Lessons in Conditioning: Conditioning v. Grinding
Are you actually getting in better fighting shape, or are you just grinding your body to a halt?
Athletes adapt to what they do. Distance runners gain aerobic endurance, wrestlers bathe in lactate (among other metabolites), and weightlifters live in a beautiful – 3-5 minutes of rest between sets – alactic world. These adaptations occur over time and throughout seasons of life. As much as we can train or emphasize qualities of conditioning within our training protocol athletes will adapt to the most chronically demanded output they see: their sport.
As the world of training evolves, more chronic workload management is being thrust on strength and conditioning coaches, sports scientists, and athletic trainers. This means that in general we are gaining a better idea that all stress affects performance and how. That’s great, except when we interpret the “data” and falsely understand what it means. In this world we must be aware of how the stress from our conditioning is actually compounding and collaborating with the other stresses, but we don’t know how to quantify that without context.
Many coaches trust in the SAID principle, as they should, but the argument made in this article is that we apply that principle with the wrong perspective. We expect that the demands within our programs will create adaptations that we specifically planned for, but this is not true. The demands that are imposed will only elicit effects based on the athlete’s performance.
For instance, if an athlete is prescribed alactic power sprints and the athlete chooses to perform this conditioning routine after a two and a half hour wrestling practice, then that athlete is not ready to sprint at the intensities necessary for the plan. The athlete will get better at high intensity bouts after grueling fatigue, but adaptations to alactic power? I am not so sure. So the specific adaptation is to athlete performance, not the coach’s “imposed demands.”
To program and train robustly we must plan for real life and adapt accordingly. Athletes are not Olympic class petri dishes, they don’t act that way, and nor should they. Most athletes lead stressful lives and have other priorities than just practice or training. Progress can certainly be made, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a conditioning protocol will have the exact effects listed in texts, or ones that the coaches foresee. Plenty of coaches, myself included, have ran into their fair share of “real-world” training problems. The typical reaction is to reduce extraneous variables and control training as much as possible. Instead, what if the coaching world was to stop viewing the real world as a problem, and start viewing the constrained laboratory standard as the problem. This is the starting point for actually impactful conditioning. (And coaching for that matter.)
So if strict, lab tested, evidence based protocols are not robust to challenges, what can be robust? A systems based approach. A process that manages total workload, analyzes strengths and weaknesses, then targets key individualized parameters. All of this with the understanding that nothing is lost when the athlete cuts the last rep because they have to go to class, or sprints for 1:15 not 1:45 because they aren’t paying attention. This system of managing workload and acknowledging the messiness that is human adaptation is an integral part of effective exercise prescription.
In order to adopt this type of system we must change our perspective. — Forewarning: This involves multiple doses of ego swallowing — Instead of seeing adaptation as sets and reps on an excel sheet, we need to look at how our athletes handle fatigue, what their go-to speed of play is, and whether or not that is beneficial. Athletes don’t adapt to the exercises you prescribe, they adapt to how they perform, so we need to watch them perform.
I had two teammates on my collegiate wrestling team that ran 5-7 miles every day. These guys were dedicated aerobic monsters, and remarkably successful. Regardless of the strength and conditioning coach’s well intentioned power/peaking phase, these guys were not going to improve their power output capacity before the national meet. They were too “bogged down” with their aerobic training regime. Though their training seemed sluggish, and never-ending it yielded successful performance. (One of these guys won a national championship.)
No matter how strong or powerful strength coaches want to make athletes, performance is the first priority. A system that tests energy system abilities, weighs individual stylistic strength and weaknesses, and targets the most applicable training is better than satiating a coach’s ego or generally accepted conditioning methods. Increasing our frame as strength and conditioning coaches to see practice, life, school, and training demands is not a choice when selecting conditioning methods, it is a necessity.
Seeing the balance of these stressors is a new perspective for many coaches. Most likely athletes are good at the qualities that their sports demand and the best we can do as strength coaches is fill in the gaps, and enhance already strong performances. Chasing qualities that strength coaches label as general, or traditional is as helpful as chronically listening to Metallica in the weight room because it “seems appropriate.” Instead lets assess, understand, then take action on what will actually impact an athlete’s performance on the field, court, or mat. (Not on performance tests…)