By Chris Finn
Conditioning for golf. What do these three words mean?
To most junior golfers, it means getting out on the course and practicing, walking eighteen holes every day, maybe more. It means being on the golf course for at least five to six hours per day working on your game. Occasionally it will mean stretching and doing planks in their rooms at night to build a good core.
To most parents of junior golfers, it means their kids should do yoga and bodyweight exercises or only play the game of golf without any other physical work. Parents are afraid of stunting their child’s growth if they introduce them to weights. These beliefs come mostly from golf instructors, the Golf Channel, and other parents who tell them what their kids do.
To many adults and senior golfers, it means good, long, slow cardio a couple of times a week; it doesn’t matter if it’s on the elliptical, treadmill, or bike. They believe they need at least 30 minutes of cardio a few times a week so they won’t tire on the back nine.
To some collegiate strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches, it means running: stadium stairs, 400m sprints, running a mile and a half in under twelve minutes—anything to increase the team’s mental toughness and get them in shape.
To other college S&C coaches, it means giving golfers high rep, low load programs focusing on bands, medicine balls, and circuit training so they don’t hurt themselves and get the golf coach mad.
And to still other collegiate S&C coaches, it means training golfers like power athletes. Low volume, high intensity is the name of the game, and if they run, it’s not more than a 200m sprint. They walk 5-6 miles every time they play, and that’s enough cardio, according to these coaches.
To many of the collegiate golf team coaches, it means their teams run two to three miles and do a lot of stretching and band work. They stay away from heavy weights and definitely don’t lift heavy the week of a match—that will decrease the golfers’ performance. Many force this onto the S&C coaches assigned to their teams regardless of which of the three types of S&C coaches above is working with them. The S&C coach often has to oblige or risk losing their job.
At this point, you’re probably confused about the definition of these seemingly simple three words. What is conditioning for golf? Don’t worry, almost everyone involved in the game of golf is confused.
To define these three words, we have to start where any intelligent sport performance mind would start. That place to start is here: What are the demands of the sport of golf?
Physiological Demands of Golf
The only way to decipher which of the numerous opinions out there is correct is to describe first and foremost what’s undeniable—golf’s demands on the body from a physiological perspective. If we can agree on this, the rest of the answer will fall into line and clear out 90% of the false beliefs about golf conditioning.
The Golf Swing
The golf swing in its entirety takes less than two seconds for most players. Even if you throw in a long pause at the top like Hideki Matsuyama, you’re not sniffing three seconds. The backswing takes the majority of this time while the downswing takes less than one second.
During the downswing, the average golfer on the PGA Tour accelerates the clubhead from 0 mph to 113 mph in this incredibly short amount of time. The LPGA Tour average is 0 mph to 98 mph. And this is just the average. According to our data from more than 800 golfers, 99% of golfers swing the club above 125 mph in less than one second. That’s an incredible acceleration profile.
When looking at and measuring kinematic data on golfers, the average PGA Tour player will rotate their hips with speeds close to 500 degrees per second, their torso about 800-900 degrees per second, and their hands around 800 degrees per second. These are some serious speeds, and they’re just the averages. The fastest players will rotate 200-300 degrees faster at segments.
The Walking and Waiting
Between each of these explosive events, the golfer has to walk to their ball and wait for other players to hit. The average time between one-second explosive bouts of swinging varies based on how many people are playing in the group, if a ball is lost and has to be found, etc. On average, it’s safe to say that the time between maximal effort explosive swings is probably five minutes conservatively.
And this is just the time between the drive and the approach shot on a par 4. If it’s a par 5, the player might have another shot into the green which would give them three full swings into a green each about five minutes apart. This does not take into account time once the ball is on the green, the time to walk to the green, and the time it takes the entire group to complete putting out. The time between the final approach shot and their next drive is more likely 10-15 minutes apart, depending on the pace of play.
Do you sense where this is going? Less than one second of max-effort and then a minimum of about five minutes of rest before the next maximal effort.Golfers exert less than one second of max-effort followed by at least five minutes of rest before their next maximal effort. #GolfPerformance Click To Tweet
Now for the walking distance. This varies based on the yardage the golfer plays, the distance from green to tee between holes, and how much left and right a player does. For non-golfers reading this, left and right mean the player is hitting the ball without much accuracy and that, instead of striping it toward the pin, they go left into the woods and then right into the rough, etc. This makes for more walking back and forth and ultimately, more distance covered. On average, it’s safe to say that we’re probably looking at between four to six miles of walking during the entire round of golf.
Summary of Physiological Demands
So, to summarize the demands of the sport:
- Less than one-second max-effort about 40 times over four to six hours with at least five minutes rest between each of these bouts.
- Walking at a pace that’s less than 4mph (if walking fast) for a total of four to six miles with most walking bouts shorter than 300 yards at a time.
- Each walking bout is broken up by at least two to three minutes of rest while deciding which shot to hit and waiting for other players to play up.
Can you begin to identify which of the definitions of golf conditioning are false beliefs?
Each phase of a players’ year should consist of different types of conditioning. The other variable is the players themselves. Their practice routines, habits, and needs will dictate the specific conditioning needs.
As big data has made its way into the highest level of sports, the total load on a player has become a big topic of discussion. Most major sports teams track with GPS the total distance run, changes of direction, top speeds, etc. for all of their athletes in practice and play. Based on these metrics, training is modified for peak results. This has not become mainstream in golf yet, but it should.
The off-season is tough to define in golf. Honestly, it doesn’t exist. Instead, we look for a 6- to 12-week period where the player is possibly playing less important events or dedicated to working on aspects of their game.
To give non-golf readers a perspective, collegiate golfers have both a fall and spring season, and the spring season is longer and more important. Naturally, you would think of the winter hiatus and summer break as their off-seasons. Think again.
Golfers play the big national and international amateur events from late spring through the entire summer. If the player is good enough and has the funding, they could travel around the country and world all summer playing in prestigious amateur events at a clip with more density than most professionals. Winter is when these golfers travel to warmer climates and play in qualifiers to determine where they can play the next year, etc. It doesn’t stop.
Junior golf is pretty much the same as collegiate and professional. Adult and senior amateur golf seasons tend to be decided by the climate the golfer is in, so it’s slightly easier to distinguish the in-season from the off-season.
Whenever the season ends, early off-season is the time to work on serious recovery and preparing the player for the next year of their career or development. It’s often necessary for them to take a few weeks to focus on restoring mobility and tissue health and addressing imbalances that popped up throughout the season’s rigorous demands.Early off-season focuses on recovery and career development with no formal golf conditioning. Click To Tweet
There should be no formal conditioning in this part of the season. In addition to getting healthy physically, the athlete needs to recover mentally so they’re ready to hit the off-season with fully refreshed energy to crush their goals next year.
Active recovery like hiking, biking, or other physical activities they enjoy during this period work great. The length of this phase depends on their schedule, where they are in their career, and where they are in their development.
An established Tour player who can skip the first part of the season can take full advantage of this phase and have a more traditional off-season. Compare that to a player just coming out of college who needs to play through four stages of Qualifying School and, depending on which Tour they land on, may have to start playing right away.
Golf is not a contract sport; golfers only continue playing if they continue performing. And money is not guaranteed. Because of this, you may have a player who’s forced to play 8-10 weeks straight while an established player takes their off-season.
As the player has recovered from the demands of their long season and moved through the early off-season, they should enter this part of the year relatively rested and ready to go. It’s is the only part of the year that I have my players do cardio. At this point, the goal of any cardio is to build thresholds for better recovery during the season and better capacity as we get into pre-season and eventually the long season.
High intensity-based work is ideal here with a focus on building aerobic capacity for recovery and anaerobic capacity for improved power over long periods of time in-season. If a player loves to go for longer runs, we’ll try to encourage more interval-based running. But if they’re adamant, this is the time of the year where a longer run each week won’t kill their progress.Off-season is the only time for cardio training—high-intensity work to build aerobic & anaerobic capacity. #GolfConditioning Click To Tweet
That being said, golfers are not runners. Let me say that again—golfers are not runners. We need to be aware of running’s repetitive nature and that golfers are not conditioned from a young age to run like basketball players and field sport athletes. The last thing we want is a golfer to develop shin splints or some other form of overuse injury from repetitive off-season training.
I’m not saying that running is bad or should be avoided completely. I am saying, however, that as with any other training modality or tool, we need to use it appropriately with the right athletes at the appropriate times and with the correct dosage.
If we’re going to train aerobic threshold, we typically shoot for 10-20 minutes of continuous work at 75-80% max heart rate.
If we want to train anaerobic threshold we typically plan for a 1:1 work to rest ratio and one minute work periods for max total rounds of 10 (20 minutes total time of workout). We are looking for about 90% max heart rate here.
If we train cardio, we have a training purpose in mind. Too often, I hear from my collegiate golfers that they have to run as punishment for bad play or showing up late to a lift, etc. We need to stop using conditioning as punishment in a way that doesn’t help them improve their performance and puts them at unnecessary risk of injury. If an athlete needs a little correction, they should do something that will help them, not worsen their shin splints, make them swing slower, and miss tournaments.
As you’re considering which training prescription to go with, always keep in mind the physiological demands of this sport. Golf is a power sport. Golf is a glycolytic sport. It is not an aerobically dominant sport and at no point requires a golfer to run for time. Train appropriately.Golf is a glycolytic power sport. It is not aerobically dominant & never requires a golfer to run for time. Train appropriately. #GolfPerformance Click To Tweet
During the off-season, training in the weight room starts to focus on training toward maximal strength goals culminating in the pre-season power focus. It’s here where programming looks quite different based on the golfer’s developmental characteristics. Younger juniors may concentrate on a muscle-building phase to gain some mass and decrease their relative effort to swing faster while adults and seniors might work to improve their maximal functional strength.
Whatever the goal, as this phase begins to transition toward pre-season, the rep schemes and the conditioning should start to have lower volumes, shorter conditioning bout times, and higher intensities. For golfers, this means ensuring all the elements of our training programs are synced up and make sense.
For example, it does not make sense to have our golfers do 20-rep sets of medicine ball throws with 6×10 sets of squats and 10x400m sprints. Along the same lines, it also makes no sense to have them do 5×3 squat sets, sets of 3 for clean pulls and running 3 miles 3 times per week. The system training goals need to match up across all elements of a solid program, as I’ve alluded to in my earlier posts about rotational training.
As S&C coaches, we have a responsibility to make sure all of our system goals align. The conditioning, rotational strength training, weight room power training, plyometrics, and the reasons why we do each of these with our golfers should be outlined and explained. If we hold ourselves to this standard, there will be a lot less confusion about what qualifies as good conditioning for golf.
Pre-season is the time of the year when your golfer will start hitting a lot more balls and playing a lot more. The total load on their body will increase on the golf side of the equation, so lower the volume in the weight room and on their conditioning.In the pre-season, lower the training volume as your golfers increase ball hitting and playing time. #GolfPerformance #GolfConditioning. Click To Tweet
In the weight room, it’s pretty simple. Continue decreasing volume and increasing intensity as you move the athlete toward their max power training goals. On the conditioning front, this is where confusion and insane prescriptions start to rear their ugly heads, particularly in the junior and collegiate worlds.
If we’re holding fast to our goals of reducing volume while increasing intensity outside of the golf-specific training (i.e., hitting golf balls and playing the sport), which ramps up in volume significantly this time of year, we need to do the same with any conditioning—if we do conditioning at all.
I’m not a fan of conditioning in terms of running at this point in the training cycle, and we definitely don’t do any long-distance running. Golfers will be (or at least should be) walking every day on the course while they’re playing, which means walking at least 4-6 miles per day plus all of their practice time. That’s plenty of long, slow conditioning.
If the golfer plays regularly, their endurance for walking 18 or 36 holes in a day will not be in question. Of course, this assumes their nutritional plan is solid, and they’re completing their other training in the gym. This is why we do the threshold training in the off-season; doing it now would conflict with our current goal of training powerful and efficient glycolytic athletes.
We focus on sprints under 10 seconds with progressive quick direction changes and reactionary drills with a minimum of 5:1 rest to work ratios. Our typical rule of thumb is that an athlete rests one minute for every 10 meters they sprint.
We also concentrate on building tendon capacity for stretch shorten cycle efficiencies and explosiveness. We use jumps for this because we also use them in-season to maintain power outputs. They don’t require a lot of equipment and can be done pretty much anywhere the athlete travels regardless of facilities, which is important. Our athletes also skip about 400 meters at the end of each training session to meet this goal.
When a golfer is hell-bent on getting their heart rate up in training, we’ll build out lower neural days, which operate as a circuit, as an alternative to going for long runs. The circuits are structured so the player doesn’t stop moving for about 30 minutes, and they complete a lot of their auxiliary work with power or speed moves thrown in (i.e., jumps or medicine ball throws). These speed and power moves are objectively measured for output on each rep during the circuit. The goal is to see if the athlete can produce the same speed and power outputs as they fatigue as they did at the beginning of the circuit.
Although this post focuses on conditioning for golfers, it’s important to mention that throughout the early off-season and the core of the off-season, we continue to improve and maintain the necessary mobility to swing a golf club effectively without injury. Mobility cannot be overlooked.
Quick Notes About Running
Before we jump into the final stage of the in-season and what conditioning looks like there, I want to discuss a point that is blatantly overlooked by parents, golf coaches, and S&C coaches when they make golfers run long distances for training, punishment, or whatever reason.
If you do this, hopefully the information above gives you pause. But if you still insist on it, I ask you to do these two things at the very least:
- Just as your golfer gets fit for clubs, if you make them run miles or stadium stairs, act responsibly and make sure they have the right shoes to fit their feet needs. Don’t tell a golfer with hypermobile, totally pronated feet to go running in any capacity with minimalist shoes—it will end poorly. Conversely, don’t let a golfer with hypomobile and supinated arches do all their prescribed running with incredibly rigid shoes. Step one is to ensure their footwear is appropriate for proper landing and push-off mechanics. Overuse injuries are already a big issue in golf; we don’t need any from running.
- Assess the running technique, please. Most golfers are not runners—they don’t run for their sport and probably have not run before. Assess them, coach them, and train them to run properly to limit these types of injuries.
Golfers are not runners by nature, so if we use running as a modality to achieve a training goal, we have a professional responsibility to ensure that we’re setting them up for success. We’ll never turn golfers into elite sprinters, but we can make a huge difference by taking a few minutes to go over the basics of proper mechanics.
OK, you’ve arrived at the in-season. Your golfer is ready to take on the competition and have the season of their life. Now what?
Of the small (but growing) percentage of junior golfers who complete the off-season and pre-season training programs, the all too common answer is “play golf and start training again after the season.”
Most collegiate golf programs don’t train during weeks of competition for fear of being sore, and their off-season programs are not great. (A quick note—there are some outstanding programs with amazing S&C coaches; unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule).
Most adults and seniors will substitute their three days on the treadmill for 30 minutes of rounds of golf.
Hopefully, you fall outside of these norms. But if you don’t, it would not be uncommon to hear complaints such as getting fatigued on the back 9, averaging 2-3 strokes higher on the 2nd and 3rd days of tournament play, and getting hurt 6-8 weeks into the season.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. This needs to be ingrained into the heads of golfers, golf coaches, and parents of junior golfers. If golfers have trained appropriately leading up to this point, they will not be sore training during the week of a tournament. But if you stop their training or substitute playing for another form of cardio without any S&C program to supplement, you’ll see a decrease in power and will likely fight aches, pains, and injury.In-season, train one to two days per week so your golfers will maintain most of their power, strength, and club speed. #GolfPerformance Click To Tweet
When it comes to in-season, we’ve found that training one to two days per week is ideal. Our golfers experience less than a 3% decrease in power and strength from the end of the off-season to end of the in-season (usually about 9-10 months). We always prioritize the first day of the week as one of our high neural-focused days and the second day as either a second high-neural day or, depending on how recovered the athlete feels, a low-neural day.
Failing to keep the intensity high and training consistent usually causes significant loss of strength throughout the season and subsequent loss of club speed.
Three Case Studies
Three extreme examples of high school senior golfers who went to three different high level Division 1 programs exemplify this epidemic well.
The first is a girl who, in a single semester, lost 6 mph in club speed (~18 yards) and 40% in her squat strength compared to when she left for college. The program did not touch a barbell once during the semester. Instead, she only did circuits with bands, balls, and dumbbells and did not work out during tournament weeks.
The second is a boy who, over many semesters, dropped significant percentile points in his club speed for his age group and also dropped in every single power metric that correlates to club speed compared to when he left for college. He experienced the same type of circuit-based programs as the girl above and no lifting during tournament weeks.
The final is a young woman who’s program prescribed her to run long distances, stadium stairs, etc. in her pre-season for conditioning and then again for various reasons throughout the season (mental toughness, etc.). She ended up missing tournaments because of shin splints from running and could not practice half the season. Her case is a vivid example of the golf team coach telling the S&C coach what to do, unfortunately.
These are just a few examples of poor ways to train the systems that are required for high-performance golf. If coaches in these situations followed the standard of explicitly describing the demands of the sport and then explaining how every element in the training plan supports these demands, I wouldn’t have these stories. And that would be great.
Unfortunately, the stories go on and on and not only in the collegiate world. They’re also prolific in the adult and senior golf world where long, slow distance cardio is believed to be the solution to all things physical:
- Want to lose weight, do more cardio.
- Want to play better golf, do more cardio so you don’t get tired.
- Want to get your legs strong, do more cardio but mix it up among the bike, the rower, and the elliptical to maximize your strength gains.
These are serious beliefs held by many adults and senior golfers.
To break these false beliefs in all areas of golf performance, from juniors to seniors and everything in between, we need to rephrase the question. Move away from asking “what sort of conditioning should I do for golf?” toward “how do I train for peak performance?”It's time to start training golfers for peak performance and stop conditioning for golf. #GolfPerformance Click To Tweet
Training for peak performance in golf encompasses all of the sections of this post. Golfers need to have the mobility to get from point A to point B in their golf swing. They need to be strong enough to produce enough club speed to enjoy the game and be competitive. And they need to have enough physical capacity to endure an entire round of golf while maintaining these mobility and power output needs. If a golfer fails in any of these three realms, they will struggle.
So what does conditioning for golf mean to you? How should you do it? If I’ve done my job, you know the answer now.