Duncan Ogilvie (MSc, CSCS, ASCC) – Director of DO Training
Over the last few weeks I have been asked by a lot of athletes that I work with about off season conditioning and what they should be doing. Many of my athletes have recently finished their competitive seasons and now have 6-8 weeks ‘off’ before the national team season starts. So what should they do to prepare themselves? The following article and its content explains what any educated S+C coach or athlete has known for a long time;so read on and discover the ‘not so big secret’ about conditioning for intermittent field and court sports.
When thinking about yours or your clients conditioning programme, it would be wise to answer these three questions;
- What is your sport/position?
- What are the demands of your sport/position?
- What is the predominant energy system used in your sport/position?
Fig 1 shows a simple explanation of several different sports and the predominant energy system used within that sport. The three energy systems are – The phosphagen system (ATP-CP), the glycolysis system (GLY), and the oxidative system (o²). There are countless resources available that go into great detail about each of these three energy systems, so I will only briefly summarise them here.
ATP-CP – An anaerobic energy system, utilising ATP stored in muscles to create energy for short bursts of high intensity work up to ~10 seconds.
Glycolysis – An anaerobic energy system, a reaction that utilises carbohydrates to create ATP for energy for relatively short periods of high-intensity work lasting a few minutes.
Oxidative system – An aerobic energy system which, with the help of oxygen utilises carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to generate ATP for energy; slower to act than the anaerobic system, it is used for long, low-to-moderate intensity work lasting more than a few minutes.
All three systems have their benefits , and at no time does any one systems provide the entire supply of energy needed for performance. The extent of which each responds depends on the intensity and duration of the activity, the athlete’s fitness levels, their mechanical movement efficiency and game situations. Simply put, when a high rate of energy supply for explosive acceleration is required, the ATP-CP is drawn upon; longer intense action uses glycosis and, sub maximal efforts and between sprint recovery are fueled by the oxidative system. Fig 2 highlights this.
With this understanding of the energy system requirements for your sport you should now be able to train using these energy systems to improve conditioning and sports performance.
The majority of sports and athletes that I work with participate in field or court based sports that are intermittent in nature. These sports require constant bursts of speed and power with intermittent rest intervals over the duration of the game. This causes a constant fluctuation of the energy system demands placed on the participant. As a result these athletes are required to be strong, powerful and explosive, as well as have adequate endurance to sustain performance for the length of the activity. When designing a conditioning programme for these athletes I think of specificity, and the saying –
‘if you want to be fast then you must train fast.’
An old and outdated philosophy to conditioning, that unfortunately many technical sports and S+C coaches still adopt is that you must establish an aerobic base in conditioning, by training long and slow. This approach leads to power athletes running miles and miles at a slow ‘aerobic’ pace(also known as long slow distance (LSD) training). It is true that an efficient oxidative (aerobic) system will aid in fast recovery, but by training this way all we will do is take fast and powerful athletes; and make them slow;killing their power potential. Surely this type of training will negate their athletic performance. Body adaptations to LSD training; both on a cellular level and musculature level are the opposite to what you want if you are an athlete that performs an explosive, fast game such as basketball or tennis. If you doubt this just look at the physiques of long distance runners. Is this a desirable physique for you and your sport? If you are working hard in the weight room and on the court to develop power, strength and speed why would you then negate this hard work by doing the opposite in your conditioning? When conditioning you need to be aware that it is the intensity of your activity, rather than the volume that is the most important component. Rest intervals and heart rate monitors are a great way to establish intensities through your conditioning program.
Having debunked the myth of LSD training for building the aerobic base for athletes that participate in intermittent sports, we are left with the question of that would be the most appropriate type of conditioning Think back to the philosophy above – ‘if you want to be fast then you must train fast’. So how about we train fast for as short period and rest and recover for a short period and repeat. Afterall, this seems to replicate what you would actually do in your chosen sport so surely it makes more sense to train this way.
Many athletes are worried about not building an adequate “aerobic base” that we have heard so much about. Two very famous studies in the past few years, I will refer to them as Gibala study (1) and the Tibata study (2) have proven that high intensity interval training had equal or greater improvement to the oxidative system, than LSD training. These studies also showed great improvement in the anaerobic energy systems with high intensity training. Interval training, similar to that performed in these studies, has great performance and metabolic benefits as well, we we will come to shortly.
Since these two studies, countless more have been conducted by scientists and coaches (3,4).They have used many different protocols for the work to rest intervals and using different training modalities (sprinting, calisthenics, resistance training). The results of these studies bear out the findings of Gibala and Tabata; ie doing interval training at a high percentage of your maximum effort will improve both your aerobic and anaerobic energy system to a greater extent than LSD training. Highlighting that again it is the intensity that is the vital factor in conditioning.
Another concern I get when trying to advocate this type of conditioning over LSD,(predominantly from my female athletes), is something along the lines of – ‘I need to do my slow paced jogs and runs because I want to lose weight’ or ‘I don’t want to gain weight in the off season so I need to jog’. Well here is the good news; It has been shown that high intensity interval training may be more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal body fat than other types of exercise (5,6). Other studies have shown that interval training causes a significantly greater reduction in body fat % when compared to that of steady state or LSD training. If you want a real world example, just look at the physique or sprinters – they have minimal body fat; a coincidence? I think not!
The drawback of this type of training however is that it’s hard, and requires you to work hard and push yourself. When doing intervals you are not going to be able to read a magazine or talk to your mate as you would when jogging on a treadmill or in the park. Getting great results is never easy, and if you want to achieve anything worthwhile it will always require hard work.
I’m not going to throw LSD type training totally out of my programs and never allow anything slow and steady- that would be foolish. Traditional aerobic training such as jogging, swimming and cycling all have great benefits when used in a recovery capacity. The reason for this is that aerobic efforts can help your body process inflammation and it also leads to the release of restorative hormones such as cortisone that aid in connective tissue repair and tissue recovery from previous workouts. LSD training also has its place for developmental athletes in terms of optimizing the heart physiology at critical stages, which we will look at in future articles on this site.
There are hundreds of different protocols for interval training and various different ways to implement them to get your desired results. Manipulation of work to rest ratios will have a huge effect on your energy systems. Your conditioning goals, motivation,training cycles and sports requirements will dictate your interval work to rest and training protocols. Interval training doesn’t just need to be running sprints, a popular method of anaerobic and metabolic conditioning that I use with my athletes are things such as barbell complexes and finishers. The latter being a great way to finish a session in the weight room. When putting together your off season conditioning plan think about all that is mentioned above and realize that as coaches and athletes perhaps the old school methods that you used to do are not the most efficient or beneficial for you or your athletes. Specificity is the key; condition the way you want to perform.
Conditioning for your sport and working toward a competition goal can be a very complex and detailed process. For safe and effective results when conditioning seek the advice and expertise of a qualified and experienced strength and conditioning coach. Go back to the three questions at the beginning of the article, find your answers and ensure that your conditioning is tailored to your individual needs. At DO TRAINING we pride ourselves on giving our clients the most relevant, up to date, safe and effective training advice and techniques, so you can get the most from your training. For more information about off season conditioning and for training programs, tips and advice contact us at DO TRAINING and we will be more than happy to assist you and get you working and training the right way.
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1 Tabata, I. Nishimura, K. Kouzaki, M. (1996). “Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and ˙VO2max.” Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise. 28(10): 1327-1330.
2 Gibala, M. Burgomaster, K. Hughes, S. Heigenhauser, G. Bradwell, S. (2005). “Six Sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans”. Journal of Applied Physiology. 98: 1985-1990.
3 Hazell, T. MacPherson, R. Gravelle, B. Lemon, P. (2010) “10 or 30-s sprint interval training bouts enhance both aerobic and anaerobic performance”. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 110(1): 153-160
4 Spencer M, Bishop D, Dawson B, et al (2005). “Physiological and metabolic responses of repeated-sprint activities: specificity field-based team sports”. Journal of Sports Medicine 35: 1025-44
5 Irving, B. Davis, C. et al. (2008) “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 40(11): 1863-1872.
6 Trapp, E. Chisholm, D. et al. (2008) “The Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training and Fat Loss and Fasting Insulin Levels of Young Women.” International Journal of Obesity. 32(4): 684-691.