Conditioning for Athletes

Conditioning for high school and college athletes. A popular topic.

The purpose of this article is to help squash some common misconceptions regarding “conditioning”.

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions I hear is in regards to the prevalence of suggesting athletes “run” to get into shape for any sport.  Let me clarify.  The demands of volleyball are going to differ from football and also differ to those in soccer but all are more similar than a person might think.  

Football, soccer and volleyball are explosive sports with rest periods. 

They look like intervals, soccer being an “an active interval” meaning they are jogging/walking back into position etc while football and volleyball have “hard stops” between plays or the action.  For all three of these sports an athlete would be much better off gaining strength – aka lifting weights, jumping onto boxes, carrying heavy objects than not focusing on strength during the off season.  Conditioning takes 8 weeks in a strength trained athlete. At the end of the 8 weeks athletes are prepared for the season.

Athletes who aren’t strength training but are using “jogging/running” for their off season training it seems to take significantly more time to get the athlete in shape. I have seen more injuries in these athletes than the athletes that strength train.  

Athletes a lot of times mention that when they are moving into their sport after a time off they feel winded more quickly when they start playing again.  This is because the rhythm of breathing required for the sport is specific, not general.  

Athletes that have a lower resting heart rate in comparison to where they started, or can complete intervals and their heart rate drops between intervals significantly they are in shape. 

If an athlete completes a conditioning test such as a beep test and scores well they are in shape.  However, that same athlete might need a week or two to get into “sport shape” this is normal in my experience.  

“What about conditioning for mental toughness?”  This question comes up a lot and is more complicated than a person would think. 

For sports that require explosiveness, longer duration conditioning isn’t a good use of time. These sessions pose more risk of injury than shorter sessions.  Military, especially those who are in the Special Operations community, get exposed to long endurance efforts. Conditioning blocks are used as a way to judge conditioning levels for these units. Also as a way to judge an individual’s ability to sustain effort – ie how long is a person willing to suffer.  But high school/college athletics isn’t an elite selection of military units.  

In a group setting especially for high school athletes the untrained or significantly detrained are at a much greater risk of injury. The detrained athletes(such as those who have had long breaks from organized sports or have never played) will most likely be left demoralized and injured. Athletes at the lower end of the general physical preparedness scale are the most at risk.

For well- trained athletes these “mental toughness” workouts probably are doing more to detrain them than train them.  Also the risk of injury, especially soft tissue injuries are going to be higher than they need to be. Always ask the question is the risk worth the reward regarding the workout.

A group setting such as high school sports it is important to take into account the following:

  1. The overall groups injury history
  2. Age/experience level
  3. The number of high performing players(club players vs recreational players)
  4. The number of players who have been in the system(who have been training in the off season). 

Coaches that ignore the conditions above see more injuries.

Conditioning can’t be faked or crammed for.

Athletes can’t delay or put off your strength training, your aerobic conditioning work like you do your homework.  In fact trying to “jam” in more work in an abbreviated amount of time can lead to soft tissue injuries. The rapid increasing amount of work is too much.  Which in turn defeats the purpose of “cramming” for these sessions.  

There is no replacement for sustained, continuous, workouts in season and out of season.  Strength training year round builds stronger, more durable athletes. Those athletes who train 6-9 months out of the year significantly builds stronger athletes. Athletes who only worry about strength and conditioning levels for the 3-4 months while in season are weaker and more prone to injury.  This is a fact. 

In season the bare minimum we suggest in the OC Sports Performance program is 2-3x a week.  The best athletes find a way to get in here 3-4x a week in season.  Athletes who have excelled in Division 1 programs have come trained the most both in season and out of season.  After doing this for 12 years and tracking workouts for those athletes, there is something to their sustained, continuous, attendance.  

Keep only the facts in mind when conditioning athletes.

The athletes deserve the best from coaches and parents to keep them healthy and successful!   

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