Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning.....
It's the buzzword amongst many fitness enthusiasts, as well as within the circle of coaches and parents alike. Everyone wants good conditioning. I can't tell you how many times a parent has walked into SAPT and told me to make sure their child receives "plenty of conditioning." Or a wrestler or MMA fighter reiterates over and over that he/she needs to make sure I include plenty of "conditioning" in his/her program.
Marathon runners may often scoff at football players or bodybuilders for their "lack of conditioning." Crossfitters may laugh at powerlifters because they don't possess any conditioning. Baseball coaches may force their players to run for hours on end at the beginning of the season because they need to be a better conditioned team.
I often hear people say that Iron Man triathletes are some of the best conditioned people in the world. Or MMA fighters. Is this actually true though?
I write this because I think it's very important to understand what we really mean when we discuss conditioning. Is it the ability to run a fast 5k? Or is it the capability for a running back to be able to quickly decelerate, change direction, and quickly accelerate in a different direction to avoid a tackle? Is it just "cardio?"
What is conditioning, really???
I think Joel Jamieson (S & C coach of many well known MMA fighters) gave a fantastic definition of conditioning:
"Conditioning is a measure of how well an athlete is able to meet the energy production demands of their [specific] sport such that they are able to use their skills effectively throughout the competition."
Conditioning is much more than just "cardio." This means that a football player who can produce incredible bouts of power for 6-8 seconds, and repeat this throughout the entirety of a football game, has fantastic conditioning. A baseball pitcher who is able to maintain the quality of his pitches for 6 innings in a row is well conditioned. A MMA fighter in the fifth round of a fight, capable of generating punches rendering his opponent unable to remember the knock-out, is well conditioned. And a world-class marathon is also extremely well conditioned.
When it comes to training athletes, the conditioning side of the spectrum is MUCH more complicated than people give it credit for. The three energy systems (aerobic, anaerobic lactic, and anaerobic alactic), create an extremely complex web - the parts of which are both interconnected and independent - and it's far from a "one size fits all" approach to prepare an athlete to use his or her skills effectively throughout the duration of a competition.
Yes, completing a "hell session" or "death circuit" can definitely be a good gut check from time to time, but it by no means is the proper way to condition the majority of athletes, especially on a day-to-day basis. For example, one day during a lower body training session I was feeling rather lethargic and was just going through the motions. After I finished the resistance training portion of my session, I decided I needed a wake up call and gave myself a swift kick in the pants to wake me up:
HOWEVER, would it be wise to train like this day in and day out? Absolutely not. Even for a MMA fighter or wrestler; would it be smart to train them like this on a regular basis? Nope.
It's imperative to possess a sound understanding of the body's energy systems in order to make sure you possess the work capacity required for your sport, but at the same time don't burn yourself out.
On the other end of the spectrum, is it intelligent to just through in copious amounts of long distance running for a baseball player or soccer player (or even a marathon runner for that matter!) in order to improve their conditioning? No way.
It's beyond the scope of this post to provide the exact training methodology behind appropriately balancing the development of the three energy systems on a sport-by-sport basis, but I hope this will at least get you thinking that conditioning (and strength training, too), is far from a one-size-fits-all approach.