Conditioning for Team Sports: Common Faults in Conditioning

I want to talk about conditioning. In particular conditioning for athletes that are playing team sports. I’m going to be speaking from my own experiences with many sports, but most notably, basketball. This has been on my mind lately because, if conditioning is done correctly, that's one of the solutions to better performance that I’m supposed to deliver to my team.

But the big, BIG caveat with that is, most of my players in the WNBA are playing basketball year round, whereas in the NBA, those guys get a bit more time off. Rest is important for a team’s performance, as this allows the body to recover from a brutal season and gives us time to increase strength. See our earlier blog post on the importance of strength for why this is one of the most important times of year for my players.

When looking at training in the college setting, it is most common that the sports coach maintains some control of the training program depending on their experience. Typically these college coaches were on a successful team in the late 90s or early 2000s that may have won a conference championship or had a semi-successful NCAA Tournament run. Unsurprisingly,  that tends to mean they have a lot of experience with conditioning and not very much experience in the weight room.The conditioning while on this team was their coaches ran them into the ground and then ran them some more. This creates a positive association between extreme running based conditioning workouts and success. And the thing they all have in common is just the the unbelievable volume, and pounding on the athletes bodies, with very, very little rest.

And that's what I really want to focus on today: talking about is that a reasonable approach? Or is there a better way?

What all of these programs/coaches were asking for was the best of both worlds. Both worlds in that they want volume, because of the high mileage seen during the sports of soccer and lacrosse in particular, with basketball also having considerable mileage as well. But they also want to be fast, because there are all these bursts of speed within all this mileage on the field of play. So then they take those two concepts and say, well, we have to be fast, and we have to get a ton of mileage so logically, the only way to do that is to do those things every single day and combine them.

And this is where you get those 300 yards shuttles tests that you have to do 10 sets of in :60 with a brief recovery come from. Another favorite is the full field 110-yard sprint that must be completed in 16-17 seconds, you have a minute to jog back and rest then go again for around 10-12 sets.Those are just a few of the standard examples.

And the result is: a lot of overuse injuries. An inability of the athlete to recover. Not because these drills are difficult, but because they are unrealistic and we now know better ways to safely and effectively train athletes.This is problematic, because, if we have a pain point in one area of the body, the athlete starts to compensate, to try to lessen the pain as much as possible. Then a new pattern develops, a pattern that is weakening one area of the body, while over using a completely different part of the body. And that is how we effectively perpetuate this injury risk cycle.

These coaches do not typically have a notion of the effect different surfaces have on the injury risk of their athletes either. When coaches decide to condition athletes that are accustomed to being on grass or turf on a track, this can cause major problems. Field athletes are used to running on soft ground, in their cleats. They're not track athletes, they're not accustomed to that difference in joint stress. And these are things that you have to take into consideration. If you're going to do that with your team, or an athlete, or you want to do that yourself, you must respect the surface and you have to respect the volume that you're asking your athlete’s bodies to do.

One of the things that typically happens to these coaches when they want to start a conditioning program for their team is that they just throw them in the deep end. If this happens and the athlete struggles with the program, I recommend backing off a week from the real program and maybe reducing that workload, give it your best, and then see how you feel those next couple of days. This will give you a real sense on if you need to work yourself into the program or if you can just go ahead and get it started.

For example, if you do half the volume of the program, and you're crazy sore for two, three days afterwards, or you can't even really make it through at the times that you're supposed to hit, then that's a real clue that some things need to be adjusted for you. If you're overseeing athletes, you have got to make that adjustment, that is the smart, sensible thing to do. If you don’t you’re just begging for injuries down the road.

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