"Whatever you do in the weight room, make sure our players show up conditioned on game day."
Any physical preparation coach working in a team setting has heard some variation of this from the head coach.
And I get it. Conditioning is important. Games are won or lost in the second half, third period or fourth quarter.
But just how conditioned do you need to be?
That of course depends on the demands of your sport. While boxers and marathoners harbor vastly different ideas for what it means to attain competition shape, field sport athletes have very similar needs from an energy system development standpoint.
Doesn't matter whether you play basketball, soccer or hockey—repeat sprint ability is the key to success. You must remain fast and explosive, not stuck in third gear, to make an impact throughout the game.
This insight is lost on countless trainers who bathe athletes in lactate or have them pound the pavement all day, every day, and justify it as getting players in "game shape."
Making baseball or hockey players go on long-distance, multi-mile runs? Conditioning.
Making a soccer player do endless Box Jumps or Burpees as their form continues to degrade due to exhaustion? Conditioning.
Making a football player push a sled until they vomit or drop down thanks to a heatstroke? Conditioning.
We also have coaches doling out archaic punishment runs because their team got demolished by the opposition or certain individuals failed to live up to the coach's standards in practice.
Any numbskull can run athletes into the ground. That takes zero skill.
What does take considerable know-how and careful planning is implementing a conditioning approach that enhances, not compromises, the simultaneous development of an athlete's strength, speed, agility and sport skills while improving sport-specific work capacity.
Conditioning for Field Sport Athletes
How do you know your conditioning works? Easy. You recover faster and are able to push the pace late in a game without slowing down.
Mediocre conditioning feels like you have spent countless hours on the track or in the weight room, but with little to no improvement in performance.
Based on my experience as a coach, this is a situation many athletes find themselves in. Extra conditioning before/after practice. Laps around the field for warm-up. Gassers as a finisher. Sixty- or 90-minute runs on off days. Lots of miles and sweat left behind.
Yet there's not much to show for all that time and effort invested as far as enhanced match performance goes.
And outright bad conditioning?
It can actively hamper performance and set you up for acute or chronic injury.
With that last point in mind, let's discuss some of the more common signs of lousy conditioning in detail.
Taking Explosive/Fast Movements and Doing Too Many Reps
Explosive or fast movements include your sprints, jumps, throws and Olympic lifts.
Athletes have used them to develop speed and power for decades.
The best way to develop speed and/or power is through low or moderate volumes combined with a complete (or near-complete) recovery between efforts.
When you flip these parameters on their head, you're left with a high number of reps/sets, short rest periods and incomplete recovery. For team sport athletes, it doesn't make sense to perform what are supposed to be explosive or fast movements in this manner.
Take lateral bounds, a unilateral jump variation often prescribed in hockey dryland programs, for example.
Three to five sets of 3 reps per leg with 75-90 seconds of rest between sets will translate into a more powerful skating stride when done with maximal effort. But too often I see athletes performing numerous sets of 10-15+ reps per leg with 30-45 seconds of recovery, which necessitates sub-maximal power outputs.
You could argue the latter is great for conditioning because it jacks your heart rate up and you bang out lots of reps to "feel the burn." True. But at what cost?
We know ground reaction forces exceed multiple times an athlete's body weight upon landing.
Simply, high jump volumes put tons of stress on your hips, back, knees and ankles.
Unless we're dealing with a high-level athlete with excellent landing mechanics and years of experience with progressively more challenging workouts, this is a sure-fire way to develop knee issues. Pummeling players with hundreds of ground contacts per workout so they become marginally more conditioned while they suffer from patellar tendonitis a month or two down the line isn't exactly a winning formula in any sport.
Another drill intended to build speed and explosiveness that's often turned into a crappy conditioning drill? Sprints.
Remember how Usain Bolt went down with a hamstring injury in his last career race?
I've seen cases of programming 200-meter sprints with one-minute rest intervals for physically unprepared high school (or even college) athletes in the first week of summer training. Sheer idiocy.
When deciding whether an exercise or training method is suitable as a conditioning tool, ask yourself:
"What is the primary adaptation we use this tool to accomplish?"
If it's to help you run faster, jump higher or become more explosive, it's probably not a good choice for conditioning. The injury risk is too high, and the potential benefits too low, to warrant their inclusion in a conditioning program.
Excessive Fatigue Leading to Form Degradation
Vince Lombardi famously said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all."
You know what else fatigue does?
It makes your form go right out the window. High reps of anything done by inexperienced trainees at a fast pace will quickly turn into a horror show.
Now, I'm not talking about a technically proficient lifter going for a brutal set of 20-rep Squats. Despite fighting through a tremendous amount of fatigue, they have the experience, body awareness and wherewithal to end the set before things get ugly.
What I'm referring to is continuing to crank out reps of an exercise or drill way past exhaustion and beyond safe technical execution.
We have all seen some form of this on social media. A gangly high school kid, with a bar on his back, digs deep as his coaches egg him on in the background to finish his set of 20. Past rep number 12, every ascent resembles a Good Morning more than an upright Squat, and his knees nearly touch as he comes out of the hole on those final handful of reps.
A lot of times, coaches (and teammates) in a team setting want to push athletes beyond where they would normally cut a set short to "build grit." I'm all for making things competitive and pushing the limits in the weight room. But never at the expense of an athlete's safety.
Not too long ago, I saw an Instagram video of high school hockey players supersetting Burpees and Barbell Deadlifts. As you can guess, their form didn't pass the so-called "visual s*** test"—you know, if an exercise (or its execution) looks like s***, it probably is.
While the loads used in the Deadlift were not super heavy, you could tell that the athletes' form was degrading with each rep. They had the dreaded saggy hips syndrome as they pushed themselves off the floor, their feet barely left the ground during the Jump portion of each Burpee, and their lower-back position was compromised on Deadlifts—all because these players were made to fight through fatigue in what was supposed to be an attempt to "condition" their bodies for hockey.
Am I the only one who fails to see the point? Where's the transfer to the playing field? Who can honestly advocate a combination of physiologically senseless workouts, faulty movement patterns, and very low power outputs to be beneficial to an athlete?
Repetitive Joint Strain
Perhaps the most overlooked conditioning red flag is repetitive joint strain (a.k.a. overuse injury) caused by seemingly "safe" workout activities.
You'd be surprised how prevalent various lower body issues in the legs, knees or lumbar spine are in recreational runners. They actually experience much higher injury rates per 1,000 hours of training than weightlifters or powerlifters. Note that the majority of bodily damage joggers run into (pun very much intended) isn't a consequence of a one-off mishap or incident. Rather, such injuries develop over time when you do the same harmful activity over and over again.
The irony? Lifting weights is deemed a "dangerous" activity by society at large whereas nobody bats an eye at the excessive running volumes prescribed to athletes, and the subsequent chronic injuries caused by it.
Particularly for individuals who are built heavier than the typical soccer player and whose sport doesn't involve running on flat ground (such as hockey players), jogging is one of the worst ways to condition. Research estimates up to 35% of recreational runners develop medial tibial stress syndrome—an overuse injury commonly known as shin splints.
My hockey players don't run lap after lap when they train with me. Thus, shin splints don't appear. Though what's interesting is to hear the stories my athletes tell me about their friends playing for clubs where daily jogging is on the menu. Not surprisingly, these clubs typically have a handful of guys complaining about shin splints that prevents them from partaking in sprint and jump workouts. Hmm, I wonder why?
Remember when I said earlier that repeat sprinting ability is a key factor in the physical performance of field sport athletes? A quick, powerful athlete is more dangerous than their weak and slow counterpart. Nobody will argue that.
Sprinting and jumping are two of the most effective ways to enhance speed. But if your shins scream bloody murder every time you accelerate/decelerate, you can't really train or improve this all-important quality, can you?
It's a prime example of how inappropriate conditioning can potentially make an athlete worse—not only do they have to skip workouts that have the potential to make them faster, they must also tiptoe around an avoidable injury that could take them out of the line-up.
It's always sad to see athletes subjected to detrimental training that impedes them fulfilling their potential. Fortunately, you now know what to look for to identify and avoid bad conditioning. To recap, don't use fast or explosive movements for endurance work, never allow your form to crumble when fatigue kicks in and stay away from drills that induce excess, repetitive strain on your joints. By following these guidelines, you will automatically refrain from most conditioning drills that do more harm than good.
Photo Credit: martin-dm/iStock
- Why You Don't Need as Much Conditioning as You Think
- Mike Boyle's Conditioning Rule for Athletes
- Why Better Conditioned Athletes Have Fewer Injuries