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Sport-Specific Conditioning: Getting Fit for Your Sport

Every sport has specific demands that it puts on our body. Whether your sport is a speed and power dominant sport (most sports) or you are an endurance athlete, it is important to understand these demands when attempting to condition your body. Common mistakes in sports conditioning are overtraining aerobic endurance, which will diminish many of the strength and power gains achieved in the off-season, as well as attempting to maintain conditioning levels for too long. Without getting into a discussion of bioenergetics, I will attempt to address many mistakes that occur when training to be “in shape” for your sport.

Mistake #1: Focusing on “steady state” or long distance running to condition for a power sport.

This is one of the biggest issues I see when working with athletes. Comments I hear from athletes are, for example: “I play soccer and I run between 3-5 miles in my game so to condition I run 5 miles a few times during the week.”

Solution: True, you run 3-5 miles in a soccer game but not continuously and with the same heart rate. Soccer players cover that distance by sprinting, walking, jogging and changing direction and cutting at all angles. Steady state jogging will decrease strength and power gains by stimulating slow twitch fibers and increase chance of injury. Conditioning with intervals similar to your sports demands (example: the average football play lasts 4-6 seconds with 45 second rest) at different distances and heart rates would best get a power athlete (most field and racquet sports) ready for their sport. Rule of thumb: “TRAIN SLOW AND BE SLOW”

Mistake #2: Mixing short, medium and long distance sprints within the same workout.

Many athletes attempt to condition by running a wide range of distances (400-40 meters) in the same workout in the attempt to train speed (anaerobic) and conditioning (aerobic) the same day. The demands on the body at the multiple distances are very different. Any benefit other than making the workout difficult will likely not occur. This type of training would be similar to maxing out on squats after doing 3 sets of 20 reps or doing power cleans for sets of 10 reps! Poor technique and injury can occur.

Solution: Pick a goal for that day and work that goal. If it is conditioning, work medium distances with short rest periods. If speed or speed endurance is the goal, work those shorter distances with longer rest periods to allow for recovery and a higher quality of work. Rule of thumb: “QUALITY OVER QUANTITY.”

Mistake #3: Training on the treadmill or surfaces other that the one you play on.

Now, before my email fills up with nay-sayers, let me say this: bikes, rowers, elliptical trainers and other modes of exercises are often used on active recovery days as a low impact form of a light cardiovascular workout. The concern here is the different metabolic demands of these modes of exercises when conditioning and how they differ from the demands of most sports. I will pick on the treadmill. When was the last time the ground moved underneath you when you ran down the football field avoiding would be tacklers? In sports, we apply force through the ground to overcome inertia and our own body weight. We also accelerate, decelerate (huge in injury prevention) and change direction with precision and accuracy. We should attempt to condition under the same situation we play.

Solution: Condition with agility drills that meet the demand of your sports. We will use tennis for example which has a high rate of injury in young participants. Why would they condition with long, slow distance running or on a machine? Drills that incorporate multiple changes of direction that last 6-8 seconds with a short rest period (15-25 seconds) would be a better way to condition a tennis player! Rule of thumb: the Russians used the “SAME-SAME PRINCIPLE”. Train in the same environment you play.

Mistake #4: Attempting to stay in shape or compete all year around.

This is huge with athletes who specialize in their sport at a young age and with athletes who play their sport all year around (baseball and fast-pitch, tennis and soccer to name a few…you know who you are!!) Many of these athletes attempt to condition their body to stay in peak shape all year around which leads to overtraining or over-reaching, injury and in many cases a short career. These athletes are often over-achievers and in some cases the same personality trait that makes them desire to work hard is the same trait that makes them successful. I spend most of my time holding highly motivated athletes back to prevent overtraining and very little time pushing them to train hard.

Solution: Plan for a period of rest and recovery, strength and performance training and participation in another sport around your season or most important tournaments. Many of the supporters of Istvan Balyi and the developers of Long-Term Athletic Development take it a step further and focus on developing early stages of a young athlete’s career before year around participation and sports specialization occurs. Look at the rising rate of injury amongst our young athletes. I believe much of this is due to year around participation, early specialization and an over emphasis on winning and high performance on young kids! Rule of thumb: “PLAN YOUR WORK AND WORK YOUR PLAN.”

I hope these tips can help all athletes participate in their sport at their highest potential without injury. Try them out and feel free to contact me with any questions.

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