By Matt Hank, MS, CSCS, USAW
Many sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis, and football involve bouts of high intensity exercise interspaced with periods of light activity or rest. The energy requirements for these athletes are very specific. The body needs to provide energy quickly to perform powerful movements such as short sprints, jumping, and throwing. Between high intensity movements, the body needs to still provide and restore energy that can be used quickly for the next bout of high intensity exercise.
The body has three major energy systems, which provide energy at different rates and have limitations on how much energy they can provide. All three energy systems work together during the course of a game/match to produce smooth efficient movements. The phosphagen system produces energy at the onset of exercise and is extremely important during high intensity movements, however it can only provide enough energy for less than 10 seconds (then it becomes depleted). The glycolytic system is the major contributor during the 20 second to 2-3 minute range. It begins to take over when the phosphagen system is depleted. Lastly, the oxidative system (aerobic system) can provide vast amounts of energy but it takes time for this energy system to be fully activated (it cannot provide sufficient energy quick enough for short duration/high intensity activities).
When you analyze the pace of the game and the energy requirements needed, it is easy to get a clear picture about what type of training would be most appropriate for each athlete. When you observe most sports, it is easy to see how long the game/match lasts. In turn, athletes train for that same period of time. Therefore, most coaches condition them for long durations to ensure they have the training adaptations to make it through the entire game/match. This analysis is flawed! Instead, let us look at how many quick/short duration and high intensity movements take place and look into the periods of low intensity activity or rest periods. This information will give us a better understanding on how to design a conditioning program for our athletes based on those bouts of activity. Our conditioning programs should involve high intensity sprints (along with other high intensity movements such as shuffles, jumps, throws, backpedals, etc.) with periods of low activity or rest. Unless you are training a cross-country athlete or long distance track and field athlete, get away from the traditional old-school “aerobic training” approach. Aerobic training will bring about training adaptations to the oxidative system, but do very little for the phosphagen and glycolytic systems.
Each individual energy system can adapt to training. The amount of energy stores in the body, the breakdown of energy, and the resysnthesis of energy are positively influenced with proper training. However, only the energy systems that are targeted (during training) will adapt. This does not mean you have to train a different energy system everyday. In fact, high intensity intervals (sprints with rest periods built into the workout) will positively influence all three energy systems and it is sport specific.
Bottom Line – If you are having your athletes do long distance aerobic activity all the time and they play a sport that requires short bursts of activity, your doing your athletes a disservice. This is why I shake my head and say to myself “If these coaches only knew basic exercise science principles,” as I watch baseball/softball, basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, tennis, and other team sport athletes running laps around the track for miles at a time. Using the mile as a standard test makes sense only because it is easy to administer and measures fitness over a training cycle. However, be cautious about testing athletes in the mile because they will try to train to improve for the test – again not training the appropriate energy systems for their sport. If you want your athletes to be the best at low intensity, long duration activities continue running mile after mile. On the other hand, if your sport requires your athletes to be fast and explosive repeatedly throughout the game I would recommend high intensity sprinting (interval training). There is the information (scientific principles), now you decide what to do with it.
Matt Hank operates ASAP Performance Training in the Santa Clarita Valley and works with athletes of all ages.