What Every Coach Should Know About Speed and Conditioning

You can get athletes optimally faster, better conditioned, and even tougher in the same program if you understand a few simple principles.

A new school year is around the corner. All over, there will be in-season coaches trying to condition their athletes to be ready for game time and out-of-season coaches trying to get their athletes faster, stronger, and tougher before the season begins.

A new school year is around the corner. All over, there will be in-season coaches trying to condition their athletes to be ready for game time and out-of-season coaches trying to get their athletes faster, stronger, and tougher before the season begins.

Lots of effective exercises, cone-drills, and conditioning schemes will be assimilated. But if the right things aren’t done in the right way, with the proper rest, timing, and compatible exercises, the program will be working against itself.

What few coaches consider is whether the improvements their athletes make come despite their efforts.

This improvement is a phenomenon that author, Nassim Taleb, calls “teaching birds to fly.”

The wonderful thing about training adolescent athletes is that they have a lot of biological momentum, which pulls them towards being stronger and more athletic. It’s hard to mess that up.

Additionally, they are exceptionally resilient.

Even the most ridiculous training programs will tend to make high-school and college-age athletes stronger and better conditioned. But could the program get them more bang for their buck? Could they see more of the desired adaptations? Almost certainly.

In over a decade working with sports coaches, I’ve noticed that it is startlingly rare for coaches to make any distinction between different power training:

Coaches are often confused about the purpose behind their drills. The majority want tired athletes. “If it is hard, it is good.” I’ve heard more than once. You can’t blame the coaches, though.

This motto is the tradition that is passing down in almost every sport.

But this needn’t be the case. You can get athletes optimally faster, better conditioned, and even tougher in the same program if you understand a few simple principles.

It all boils down to understanding the basics of energy systems—concepts so simple and essential that every coach should know them.

Energy Systems Made Simple

The body is an adaptation machine. It tends to respond predictably based on the type of stress that it is experiencing.

When the body is called upon to do an activity, it utilizes three energy systems:

  1. The Power System* (ATP/CP)
  2. The Burn System* (Glycolytic)
  3. The Aerobic System

While every action initiates all three systems, one system is often doing the bulk of the work.

Understanding how to train each system best is crucial for determining how you should prepare.

*Note: No one else calls the ATP/CP system the power system or the glycolytic system the burn system, but this will be easier to remember.

1. The Power System

Think of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and CP as dynamite. It is very explosive energy:

  • In the Power System, ATP and CP are utilized to create a level of power that is impossible without them.
  • ATP and CP make max speed, max vertical jumping, max agility, and max strength possible.
  • These are the elements that are the most destructive and essential in almost every sport.

But you cannot effectively train these harmful elements without ATP and CP.

Here is the rub. ATP and CP are like an 18th-century musket. When you decide to use it, boom, it’s gone.

ATP and CP only last about 6-7 seconds.

Then you’re losing power. Even Olympic 100-meter sprinters at the top of their training game will be decelerating before the end of a 100-meter sprint. They’ll hit top speed and then start to go slower because ATP and CP are gone.

And ATP and CP take a while to re-load.

Specifically, there is anywhere from a 1:12 to a 1:20 work to rest ratio required to make an all-out effort and then do another. For better power training results, err towards 1:20 or more.

That means if your speed training has you running max-effort 20-yard sprints that take you three seconds, then you would ideally rest for 60 seconds in between each. If you only rest 30 seconds, guess what. You aren’t getting faster. You’re getting tired.

2. The Burn System

When strenuous efforts extend beyond six seconds or are repeated with little rest, the burn system tends to take over.

  • The burning system begins to drive the machine for medium-range efforts from six seconds to two or three minutes.
  • To train this system specifically requires a 1:3 to 1:5 work to rest ratio.
  • Depending on your sport, you can train this system with everything from repeated 40-yard dashes at only 30-40 seconds rest (too little rest for speed training) to Fartleks and conditioning ladders.

Coaches love the burn system because it burns, it’s hard, and an all-out effort.

But this is not an effective way to train speed, agility, power, and strength, those elements that are most destructive in almost every sport.

When your speed training becomes burn training, it is no longer speed training. When you do box jumps to train explosive power and repeatedly do them with little rest, you aren’t getting more explosive.

You aren’t training power.

Furthermore, this sort of training also tends to beat the hell out of the central nervous system and the muscular system required for the practical training of any power system goals.

For this reason, I recommend avoiding burn-specific training (other than while playing sports) until within a few months of the season and limiting this training while in-season.

3. The Aerobic System

  • The aerobic system is predominant throughout most mild daily activities such as walking and any exercise lasting over two or three minutes.
  • Despite being the opposite end of the spectrum from power work, it is crucial to almost all athletes.
  • A more developed aerobic system will help athletes recover more quickly and make them far more capable of developing the burn system.

These generalizations do not tell the whole story, but they are the basics that everyone should know.

For a more in-depth look at all three systems and how they work in your training, this article in The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism does a great job clarifying sport-specific conditioning demands.

Practical Implications

The myth of more is better pervades sports. Many coaches would look at the distinctions between energy systems and conclude that their sport requires the development of all three systems and try to find time to train everything, all of the time.

It is important to remember that you can get a fixed amount of training adaptation out of the body:

  • Three hours of vigorous exercise isn’t better than one. It is almost certainly worse.
  • Over time, athletes can develop greater work capacity so that they can compete for longer durations.
  • Work capacity will look different in each sport.
  • It could mean anything from dozens of near-max bouts in a football game or tennis match to oscillating between many different intensities and moving almost constantly throughout a soccer game.
  • Regardless of what your sport requires, work capacity should build slowly and methodically.

As I’ve stated, the burn system has a way of counteracting speed, agility, plyometric, and all power system training—the qualities that are most destructive in sports.

Training should be done with sufficient rest for optimal power system training results, without too many reps, and before more fatiguing work.

It would be better to avoid any traditional conditioning on days that focus on training the power system. But, of course, you will eventually want to introduce other variables as well.

Many different training goals have to be balanced and coordinated over a training year:

Some goals go together better than others; each has its benefits and costs and will depend on the sport and the training phase.

I’d recommend focusing on quality movement and gradually building the power system early on, with a bit of gradual mobility and aerobic development for most sports. Over time, you can build up to greater intensities and duration of work.

This focus alone will develop a lot of capacity in the burn system without explicitly targeting it. As always, training needs to include appropriate recovery. A couple of months before competitions begin, start to integrate a bit more sport-specific interval work gradually. But his approach runs contrary to what is typical.

Most coaches want to begin their off-season with hard conditioning gauntlets and as many exhausting gut checks as possible.

While I understand the value of establishing standards of work ethic and developing mental toughness, it is important to recognize the costs of this work. I like to approach building mental toughness in a manner that aligns better with my other training considerations.

Train Mental Toughness

Rather than starting off-season with a few weeks of puke-bucket-workouts and then easing into a more effective training philosophy, I recommend starting with a fanatical emphasis on executing exercises with proper technique.

At the same time, clarify all your disciplinary expectations:

  • Focus on high-quality movement, but consistently punish disciplinary infractions like lack of eye contact, urgency, or tardiness with burpees or wind-sprints.
  • I prefer full team punishments as these incentivize leaders to emerge.
  • Explain to your athletes that such punishments work against their training goals and that you’d prefer not to have to resort to dumb training.
  • In addition, make sure to bring a bit of competition into your weekly routine.
  • With consistency, this approach produces athletes with a rare level of discipline, attention to detail, and mature mental toughness.

This will become apparent in the months before the season when you begin integrating more metabolic conditioning.

The best way to maximize all the attributes your athletes need is to have a system for determining what is trained and when. It doesn’t need to be complicated.

Simple, smart, and focused beats flashy every time.

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