I think there is a misconception on what conditioning really is and how to improve it for young athletes. People tend to use words like “conditioning” and “cardio” without having a full understanding or definition of what they actually mean.
So what is conditioning?
Conditioning is a measure of maximum sustainable power output over a given duration. For example, how much power an athlete can generate without fatiguing throughout a game.
Each sport requires a different combination of power (the ability to produce energy very fast — low efficiency) and endurance (the ability to produce energy slowly for a long period of time — high efficiency).
Most team sports require a constant variation of higher power output and endurance. If an athlete focuses too much on the power side, his endurance suffers. If he focuses too much on the endurance side then power output will suffer. If he tries to improve both at the same time, both will suffer.
So it basically comes down to how well the system of an athlete’s body is able to create the energy their muscles need to perform the skills of their sport throughout a game. If the systems involved in energy production can generate ATP (the fuel muscles run on) fast enough and for long enough, then an athlete has good conditioning. If not, the athlete will gas out.
Rely too much on the anaerobic processes (high power output that is very inefficient) then an athlete will undergo larger performance decrements during a game, increasing the amount of fatigue, which will negatively affect performance.
Rely too much on the aerobic processes (higher efficiency = lower power output) then the athlete’s speed, power and agility will suffer; all the qualities that are required to optimally perform the skill of their sport.
Trying to improve both anaerobic processes and aerobic processes at the same time will lead to very little improvement in either, if any at all. So in a nutshell, improvement in both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are required for optimal conditioning in team sports.
Tim Rudd is an IYCA specialist in youth conditioning and owner of Fit2TheCore.
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