Effective strength and conditioning coaches conduct a needs analysis of both the athlete and his/her sport. A thorough examination of the physiological requirements of the sport is a part of this needs analysis. Depending on the demands of the sport, certain training modalities may lead to adaptations that do not benefit sport performance and some might even interfere with positive adaptations. An example would be strength and power athletes performing additional long-distance running. Many athletes and some position coaches believe that long-distance running has a distinct endurance benefit for strength and power athletes. What endurance means to the coach depends on the athlete, coach and sport in question. Many position coaches often encourage strength and power athletes to perform long-distance running as a form of extra work. This can occur even when a strength and conditioning coach has a planned and periodized program that abstains from long-distance running in favor of other methods that are more aligned with the requirements of the sport.
Let me contextualize a hypothetical example in which extra work might be prescribed for a strength/power athlete. In this hypothetical situation, strict adherence to the strength and conditioning program is not always mandatory for the athlete. Additionally, non-strength and conditioning and sports medicine personnel can overrule the strength and conditioning coach when it comes to training decisions. For this reason, concessions may need to be made to both the athlete and other personnel and the approach must remain collaborative. This ensures that a productive and progressive strength and conditioning program will remain in place and be supported by all parties involved.
In this example, let us assume that the strength and power athlete has been determined to have an issue with his/her level of general fitness that affects his/her task specific fitness (repeated efforts of throwing, sprinting, etc.).
In the past, additional long-distance running workouts were often been prescribed to remedy this issue. However, due to the interference effect, long steady-state aerobic work could a negative effect on the athlete’s maximal strength and power output in both practice and competition. Additionally, distance running can interfere with positive adaptations from specific training modalities designed to elicit adaptations in maximal strength and explosive power.1 The interference effect often leads to reductions in strength and power when strength, power and aerobic endurance are trained concurrently. This type of training has been shown to be particularly evident when aerobic training is programmed at high volumes and when distance running is the modality.
Cost Versus Benefit and Finding Alternatives. Improvement in aerobic capacity may help the athlete recover between specific efforts in his/her sport and improve his/her general fitness. However, the reductions in strength and power from using distance running to build aerobic capacity could outweigh the benefits. Referring back to the previous example, if it was determined that this athlete needed more aerobic capacity, the strength and conditioning coach would be better off selecting a non- or low-impact LSD (Long Slow Distance) strategy over LSD running. LSD work performed on a bike, for example, does not seem to interfere with strength performance to the same degree as distance running.2 Thus it may be prudent to provide extra work in the form of non- and low impact modalities like the bike, elliptical, or even power walking with a lightly loaded sled. These modalities have similar benefits to distance running with lower costs (recovery and negative effects on other qualities, etc.).
Some may argue that strength and power athletes should avoid all LSD work, and only perform anaerobic conditioning. However, assuming that this was already addressed in the team’s conditioning program, doing extra anaerobic conditioning could put the athlete on the path towards chronic fatigue. With a strength and power athlete, one session of extra LSD work on a bike or elliptical with a heart rate of between 130 and 150 BPM could be all it takes to see improvements in general fitness and aerobic capacity. Such a workout is also easy to recover from. Therefore, it has a low cost (fatigue) and high benefit (aerobic capacity/general fitness) ratio.
Minimum Effective Dose for Extra Work. In this example, the minimum effective dose has multiple meanings. The first is physiological. We generally want to prescribe the minimum effective dose of an exercise intervention to allow the athlete to achieve a positive adaptation in the targeted quality. For example, a 20 to 30-minute session of LSD work on a bike performed 1 to 2 times per week may be sufficient to lower resting heart rate, improve heart rate recovery between efforts, and provide additional benefits from improved aerobic capacity. Having an athlete perform higher volumes of this type of exercise may add unnecessary fatigue. Time spent performing extra work is time away from recovery and/or practicing sport skills, and it must be accounted for.
The second is perception. In the defined context of this example, the other personnel (sport coaches, management, etc.) and the athlete need to perceive that they have been given enough extra work in order for them to believe that they will improve. If they don’t, the strength coach runs the risk of having the athlete being asked to perform unmonitored extra work in secret or one of the other members of the organization overruling the strength coach and dictating the training intervention. This could lead to undesirable outcomes as uncertified personnel are now dictating training interventions and doses that may lead to negative performance outcomes or injury.
Psychology can sometimes trump physiology and it is important that the athlete and other personnel involved in his/her development believe that the training intervention and dose are sufficient to achieve desired effects. This may mean that the minimum effective dose of a given modality needed to achieve positive perception is greater than the actual minimum effective dose required to achieve positive physiological changes. For example, performing 20 to 30 minutes of LSD one time per week on a bike may be all that is needed to produce physiological changes but the coach asks the athlete to train twice per week in agreement with the athlete and other personnel.
Conclusion. Extra conditioning work is always tricky to program and implement in a productive manner. Context often dictates the manner in which extra work can be implemented and strength and conditioning coaches must be mindful of the contexts in which they work. It is essential that strength and conditioning coaches always seek to inform athletes, coaches, and other personnel involved in the sport in order to ensure that extra work is appropriately applied. Education can lead to better adherence to programming and help facilitate support for beneficial and appropriate training interventions in the future. If athletes and sport coaches trust the strength coach and the strength and conditioning program, the team and organization can avert many of the issues associated with incorrect perception of the minimum effective dose. Establishing trust takes time and patience.
- Braechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of Strength and Conditioning(3rd Ed.) [Kindle]. Kindle Location 3887.
- Wilson, J. M., et. al., Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis Examining Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Training Exercises. J Strength and Cond Res, 26(8): 2293-307, 2012.
Max Torres, M.Ed., CSCS is a Physical Performance Coach for the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, where he develops and implements the Rockies’ Physical Performance program at the Rockies’ Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic. If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out his blog at https://ironandinference