now. I realize that LTAD is a “nice to have,” as most strength coaches can’t make the hard choices with athlete training when practice volumes resemble madness in motion. The solution is simple: Create training that supports what people do, not just rehearse or repeat what they do. I go into specificity later, but sports performance is a service. Complimenting versus piling on is a great concept that Boo Schexnayder promotes, but to make it practical, we need to see it with some concrete examples.
When developing a complete program, it’s easy to engineer things or work backwards, but it takes a colossal effort to go beyond and think about the variables behind the variables. Travel, emotional stress, and nutrition matter, but what about the workouts? Just being a fit human being with conditioning makes sense, as our body is very sensitive to homeostasis. While a light morning jog may not help a weightlifter add kilos to their totals, the overall human drive needs a different pathway outside of their specific sports struggle. Athletes need wellness, and abstaining from aerobic training in speed and power events is short-sighted. This train of thought only exists in a textbook, not in everyone’s real world.
Making Heart Rate Monitoring Interpretation Errors
An in-depth article on heart rate monitoring is in the works and it needs to cover classic errors in interpreting heart rate data. Countless times, coaches have shared data from what looks like a hard effort, but when I recreate the workout or visit the training, it’s not really hard. Being out of shape or, to learn from my first point, having low aerobic capacity will likely increase the demand of training programs that are not actually very difficult. It’s easy to see an unskilled athlete who is aerobically conditioned fatigue rapidly, but you can also see a skilled athlete get humbled by average Joes when they are retired or in an off-season.The key with heart rate is to look at the training and decode what is going on overall, not just with data on the watch or screen, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The key with heart rate is to look at the training and decode what is going on overall, not just with data on the watch or screen. The heart takes in all information, and confounding variables often screw up interpretation that is likely already tainted from misinformation. A good example is with a game that depicts an illusion of the players looking exhausted to a more skilled team. Even if they are aerobically better prepared, a team that lacks confidence emotionally can turn “beep test warriors” into a shell of their former selves. With a lot of the machine learning and other higher forms of math and artificial intelligence, the lack of context transforms models that look good on paper into very smart random number generators.
The best way to audit calculations is to do the opposite, and work with those who are not very data-savvy. Many of those who are successful in coaching but not data-driven rely on intuition and don’t just guess wildly—instead, they are sometimes very intelligent in recognizing patterns and just can’t articulate it objectively. You need to work with an experienced coach who has a knack for making good, pragmatic choices. Still, combine the two and don’t just stay stuck running analysis with statistical packages best served for economists. When you can, balance artificial intelligence with the experience and wisdom of those who are successful without higher level data.
Utilizing Junk Circuits for Convenience
Let’s be honest, the point of circuits is that they help organize groups of athletes in training. Getting “work” done is easy; getting the work to actually work is very challenging. The biggest farce in strength and conditioning is not that we use circuits to help improve athlete performance, it’s that circuits are usually done by very capable coaches who want to believe that a “pu-pu platter” or smorgasbord of exercises strung together with short rest periods will prepare athletes for long seasons and overtime play. Circuits are a small part of getting athletes better, but don’t expect them to move the needle for aerobic capacity much. Treat them like active recovery, and even light training between high-intensity days might be limited to a placeholder.Circuits add value, but we need to embrace the reality that sometimes it’s better to do nothing, a different mode altogether, or a conventional activity that is toned down. Click To Tweet
Instead of sharing the benefits of circuits, let me share their drawbacks and limitations. I already covered the constitution and valuable characteristics earlier, so let me get into the areas that make them selective choices and not a panacea.
Just as many of us know that circuits add value, we need to embrace the reality that sometimes it’s better to do nothing, a different mode altogether, or an activity that is conventional but toned down. When I see circuit work with very contemporary programs that really push intensity, I admire their risk-taking and experience. But when I see it as busywork to avoid the activities that really get an athlete better or more prepared, I am left shaking my head.
Not Using Lab Data or Physiological Testing
I wrote a very vanilla article about oxygen transfer and testing VO2 Max a while ago, and now coaches are asking about lab testing. If you believe that it’s a waste of time to get a “running test,” think about the research that is published requiring field test validation. One of my issues with field tests is that we get an output, but not information on how we created those performances and what are the limiting factors holding back athletes from improving. You use field test results to rank athletes, but need laboratory-type data to know how they produce those numbers.
Instead of treadmill testing, I now use field evaluation methods. The combination of the Moxy Monitor and VO2 Master Pro with conventional field tests will become the standard. I still use HR analysis with field testing, and now we have muscle oxygenation and aerobic gas exchange information that really profiles an athlete.
Video 1. The VO2 Master app is great for those wanting to create a utopian physiological testing hub without getting encumbered by multiple software programs. The app connects to multiple sensors and devices via Bluetooth so you can synchronize all of the data during testing.
You can do conventional treadmill testing and/or other cycling tests to extract general fitness information, but if you want ecological validity, you need to be closer to the mode of expression, such as on-the-field simulation cross-referenced with general capacity testing. One word of caution: Before testing athletes with either lactate threshold or gas exchange analysis, know what you are trying to do with interventions or what you can salvage from a rolling baseline assessment. Team sports should not chase phantom numbers, but really know the value of the “currency” of actual changes to physiology.Lab testing is no longer about the lab—it’s now about the ability to get real research-grade data in the wild, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
For example, an NFL lineman who can maintain power and add a significant change to his VO2 output may see actual back half success, especially late in the game. Players who are evenly talented in being fast and being fit can calibrate how much conditioning they actually need rather than guessing. Lab testing is no longer about the lab—it’s now about the ability to get real research-grade data in the wild.
Piling on Too Much Specific Loading
The law of diminishing returns is likely just as important as the principle specific adaptation to imposed demands. Athletes who compete year-round struggle to get out of a training monotony syndrome that can really cause problems with burnout. Tennis is a nightmare, and I frankly don’t work with that sport because, administratively, it isn’t the right fit for me. I am still glad I worked at a tennis facility in the early 2000s to learn the pain of not having downtime, as other sports are becoming more year-round.
Specificity is not an advantage and is only valuable when an athlete needs more exposure to skills and tactics to improve. From a conditioning standpoint, if an athlete is over-competing and under-adapting, they need to get back to classic biomotor abilities and create clear adaptations. Sure, all biomotor abilities are technically not isolated—meaning repeated sprinting will bleed into other areas of conditioning and even power—but the reality is clear training requires very straightforward programming. Athletes who are trying to play their way into shape without complementing their program with overload outside the game are at risk of problems down the road.The easiest way to support an athlete is to think about load balancing, instead of simply load managing and hoping the line plot works out with real bodies, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The easiest way to support an athlete is to think about load balancing, instead of simply load managing and hoping the line plot works out with real bodies. Every coach who watches load volume and intensity by using monitoring techniques is on the right track. However, they are not actually balancing the load until they think about modes and types of stress, rather than just adjusting the practices and games.
Failing to Employ Enough Specificity or Running
The opposite argument I make for specificity is when a coach decides to go “cold turkey” on any specific training or practice and just jump right into the preseason. Anything that is foreign, including the sport that an athlete excels at, is an injury risk.
In the late 1990s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the controversial HIT program. For those in their 20s or early 30s, HIT was not repeated bursts of speed—it was a lifting program that touted low-volume strength training at maximal effort or to failure, sometimes with machines. The Buccaneers’ head strength coach at the time was Mark Asanovich and, while I had a different philosophy for weight training, his conditioning ideas had good points and still register with me to this day.
His explanation was that you simply ramp up playing and practicing in a very patient manner to reduce overtraining. The classic preseason game usually showed starters doing more and more each week, and the last game sometimes rested veterans and served as a final rehearsal for rookies and second stringers. His point was that you had to blend non-specific to actual game-like conditions to succeed. His use of manipulating practice and exposure was wise thinking at the time.
The team that worries about running and abstains from it altogether by using alternative modes of conditioning is just as bad as the team that overdoses on specific training. Click To Tweet
We currently face the problem of doing too much replication of the game, or the absolute opposite—an athlete doing nothing close to what they must be ready for. For example, repeated linear sprints for a receiver may not prepare them for the sport of football, but complicated tag games are just busy work disguised as agility or movement development. I have seen a lot of programs where the coach is so worried about wear and tear that they only have athletes do bike routines or water jogging, resulting in the inability of players to run for the 90 minutes of a soccer game.
The team that worries about running and abstains from it altogether by using alternative modes of conditioning is just as bad as the team that overdoses on specific training. You need to run to get better at running, and if you are trying to unload, just keep in mind that you will eventually need to pay the piper. My parting thought is that you should do as little running as necessary and build up at the last possible moment if you are working with veterans. Youth sport may have similar challenges of joint stress, but most of the problems come from exhausting tournaments.
Forgetting to Blood Test
Coaches need to realize that cross country runners are not the only ones who need to blood test—all athletes should do it at least quarterly. For years, since I was diagnosed as anemic in middle school, I have known that even a great diet on paper doesn’t mean it’s biochemically right internally. Right out of college, we started blood testing athletes and the information was especially useful, as it screened athletes and helped monitor overtraining. Several coaches explained that they are hesitant to blood test athletes in college or the pros, but if you have athletes with full-body tattoos, don’t tell me that a very thin needle that is painless is scary for an athlete willing to suffer hours in the tattoo parlor chair. Blood testing does have some bottlenecks and barriers, but if you can get one test completed and help those athletes, they are smart and will continue as long as it creates value.
The most obvious need for coaches is to know how to use blood biomarkers for conditioning, as plasma volume and hemoglobin mass calculations are very difficult to extract from simple CBC testing. You are not trying to get a direct measure with blood testing; you are trying to ensure the resources of red blood cell regeneration are trending properly. Besides, your VO2 max and heart rate data should model the oxygen-carrying capacity of the body with enough precision to ensure adaptations are occurring.
Direct testing of total hemoglobin mass is straightforward, but accessibility is not as high as simple blood testing. Other markers, such as vitamin and mineral status, are helpful to see why blood counts are off or optimized properly. Finally, looking at the wide set of biomarkers adds resolution to the internal chemistry of the body, and can help calibrate noninvasive physiological monitoring tools like Omegawave and iThlete.
Misunderstanding the Autonomic Nervous System
The last mistake coaches can make is with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a biological component connected to HRV (heart rate variability). Several coaches have dissociated the ANS from central fatigue, and while this is technically correct, we need to think about adding fatigue trends to monitoring instead of seeing how they may be in conflict on paper. The autonomic system is not just about fatigue monitoring; it’s also part of our emotional response to life and other areas that make a person human. Obviously, athletes should have their HRV monitored, but you can do more than just evaluate “readiness”—you need to see how other areas like sleep, stress, and personal life may interact with readings.Obviously, you should monitor athletes’ HRV, but do more than just evaluate “readiness”—see how other areas like sleep, stress, and personal life may interact with readings. Click To Tweet
Several articles on the SimpliFaster website provide wonderful explanations on why you can’t just see high or low HRV scores and summarize in a vacuum. I recommend reading the article from Andrew Flatt and the summary of managing the autonomic system by Kyle Kennedy as a primer. My main concern is that coaches may know how to read monitoring software, but not know how to connect all the dots with other inputs such as conditioning and biochemical monitoring.
Use physiological monitoring software to assess trends; don’t use it to explain what may be going on medically or performance-wise. It’s trendy to read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” or other pop science books, but that won’t explain why a soccer player is struggling to return to performance after months of solid rehab. If you want to get enlightened, simply read the peer review studies and just stay in the box instead of being adventurous and thinking too much outside of it.
Make the Change or Defend the Kingdom
If you disagree with the above points and believe other mistakes exist, you are correct. We see plenty of issues with training every week, from bad videos to punishment runs, but those are the obvious problems. The more difficult mistakes are ones we are not even aware of. I have made mistakes with conditioning every year since I got started with training. While they are less common now because I am learning, I am still far from perfect.
The nine mistakes I mention took time to fully conceptualize, as sometimes the mistakes repeat in different forms, just altered to camouflage an underlying problem in either the research or the interpretation of the science. Review the listed mistakes and see if you make them in your training. Then decide if the recommendations are realistic for your situation.