Developing an Athlete's Aerobic Capacity

TAGS: You’re Doing It Wrong, sport conditioning, James "The Thinker" Smith, energy systems, Nicholas Bronkall, athletes, Buddy Morris, coaching, conditioning

There are a lot of bad coaches out there. Sorry...but there are. My background is football. As a player, and then as a coach, I can remember watching coaches just “condition” their athletes into the ground. I would watch them say things like, “we need tough football players” and “we will be the best-conditioned team in the country.” I'd watch coaches just bury these kids into the ground every single day. Well, that's great and all, but you’re doing it wrong. The problem is that most coaches typically have no background in strength and conditioning, but hey, the d-line coach played D1 ball back in the '90s, so he obviously knows what he is doing when it comes to training football players, right? Well, as my mentor always says, “Just because I drive a car doesn’t mean I know how to fix it.”

What is “Conditioning?"

Well, to keep things simple, conditioning is training the body’s energy systems. If you don’t know what energy systems are, that's not okay and you shouldn’t be in charge of an athlete's strength and conditioning program until you do understand them. At the very basic level, we have the anaerobic and aerobic systems. The former is without oxygen and the latter is with oxygen. Phew! Tough, I know. I’ll touch more on this in a bit. So, when you are designing a conditioning program for an athlete, we first need to understand the athlete’s sport. Most of all, we need to understand the energy demands of the sport. Yes, kids need to get stronger, faster, more explosive, but the thing that typically gets overlooked is conditioning, well, conditioning properly. Across all levels, from high school to the pros, conditioning tests are poorly designed. The question that needs to be asked (and what most coaches ignore) is, "What are they being conditioned to do?" In other words, what is it that the athlete needs to do, and is the sport long and slow or short and fast?

Let's take football for example since I love football and that's where my experience lies. Cardiovascular endurance is not required for this sport—ever. If you would like to dispute that, then please contact me so we can discuss it. Is it extremely important to be in great shape to play football? Yes, of course it is. However, many college and pro teams have conditioning tests that their players must pass. Let's take a look at a few of them:

  • University of Georgetown Kentucky: 16- to 60-yard shuttles
  • Baltimore Ravens: 6x150-yard shuttles
  • John Carroll University: 18- to 110-yard sprints
  • Dallas Cowboys: 2x10 sprints of 40 to 60 yards (depending on position)
  • The Ohio State University: 2x300-yard shuttles
  • Georgia Tech: 2x300-yard shuttles
  • Buffalo BIlls: 8x68-yard sprints
  • New England Patriots: 2 sets of 10x40-yard sprints, 6 seconds to complete each, 10 seconds rest in between each one

Now, the tests Georgetown and the Cowboys have aren’t that bad, but they could be better. The best test is the one the Patriots use, as you’ll see when I break the sport down here in a second. However, the other ones...well, I’m not really sure how these tests show coaches who is in good football shape and who is out of shape. Most of you probably remember Albert Haynesworth, who was well over 300 pounds and failed the Redskins conditioning test a few years ago. This test was considered standard and basic in the NFL and consisted of 2x300-yard shuttles for time. He had 70 seconds to complete it. Yup, one minute and 10 seconds to run 300 yards at a height of 6-foot-6 and a weight of 350 pounds (since 300 yards is standard for an NFL defensive lineman to run during a typical play). The guy was out of shape if you ever watched him play during his last few years, but the moral of the story is that these conditioning tests are awful. Like any other test that these coaches administer (including the 40-yard dash, the 225-pound bench, and the pro shuttle), if you want to do well on the test, you have to prepare for it. The problem with preparing for these tests is that it is counterproductive to the development of strength, speed, and power...which in turn is counterproductive in the development of a football player.

So, I'm still not sure why football coaches do this. Oh wait, I do—they want their team to be the most conditioned team in the country. Well, this is great and all, but you’re doing it outside of the proper energy systems...or you're just a jerk who has an ego problem. Either way, you’re doing it wrong.

Let's Break the Sport Down:

Football:

  • Average play: 4 to 6 seconds
  • Average rest between plays: 15 to 40 seconds (depending on the style of offense)
  • Average series in a game: 10 to 18
  • Average plays in a series: 3 to 15
  • Distance typically covered: 5 to 40 yards

Now, if a player doesn’t go both ways, he usually will get anywhere from 5 to 7 minutes of rest before he takes the field again. (High schoolers are typically the only football players that go both ways). Also, there is a half time that varies from high school to college to pros.

So, from this information we can see that football players needs to be fast, strong, and explosive. They also need to be able to do it repeatedly—so explosive bouts with short rest intervals. WOW! Looks like we found a simple way to condition a football player. Yet, let's take it a step further and figure out what energy systems are used in football (since we are awesome coaches and that's what awesome coaches do). You don’t need to be able to explain the chemical pathways and breakdowns involved in the production of energy because most people don’t care about it. However, if you’re a strength and conditioning coach, you need to know the basics of how we generate energy because it will help you understand how your athletes fatigue and what training measures can be used to minimize it.

The most important energy system that should stand out is the anaerobic energy system. Within this energy system there are two different types of systems. First, there is the ATP-PC system (Alactic). This system does not require or produce oxygen. It’s used for explosive activities that last up to 10 seconds. The second system is the Anaerobic Glycolysis System (Lactic). This system doesn’t require oxygen either, but it does produce lactic acid. It’s used during activities that last between 10 seconds to 90 seconds. Most sports are based on short term explosiveness (AKA: alactic anaerobic power). Now, stay with me here. Each of these pathways has a power component, which is how fast the system can derive energy, and then it also has a capacity component, which is how long the system can be sustained. Athletes with great alactic power can only produce a few extremely intensive bursts of energy at an extremely high level. These athletes are your Olympic lifters, powerlifters, shot-putters, 100-meter sprinters etc. On the other hand, an athlete with great alactic power and capacity can repeat these intensive bursts time and time again throughout his or her sporting event. That is why all athletes should have a high capacity.

So, if we look at the conditioning tests used by major colleges and pro teams, they all fall within the anaerobic/lactic system due to the time they take to complete. Football is Anaerobic/Alactic not Anaerobic/Lactic. So these conditioning tests are the wrong type of anaerobic. Therefore, when conditioning for football, we need to develop exercises that require 4 to 10 seconds of intense activity followed by 20 to 40 seconds of rest.

See, that wasn’t that hard to do if we just sit and think about the sport for a minute. This is what we need to be able to do with every sport as a coach. You owe it to your kids.

Outputs

James “The Thinker” Smith describes two different kinds of outputs. First, there is maximal output. This is the maximum amount of force that an athlete is able to produce. Secondly, there is operational output. This is the output that an athlete will display during a game and is a percentage of the maximal output. An athlete cannot work at maximal outputs on a consistent basis during competition because the environment is not optimal and neither is the athlete's energy reserves because of insufficient recovery. However, if we can get the athlete’s maximal output higher than his potential operational output, we will be dealing with a very dangerous athlete who can consistently perform near maximal outputs.

Yet, while football is a anaerobic/alactic sport, we need to have a very powerful aerobic system to go along with the powerful alactic system. When writing a program to improve these two systems, the program needs to be developed in such a way that there will be no negative effects between improving the alactic and aerobic systems. The two systems need to compliment each other. The majority of training should either be aerobic or alactic. While coaching at the high school level, I often saw coaches implementing lactic loads in practice, so there is no need for us to put our athletes' bodies in a lactic environment.The more you can keep an athlete in an aerobic environment before he goes into lactic, the less stress on his body to produce the work. The more powerful the aerobic system, the greater the lactate buffer system. Yes, it’s science. You just need to apply everything you learned when getting your fancy degrees and certifications.

Just about every sport needs aerobic capacity work. What is aerobic capacity? I’m extremely glad you asked. It’s an athlete’s ability to recover quickly between intensive bouts of alactic work, or how well the athlete will recover between plays. Aerobic endurance and restoration work is compatible when training alactic abilities. Just understand that when you are training for increased aerobic capacity, the goal is not to exceed the anaerobic threshold or the lactate threshold (due to an associated increase in blood acidity). The Thinker also states, “The presence of lactic acid destroys mitochondria, which in turn, hinders recovery.” What we are trying to develop is a functional recovery system by making our muscle fibers as dense as possible with mitochondria. Developing an athlete's aerobic system will also indirectly improve his speed. This is because sprint mechanics can easily be improved while running at sub maximal speeds, and a better sprint form will in turn improve your maximal velocity. Cool, huh?

My choice for building aerobic capacity is tempo work—aerobic work performed in an interval fashion. Tempo work will not only promote recovery, but it will also enhance aerobic and general work capacity during the early stages of training while exposing your athletes to sprint work (if you choose to use running). I utilize tempo work by creating a running program that incorporates sub-maximal linear or multi-directional running performed at <75% of one's maximum velocity. Now, you can do this with running, sled dragging, Prowler® pushing, battle ropes, medicine ball work, jump roping, etc. I like tempo runs because it not only allows me to coach running technique, but it also can enhance an athlete's fast twitch muscle fibers. As Charlie Francis explains, “The more heat generated around the motor neuron, the more the fiber begins to take on characteristics of white fibers.” Aerobic work generates a lot of heat around motor neurons. I have my athletes perform tempo runs at 60-75% of maximal speed. It is extremely important to stay within the range of 60-75%. Anything lower than this range is too slow to elicit the necessary heart rates to develop aerobic capacity, and anything faster puts us in a lactic environment. We just don’t want lactate to accumulate. A tempo run session should have you huffing and puffing while doing it, but you should still be able to talk in full sentences.

Just like anything else, it is important to keep track of volume. The volume should progressively increase by either increasing the distance or the working sets. Initially, when you increase the distance, decrease the volume so that your athletes can slowly adapt to the new stimulus. One of the many things I learned from Buddy Morris was doing one thing at a time with your athletes. I usually start athletes around 600 total yards and have some athletes between 3,000 to 4,000 yards (depending on the sport and how advanced the athlete is). Once the athlete’s aerobic capacity begins to improve, rest periods can be shortened. It is critical when performing tempo work to maintain the same pace throughout the entire session. Tempos can be done with forward running, backward running, backpedalling, lateral shuffling, and sideways running. An athlete can transition from one to the next every 20 to 30 yards. The mind is the limit here. Mix it up for  you athletes because strict running gets extremely boring very quickly, and your athletes will hate it. Trust me. Now, remember that residual adaptations from aerobic development can last up to 30 days, so you’ll only have to revisit it every now and then to maintain aerobic capacity.

Moral of the story: stop running athletes into the ground. Actually think about the demands of a sport and program accordingly. You can’t always control what a sports coach does, but you can control what your athlete does in your weight room. Be smart.

References

  • Francis, Charlie. The Charlie Francis Training System. www.charliefrancis.com.1992.
  • Francis, Charlie. The Structure of Training For Speed. www.charliefrancis.com. 1997.
  • Kurz.T. Science of Sports Training - 2nd Edition. 2002
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Essentials of Strength Trainining and Conditioning - 3rd Ed. NSCA. 2008.
  • Siff and Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athletic Concepts. 2009.
  • Smith, James. Operational Versus Maximal Outputs
  • Verkhoshansky, Y. Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches. Verkhoshansky SSTM. 2011.adddaddx
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