If you play a sport that relies on power and short bursts of activity (like football, baseball, softball or volleyball) and you're still running mile after mile at a slow pace for your conditioning, stop. There's a better way to "get in shape" for your sport.
Running is not inherently bad. In fact, endurance-trained people often possess valuable athletic traits like a high V02max (the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise), a low resting heart rate (which is great for recovery) and a high lactate threshold (they can work out harder and longer before producing uncomfortable levels of lactate). And if you play a sport that requires lots of low- to moderate-intensity running like soccer or field hockey, you'd better get running.
However, these traits often have little carryover for power sports where you're rarely moving around long enough for endurance to play a key factor. The "endurance" and "being in shape" that these athletes really need is the ability to recover fully or almost fully between powerful movements such as sprints, jumps and throws. Will running improve this ability to recover? For sure. But is there a better (i.e., more time-efficient, and maybe even more fun) way to do it? Certainly.
Why Even Anaerobic Athletes Need to be Aerobically Fit
First things first, some simple definitions.
Aerobic activity is primarily powered by oxygen consumption. The most common example is long-distance running or cycling. For an activity to truly be aerobic, it has to be fairly easy for the person to perform that activity for a long time without stopping. Anaerobic activity is higher intensity but can't be sustained as long because the body's ability to consume oxygen can't keep up with the body's demand. Basically any intense exercise or movement falls under this category, such as lifting weights, jumping and sprinting.
There's a saying that all recovery is aerobic. This means that no matter what activity you're doing—from sprinting, to lifting weights, to rock climbing to yoga—your ability to recover from fatigue during and after these activities all rely on your aerobic energy system. This energy system relies on your body's ability to consume oxygen, oxygenate your blood and circulate it through your body to working muscles, providing much-needed ATP (your body's primary form of energy).
So why would an anaerobic athlete like a football player or baseball player need to be aerobically fit if nothing they do on the field is aerobic in nature? Because a football linebacker with poor aerobic fitness won't hit as hard or run as fast when faced with the quick turnaround of the opponent's hurry-up offense. And a baseball pitcher who throws 90 miles per hour in the first inning will lose considerable velocity and have inconsistent mechanics by the fith inning if he can't recover between pitches. It's not about the nature of the activity itself; it's about the recovery between bouts of that activity.
You don't exclusively need to run to bolster your aerobic energy system. Endurance athletes perform many different activities, most notably cycling and swimming, to achieve similar aerobic results. And when it comes to team sport athletes, you can get as creative as you like to perform activities and movements that you enjoy to get the job done. Here are four ways to improve conditioning without running.
1. A Proper Dynamic Warm-Up
If you're still static stretching as your primary way to warm up for strength training or athletic activity, you're as outdated as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And if you call a couple of arm circles and leg swings a "dynamic warm-up," you're just being lazy. A proper dynamic warm-up that takes you through 8-10 minutes of full-body, large amplitude (full ranges of motion in multiples directions) movements will not only get your muscles and joints ready for action, but if done at a proper pace, will provide a large enough aerobic stimulus to improve your conditioning.
Where most dynamic warm-ups miss the mark is by using too many ground-based "corrective" exercises that don't actually do much to prepare the athlete to train. Opt for more standing movements that use multiple movement planes, such as the Walking Spiderman:
At The Strength House, all our athletes perform our Kick Start warm-up which combines positional breathing, mobility drills, various marches and skips, change-of-direction drills and full-speed sprinting, all with little to no rest between movements. When it's all said and done, our athletes are physically and mentally ready to train and have moved around at the proper intensity and duration to cover their aerobic needs.
2. Sled Drags
Dragging a sled provides a similar aerobic stimulus to jogging without all the joint pounding. With every stride while running, your hips, knees and ankles experience considerable eccentric stress that can lead to soreness and increased recover time. With sled drags, there's no eccentric stress, so your muscles and joints can recovery quickly. Also, it's easier to quantify how hard you're working based on the weight on the sled, rather than assigning a heart rate zone or percentage of effort (e.g., run for 20 minutes at 60-percent effort), which can be hard to maintain.
What's more, the sled gives you nearly endless versatility. The direction in which you drag it will target different muscle groups. For example:
- Forward drag: Hamstrings, glutes
- Reverse drag: Quads, calves
- Lateral drag: Adductors
You can even perform upper-body movements like Rows, Face Pulls and Chest Presses interspersed between lower-body drags.
3. Bike Intervals
A fan-based stationary bike strikes fear into the heart of anyone who's ever done a grueling interval workout on it. It's hard to forget the memories of gasping for air with throbbing legs, serenaded by the never-ending "whir" of the bike's gigantic fan.
Interval training involves alternating short periods of high effort with longer periods of lower effort. For example:
- Sprint at maximum effort for 15 seconds
- Pedal at an easy pace for 45 seconds
- Repeat for 6-10 rounds
If you're looking to use a higher-intensity approach to build aerobic fitness, the bike is tough to beat. And while most athletes use too much high-intensity conditioning (compared to low-intensity aerobic training, that is), there's a time and place to kick things up a notch.
Performing intervals on the bike can help build an athlete's lactate threshold, which allows them to work harder and longer without fatiguing. And by doing so in an interval fashion, the athlete learns to buffer lactate (i.e., clear out the "burning" byproducts of high-intensity exercise) during the recovery phases so they become better at recovering between sprints.
High-intensity conditioning should be used sparingly, as it takes a long time to recover from such a workout. But used strategically, bike intervals can complement an athlete's low-intensity aerobic work.
4. Medicine Ball Circuits
Medicine ball training checks a lot of boxes when it comes to building better athletes. They can be done at high speeds with a high level of intent, which develops full-body power in multiple planes.
But med balls are good for more than just power development. If you string together a series of full-body med ball drills with limited rest in between and dial back the intensity just enough, you suddenly have a fantastic way to build aerobic fitness. The key here is to hold back slightly on the level of effort. Many athletes don't know how to go at less than 100 percent, but it's important to dial back a little to stay true to aerobic development; otherwise you're just going to perform sloppy power training after the first few sets.
Here are two examples of med ball circuits that challenge the athlete to put out a moderate level of effort for an extended period of time:
Conditioned to Conquer
If you're not big on hitting the pavement for mile after mile of jogging, don't fret. These four conditioning methods can help develop the aerobic fitness that athletes need to recover on and off the field. Remember: keep the intensity in check. If you can't sustain your effort for more than a few minutes at a time, you're probably going too hard and drifting over into aerobic territory.
Photo Credit: Jun/iStock
- Why You Don't Need as Much Conditioning as You Think
- Why Better Conditioned Athletes Have Fewer Injuries
- Mike Boyle's Conditioning Rule for Athletes