I hate conditioning. I won’t sugar coat it one-bit, conditioning sucks to do and personally is very mundane to coach. Nevertheless, it needs to get done regardless. Along similar lines, I also feel debate/discussion surrounding energy system’s training is one of the most wasteful topics in the never-ending well of “shit strength coaches bark about”. Sport specific conditioning for athletics is one of the easiest training variables to analyze:
-Build an aerobic base to work from
-Go to a game/competition
-Time how long their work periods are
-Monitor their intensities
-Go to practices (preseason and in season) and repeat steps above
-Time how long their non-work or rest periods are
-Count how many bouts they typically incur
-Organize, prioritize and go do that in training
Broadly speaking, I only use two baseline measures for conditioning with my athletes:
1.) Sport/Duty specific demands (i.e. needing to meet 10:30 run time for a 1.5-mile run)
2.) Resting heart rate (RHR) >60 BPM
If we’re working with football or basketball athletes, we do the conditioning intervals reflective of their sports. For the military population I work with, again, their requirements are clearly defined, so we are just going to emulate that in training. For everyone else, including general population, I will use the benchmark of RHR > 60 BPM, which is a concept I stole from Mike Boyle. Simply, if you’re RHR is above 60 BPM, we could likely benefit from putting an emphasis on basic conditioning until we drop below that 60 mark. And that’s literally the extent of it.
Unless an athlete has specific parameters that they need to work from, I’ll just go with the shotgun approach and train across energy systems with varying emphasis. I’m a firm believer that physiology is physiology… or in other words, unless governed by sport or biomechanical limitation, it doesn’t really matter how you go about your conditioning work. Do what you enjoy (i.e. run, swim, bike, activity, etc.), at least somewhat, and don’t do things that break you down and put you in pain.
But getting back to the scope of this article, irrespective of the sport there is a constant variable among them- and that is a need for a sufficient aerobic base. There are a ton of lesser known benefits to being aerobically fit, and I believe personally more “sport specific” conditioning should include aerobic capacity measures. I emphasize capacity because no, football players or even basketball players do not need to be competitive marathon runners. However, the repeatability of multivariate energy systems is largely reliant on the robustness or capacity of the aerobic system. There is a significant body of evidence that illustrates the correlation between rate of injury and fatigue. But, with all of that, let’s jump into three quick reasons outlining why you should bolster your aerobic base.
1.) Ability to train hard
The first thing that comes to mind for me when we’re discussing building the aerobic base is the ability of the athlete to get through demanding training (both singular session and accumulative) without hitting a fatigue wall. Again, this is probably the easiest example of how it doesn’t matter if you’re a defensive tackle or pitcher in softball, you need to be able to train hard, regularly, to ultimately improve abilities for sport. When you lack a robust aerobic system, you will inevitably be limited in your sport specific training because you will gas out earlier than you should or won’t be able to tolerate the accumulative stressors of training. You can apply the <60 BPM rule of thumb for your athletes, or just simply rely on subjective measures for how much and how long conditioning should be emphasized for your athletes.
The great thing about the aerobic system is that it has a uniquely long training residual effect. What I mean by this is that if you are aerobically fit, you don’t need to do much of anything for about 4-6 weeks to maintain that fitness. Because there is very little demand on the nervous system for aerobic training, there isn’t as much frequent work needed to maintain. The opposite being the case for power modalities like the Olympic lifts, for example. In this case, the training residual window is about 4-6 days before the training effects begin to diminish. That’s all just a roundabout way to say that once you establish your aerobic base, you don’t need to do much to sustain it.
2.) Injury & Ability to Recover
There’s no need for me to get overly technical on this one, but like we all know, there’s a lot of benefit to just having improved circulation. Improved blood flow means more oxygen, nutrients and circulatory hormones are transported more effectively and taken up more efficiently. As this applies directly to training, the more and quicker we can get deoxygenated blood back to the heart to reoxygenate, the quicker we’re able to recover. The quicker we’re able to recovery, the more prepared we are for our subsequent training bout. Just consider how that would apply to things like summer training camps for football players, or in-season training for basketball and so forth.
I also think that having a robust aerobic system while injured is a critical factor. When the body sustains acute injury, there is a very specific and sequential healing process undertaken by the body. Almost every aspect of this healing and repair process involves the circulatory system. In addition to transporting the necessary hormones and messengers for signaling the healing process, think about things like edema build up, lymph blockage or poor lymphatic circulation, and even worse, blood pooling. Establishing an efficient recovery process is heavily reliant on the aerobic capacity and function of the athlete.
Lastly, and this applies to both acute injury and overall ability to recover between training, there should also be consideration for how the parasympathetic/sympathetic balance is governed by the aerobic system. If you think about it simply, improved circulation creates increased oxygen uptake and likely increased ventilation. With that, we can assume that we become more efficient with breathing mechanics (cardiorespiratory) which then has direct effects on driving parasympathetic tone. Our empirical goal for successful recovery is getting athletes to downregulate or shift from being overly sympathetic, to more relaxed in a parasympathetic state. In my experience, improving the aerobic system has direct ramifications on this balance.
3.) Always a Factor
The most important thing to recognize about the energy systems is that this is never a case of “on or off”. You need to think of the energy systems as dimmers, not switches. All three predominant energy systems are always contributing, it’s just a matter of in how much capacity.
Every athlete should work on each specific energy system at some point throughout the training year. Even if for some athletes, such as baseball players, this is only emphasized for maybe 2-4 weeks throughout the entire year, and only trained indirectly otherwise. Even though this may seem insignificant I promise you it isn’t. I would also argue that football specific conditioning should include more focus on aerobic methods. I am not suggesting this “improves performance” or has any bearing on speed, however, when we circle back to our point above on injury resiliency, I think this is where it matters. What happens when athletes get tired? They make mistakes. And what happens when you make mistakes? You either get benched or propagate injury.
-Aerobic function has a strong influence on things like digestion & metabolism, endocrine function, and immune system robustness/function.
-There have been several studies that have identified a relationship between aerobic health and sleep quality.
-Keeping the tissues gliding/moving. Aerobic activities are more free-flowing and less constrained in nature, and I think there is a lot of benefit to just getting people moving without the presence of load. I believe this helps the body to autoregulate and autotune, so to speak.
-Movement is medicine. Help your body out by keeping it healthy, efficient, and robust.