Sport Conditioning Basics

Do you train your athletes with passion?  Beyond inspirational locker room talk, play-by-play game analysis, and vigorous practice sessions lie the keys to peak athletic performance and a lifetime of improved health. Armed with basic knowledge of athletic conditioning principles, you can drive your athletes to develop an affinity for modern sport conditioning that rivals their hunger for competition. In the first part of this series we will discuss some of the pertinent theory of athletic conditioning, followed in part two with a discussion of more traditional fitness exercises and equipment, and lastly some suggestions for more dynamic, functional conditioning activities in part three. Because of the diversity of knowledge and experience around this topic in the coaching field, the content included is intended to be at a beginner to intermediate level. Future articles will address more advanced theories and techniques.

To guide your athletes to training success, it is imperative that you have a strategy. The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and the concept of sport-specificity are simple and proven training strategies that will provide superior results and help to get your athletes hooked on training. The basic principle behind SAID is that body systems will adapt over time to the specific stresses that are placed on them. The more you ask of each athlete’s body, the greater the response in training results and performance. When combined with the concept of sport-specificity, the SAID principle warrants the application of select conditioning activities that relate to an athlete’s particular sport, to target specific systems in an attempt to improve their contribution to sport performance.  When done properly, these exercises will mimic the function and movements that the athlete performs during competition.
With SAID, custom training will become your coaching trademark. This can be accomplished by combining traditional strength training moves with carefully selected exercises that replicate the joint movement pattern and muscle groups that are required during an athlete’s performance. Following this principle, it is clear that the conditioning program for an offensive lineman would differ significantly from that of a platform diver. In fact the conditioning programs for different player positions in the same sport may differ significantly. Selecting appropriate exercises for a conditioning program will result in better athletic performance. Once the specific exercises have been selected, you will be ready to add resistance to those movements using the progressive overload technique.

Progressive overload refers to a systematic approach to the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during training. In many instances a coach may be hoping to increase the muscle mass of his athletes, or increase strength and endurance. By gradually increasing the amount of resistance applied during an exercise, the body will respond and adapt by recruiting additional motor units or building more muscle mass. In order to minimize injury, and maximize results, an athlete must begin with a comfortable amount of weight until movement techniques are perfected, then advance toward overload of muscles as the training progresses. Again, progressive overload suggests a gradual increase in volume and intensity, and this should be carefully monitored. 

It is no secret among coaches and athletes that in order to improve performance you must train hard and practice often, however one of the most overlooked aspects of optimized training comes after the fact, in the form of recovery. This is the phase when all of the growth and improvement happens to the body, and it should not be ignored. During effective training, the body actually experiences a breakdown stimulus, with the cells and tissues experiencing controlled levels of trauma and damage. In ideal conditions, over the following 36 to 72 hours, these structures undergo their recuperative process.

Conditions for optimal recovery:

  • Adequate Rest – the time between workouts is critical
  • Adequate Sleep – maximizing the recuperative process
  • Adequate Nutrition – nutrients are necessary for cellular repair
  • Controlled Negative Stress – emotional, physical and chemical stress can be detrimental

Physiologic improvement in athletes is only possible during the recovery period following hard training. This adaptation is in response to overload of the cardiovascular and muscular systems and is accomplished by a variety of processes, including improving the efficiency of the heart, increasing capillaries in the muscles, and increasing glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells. During recovery periods these systems build to greater levels to compensate for the stress that was applied during training, which results is a higher level of performance. In an environment where there is an intense training stimulus without adequate recovery there can be an increased risk of developing complications due to overtraining.

Watch your athletes closely for signs of overtraining. Overtraining syndrome is the name given to the collection of emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms due to overtraining that has persisted for weeks to months. Athletes and coaches may refer to it as "burnout" or "staleness." Overtraining is different from the day-to-day variation in performance and post exercise tiredness that is common in conditioned athletes.

The most common symptom of overtraining is acute fatigue. This will limit workouts and may be present while at rest. The athlete may also become moody, easily irritated, have altered sleep patterns, become depressed, or lose the competitive desire and enthusiasm for the sport. Some will report decreased appetite and weight loss. Physical symptoms include persistent muscular soreness, increased frequency of viral illnesses, and increased incidence of injuries. Overtraining is marked by long periods of exhaustion that persist even after attempted recovery periods. If rest and recovery are not included in the training program, then regeneration cannot occur and performance will plateau. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest persists, it will become obvious during competition. Overtraining can best be defined as the state where the athlete has been repeatedly stressed by training to the point where rest alone is no longer sufficient for recovery. Clearly this will only sabotage your coaching efforts.

By applying the principles outlined in this article, coaches will have the power to develop and monitor the success of conditioning programs for athletes.

Rob Williams is a Vancouver kinesiologist, personal trainer and posture specialist. He is also an experienced presenter and writer. His team of training professionals have changed the lives and bodies of thousands of clients over the last 15 years, while establishing close professional relationships with respected organizations like SportMedBC. Williams is the founder of Performance Posture, Canada’s first multi-disciplinary posture clinic, and Mixx Fitness Studio, a 6000 square foot private training facility in Coal Harbour. He can be reached at rob@williamshealthgroup.com.