How to Create an Effective Team Conditioning Program

Conditioning is more than simply tiring out your athletes. Understand the body's energy systems and build a better program.

You've heard it, seen it and probably experienced it: coaches whose primary barometer of quality is how tired they make their athletes. Teams run with no regard for rest intervals and energy systems. Weighted sled stations are set up with distances far too long and a battery of movements not indicative of rhyme or reason. Athletes stumble through agility drills or miss steps in agility ladders while standing straight up and not moving their arms.

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The natural inclination of many coaches is that building athletes and a program requires a non-stop pace. Likewise, they equate good coaching with yelling and maintaining quantity at the expense of quality. This expectation is ingrained in us from tough Pop Warner coaches, sports movies, and the playing experiences of nearly every coach over 25. It's substantiated by our culture's love for "boot camps" and CrossFit.

However, it is a fundamentally flawed model. Understanding the body's energy systems is the most important element of training for sport coaches to understand. Without it, your conditioning is likely to do more harm than good, and any plan is certain to underachieve.

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Designing a sports performance program is a delicate dance involving many elements. We must categorize all exercises by energy system and the desired training effect. With an understanding of how the body's energy systems are developed and what role each exercise serves, we can then begin to build programs that stimulate the targeted changes.

Our bodies are fairly predictable adaptation machines. They react to the stimuli imposed upon them and are powered through three energy systems:

Phosphagen System

For short, explosive output. This allows max intensity for short durations. Like a firecracker, once its used it's gone. You will not have access to the full potential of this max power energy source until it is replenished. Think 1 Rep Maxes or Max Effort Shot-Puts. If you attempted a second rep immediately following the first, you'd be unsuccessful. Even the fastest men in the world are decelerate before they finish a 100-meter dash.

  • Intensity: Max
  • Duration: 5-10 seconds before the glycolytic system becomes primary.
  • Work-to-Rest Ratio: 1:12 to 1:20

Glycolytic System

For high intensity work near max effort (70-90%). This system is often associated with the burning sensation in muscles. It will carry you at high output for longer durations, but it requires rest if it is to be the primary energy source for more than a minute. Think 400-meter dash or a set of 12 Squats.

  • Intensity: Near Max
  • Duration: 15-60 seconds before the oxidative system becomes primary.
  • Work-to-Rest Ratio: 1:3 to 1:5 (the work duration is longer here. A 20-second sprint requires a minimum of 1 minute, 3x that time, for recovery.)

Oxidative (Aerobic) System

For longer duration, lower intensity work. Through most of your day walking, sitting, etc., this is the primary energy system. It is also primary in efforts over 1-2 minutes. It takes in oxygen for use as a consistent energy source. Think running miles or doing continuous mobility exercise circuits.

  • Intensity: Steady at below 60% of max output
  • Duration: Over 3 minutes in training
  • Work-to-Rest Ratio: 1:1 or 1:3 in training for greater efficiency and higher output in this range.

At all times, you rely on all three systems to some degree. For example, a 20-second sprint might use 60% glycolytic, 25% phosphagen, and 5% oxidative. As the duration of your run increases, percentages shift away from the phosphagen end of the spectrum toward the oxidative.

The ramifications of how each system works are significant. The goal of training is to enhance the efficiency, duration or intensity within specific energy systems. With targeted training, you can get more out of each energy system.

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What most coaches miss is intensity. They push athletes to work at max output far past their capability. Athletes enter survival mode as power decreases, poor movement patterns take over, and only the oxidative system is expanded. If your goal is power, which all sports require to differing degrees, you must train within the parameters of the phosphagen system. Otherwise your power will not improve.

For example: 3 heavy sets of 3 Squats require 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. I understand there are too many needs to just watch athletes stand around, so I recommend supersetting Squats with low intensity mobilty or activation work. Deadbug or Rocking Frogs go well with the Squat.

High-Low, Progression, Specificity, and Volume

If your goal is greater conditioning, I often suggest simpliying your workout schedule with the high-low method. Opt for glycolytic- and phosphagen-dominated work on one day, followed by a day of aerobic tempos at under 70%. The aerobic system is somewhat valuable regardless of sport, because the better it is developed, the better an athlete will recover.

  • Progression: Progress slowly toward the running load necessary in a game. The more distance you cover in a game, the higher your team's running volume.
  • Specificity: Make sure running loads are specific to your sport. For example, less ground is covered in football than in rugby. Have an end volume in mind for just before the season and plan backwards to ensure a gradual progression. A couple months before your season, begin to incorporate intervals consistent with those used in your sport. For example, football linemen might sprint 20's or Sled Push 10 yards with a 35-40-second rest, all done under a specified time. Understand that this intensity progressed toward higher volumes is tough!

You Can and Should Still Instill Toughness

Many of you are thinking, "this is ridiculous, I'm going to instill toughness." While athletes may survive your conditioning gauntlets, the cost is usually speed and power. Furthermore, these programs usually approach Day 1 with a volume and intensity sure to fry the body quickly. Every coach is jacked up about the first day of off-season and trying to send a message.

Unfortunately, that message is not that we have no tolerance for lack of focus, discipline or effort towards technical proficiency. Instead, they bring out the puke buckets and break the kids down physically. By day 40, when form and intensity should have progressed to inspiring heights, most programs are lowering expectations as players have become bored and uninspired.

There is a better way, and it still instills the toughness necessary for championships. These principles of conditioning are best understood in the elite track community, where athletes routinely complete workouts that would make Chuck Norris wince. A well run program demands uncommon maturity, focus, and mental toughness. Any athlete can get tired and fall into survival mode. Nothing is tougher than to control one's breathing and maintain technical execution and intensity day in and day out, rep in and rep out. Focus, intensity, and intentional effort done consistently and progressed over time are the essence of true mental toughness.

Every coach is responsible for understanding the physiological demands of a competition. Each sport requires a calculated dose of speed, agility, strength, power and conditioning. The catch is, these elements must be isolated and developed independently. If you want to condition your athletes, do not use an agility drill to do so, because you will simply be hard-wiring bad habits. Furthermore, know what energy system you are training and provide appropriate intensity and work:rest ratios. Progress from general to specific over the course of an off-season plan, ensuring that your athletes are not overtrained and that they get better conditioned, not just more tired. In a world where Box Jumps for time have become an acceptable training method, its time to re-examine the principles of energy systems and commit to great execution.

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