Why athletes and coaches shouldn’t over-emphasize conditioning

Poor training methodology: Over-conditioning

One of the poorest trends in strength and conditioning for team sports is an over-emphasis on cardiovascular conditioning.  Speaking from experience, this mindset is most prevalent in ice-hockey and swimming, where “dry land training” is synonymous with “let’s kick the crap out of our athletes”. However, this is also beginning to make its way into other major sports like basketball and football, where speed and power should be the main emphasis once an adequate cardiovascular base has been developed.

Hard conditioning workouts that are often branded as “high intensity” are often actually medium/low intensity, and very poor in quality. Trainers and coaches that subscribe to this mindset of training tend to believe that administering an extremely fatiguing and exhausting workout will make their athletes “mentally tough”, with some coaches even taking pride in causing their athletes to vomit. They believe this equates to athletes “putting in work”, but little do the athletes know that this “work” is of extremely poor quality, and it’s very likely that it is making them slower, weaker, and less powerful, not to mention miserable during the actual training session.


How much conditioning is needed?

The amount of conditioning that one has in their training program is determined by a number of factors including the needs of the sport, the player’s position, tactical style of play, and the current strengths and weaknesses of the athlete.  For example, American football and volleyball players require relatively less conditioning overall due to the amount of ground covered, and the short duration of each play sequence.  In contrast, soccer and basketball players would place a greater emphasis on cardiovascular fitness due to the more continuous game play and repeated sprint ability requirements. Generally, it can be summarized that an athlete has a sufficient cardiovascular foundation when they are able to maintain performance for the duration of their game or event. After this base of fitness is established, it would be prudent to shift one’s focus on other aspects of performance.


Why are “hard workouts” counter-productive?

High-intensity anaerobic activity lasting 0-10 seconds is powered primarily via the phosphagen anaerobic pathway (alactic), which is responsible for explosive, high force/power movements such as sprinting, jumping, and cutting. As high intensity activity exceeds 10 seconds, energy production switches to the glycolytic system (lactic), which powers high intensity efforts lasting up to approximately two minutes. Lastly, the oxidative system is primarily responsible for exercise durations greater than two minutes. While slow to initiate relative to anaerobic systems, the oxidative system is primarily fuelled by fats and provides the highest amount of sustainable energy during exercise.

The most important energy system with regards to speed and power sports such as basketball, football, and hockey is the phosphagen system.  LeBron James, Marshawn Lynch, and Patrick Kane are game breakers, not because of their conditioning, but because of their explosiveness and ability to power away from (or through) their defenders.  The phosphagen system is trained by working on exercises such as sprinting, plyometrics, and weightlifting while adhering to proper work-to-rest ratios. The work-to-rest ratio for speed and power development is typically 1:5.  That is, for every one minute of work, athletes should take 5 minutes of complete rest before starting their next set. This ensures that the quality of work remains high and speed/power is maximally developed.

Contrarily, when coaches push athletes through fatiguing workouts (think repeated hill sprints, suicides, repeated dunks/rim touches, and bag skates) this work-to-rest ratio is diminished and energy production shifts to the other energy systems (work-to-rest ratios for the glycolytic and aerobic systems are typically 1:2 and 1:1, respectively).  This ultimately hurts the speed/power athlete because of interference. The principle of interference occurs when the development of competing physical attributes, such as strength and endurance, prevents each quality from being developed optimally.  As a result, the adaptations gained from hard conditioning workouts develop the endurance-related pathways, but will ultimately hinder the development of the phosphagen system, making athletes weaker and slower.


In conclusion, while conditioning  is certainly an important aspect of performance, athletes are usually conditioned adequately by practicing/playing their sport under normal conditions.  As a result, athletes and their parents should be wary of coaches whose workouts revolve around hard conditioning drills and “mental toughness.”  While athletes may not always be able to choose their sport coaches in school, they should exercise caution when choosing private clubs or trainers, and ensure that they are receiving valuable training that contributes to the long-term development of the athlete. Just because a training session is “hard”, doesn’t mean it is productive, and often times the opposite is true; if a training session feels extremely taxing, it usually means the quality of training is poor, and both time and money would be better spent elsewhere.

Here are a few examples of a basketball workouthockey workout, and football workout that we found quickly on YouTube.  There is lots of yelling going on, but very little quality.  While this style of training might be okay for an athlete who needs to get in shape (still, there are much better methods for developing cardiovascular fitness than this), it would definitely have a negative impact their explosiveness.

There is a running joke between several of my strength and conditioning colleagues that depicts an incompetent coach yelling, “FOURTH QUARTER! FOURTH QUARTER!” while his athletes move through a conditioning drill or exercise at a snail’s pace with a puke bucket nearby just in case “weakness decides to leave the body.”  However, that’s not weakness leaving the body; it’s your strength, power, and explosiveness.