Understanding Conditioning for Your Position/Sport

Understanding Conditioning for Your Position/Sport

Summer is the unofficial start of when fall sport athletes begin focusing on strength and conditioning in preparation for their upcoming season. Of the physical qualities to develop, more often than not, conditioning is where I see coaches make the biggest mistakes. Whether it’s from a lack of training knowledge, not understanding position and sport demands, or using conditioning as a form of ‘mental toughness training’ or punishment. Inappropriate development of an athlete’s conditioning will mean leaving performance on the table. In this article we will highlight some key considerations when developing a conditioning program.

Why Conditioning Is Important?

Simply put, conditioning is a measure of how well an athlete can meet the energy production demands of their sport and position. Whether you're a swimmer, football player or somewhere in between each sport and position requires a specific balance of power and capacity to be successful. Proper development of the specific energy systems and their power/capacity is vitally important to:

  • Build an efficient engine to support high performance
  • Improve both energy production and utilization
  • Reduce the risk of injury associated with fatigue
  • Support constantly high outputs throughout a game
  • Support more efficient recovery between reps, sets, bouts, sessions, days, etc.
  • Allow athletes to be more biologically efficient
  • Improve skill acquisition and sports mastery  
Energy Production comparison

What Are The Energy Systems?

Your body has 3 energy systems which are:




Each of these systems can be broken down into ‘power’ and ‘capacity’. Power refers to a system's rate of energy production, where capacity refers to the duration of energy production or the duration of energy production at a specific working rate. If we know what our sport and position demands are we can then begin to see what energy systems they primarily use and develop more effective conditioning programs. It is also important to note that all energy systems are operating at the beginning of exercise and contribute to total energy production, but the outputs and intensities of exercise dictate which one is the primary energy producer.    

Understanding Your Position & Sport Demands

Now that we have an understanding of why conditioning is important and what the energy systems of the body are… we need to look at what our sport and position demands are. The easiest way to determine these demands is through a time-motion analysis. Time-motion analysis looks at the movement of an athlete over a game or practice and the speeds/distances that they travel during the performance. Using the example of American Football, most plays last between 5-10 sec, the average drive is 6-10 plays and from start to finish a game lasts around 3 hrs. To take it a step further, the table below represents the specific demands of position groups during the course of a game.

Table of college football group game demands

If interpreted appropriately, this information should allow you the ability to develop a much more meaningful and effective conditioning program that addresses the specific needs of each sport and position. By doing so, not only will you get more out of your conditioning program, but you will limit the use of meaningless drills that have little to no transfer.

Conditioning For ‘Mental Toughness’ and Punishment

The ideas around conditioning that I believe need to be addressed the most is conditioning to make athletes more ‘mentally tough’ and using it as a form of punishment.

It is well respected that the idea of ‘mental toughness’ is context specific. Mental toughness has much more to do with managing athlete’s emotional arousal in specific situations to allow them to stay calm, focused and clear headed on the task at hand. This means no amount of endless grassers, suicides, etc. will equate to better 'mental toughness’ when it’s 4th and 3, the game is on the line and you need to execute a specific play. You’re better off putting your players in those high pressure situations so they can practice emotional regulation in that specific scenario.

In regard to conditioning for punishment. There are a few negative outcomes that can come from this. First of which is that you’re building an athlete’s negative association with exercise. At the end of the day not everyone will play at the next level, but everyone should strive to live a healthy lifestyle. Having a negative association with exercise early in life can lead to people being less physically active as they get older. Secondly, the excessive amount of aimless high intensity work can lead to a significant increase in fatigue that may not only decrease the performance for the following practice or game, but may also increase an athletes' likelihood of injury associated with fatigue.

That being said, I strongly discourage the use of conditioning for ‘mental toughness’ training or punishment.  

3 persons doing drills

Of the physical qualities to develop, conditioning is where I see coaches make the biggest mistakes. Whether it’s from a lack of training knowledge, not understanding position and sport demands, or using conditioning as a form of ‘mental toughness training’ or punishment. From this article my hope is that you can begin to appreciate the complexity that goes into developing a meaningful conditioning program. As with every other quality, arbitrarily throwing together conditioning workouts without respect to position and sport demands is doing a disservice to your athletes and is leaving performance on the table.

Erik Jernstrom

Director of Sports Performance @ EForce

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