Running-based conditioning for team sports
General vs. specific debate
There is a recent trend in team sports to completely ditch the running-based conditioning for the sake of performing only small-sided games (SSGs). There have been an over-use of running-based conditioning (i.e. running suicides for 20+min or doing long slow run for 60min) in the recent history and now the pendulum have swung into opposite direction – ditching them completely.
The famous German philosopher Hegel explained this common phenomenon using thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad, thus one could probably expect the pendulum to swing back to the middle and stabilize there. In other words, expecting running-based conditioning solely to get you in a game shape was erroneous as expecting solely SSGs to bring your game shape even higher. The solution is complementary: both general (running-based conditioning) and specific (small-sided games) are important and both need to be utilized in a sound training program. There is time and place for everything in training.
It is important to understand couple of important principles that guide my decisions behind running-based conditioning workouts I create. Even if you don’t agree with me or my positions and/or programs, you are going to be able to see where I am coming from and what rationale is behind it. Here are the key principles that guide my decisions:
- Work capacity development
- Stimulate vs. simulate
- Specificity-Overload trade-off
- Develop vs. express
- Training transfer
- Specific chronic load syndrome
- Volume vs. Intensity
Let’s explain each of them. I will cover first four in this part and finish up in the second.
Principle #1: Work Capacity
Work capacity in simple terms is ability to perform SPECIFIC work and recover from it, in short, medium and long time frames. It is very tied with Production vs. Production Capacity principle by Stephen Covey, the famous productivity guru.
Getting athletes in shape should take into account improving their Production and improving their Production Capacity as well. What all of this means is that the goal of physical preparation or any other (i.e. technical, tactical) is not to prepare players solely for one game, or even worse to improve one sole physiological parameter (like VO2max, vVO2max, lactate threshold, etc), but rather to prepare them for the long season full of games and weeks full of specific training sessions. This also means making players available for both training sessions and games during the long season very important (by making them injury proof), along with improving their Production capabilities.
Work capacity is thus same as Production Capacity. Most of the players can play a game anytime on freshness. They will do it, but they won’t be able to repeat it, along with being available for technical and tactical sessions (which are crucial for building skill and expertise). Sometimes the demands of training might totally differ from demands of playing. And we tend to overlook this. Take (American) Football for an example – I am not an expert on it, but some positions don’t do much running in a game at all. Thus the conditioning (stamina) demands are pretty much close to zero. Yet, some of those guys are doing a lot of drills and running in practices. We need to get our athletes ready for both training and playing (games).
The problem with work capacity is that it is specific and it takes time to build it, thus specific workloads have to slowly increase in volume over time. That means you cannot ride a bike for 3 months only and expect your “game fitness” to be improved. Your Production might be improved (probably with increased aerobic capacities), but your ability to carry specific work and recover from it will go down the drain (if you don’t do it in parallel – hence the important of complex approach). The only way to improve work capacity is to actually participate in you sport and your sport practices. But that doesn’t mean we can’t tweak it up a little bit.
It is interesting to note that some players, especially more aerobically fit ones, usually possess higher work capacity. Those players have higher MAS (maximum aerobic speed) and they tend to tax their anaerobic reserves less than more anaerobically dominant athletes. Coaches need to identify those two profiles and maybe tweak their training: anaerobically dominant athletes have huge Production to Production Capacity and they tend to be very powerful and quick, thus they demand more recovery time.
Anyway, all athletes can work on their weaknesses in higher or lower degree during the specific periods of the season and in this case that might involve building the aerobic engine (and anaerobic engine as well) whose improvement can help to improve work capacity (Production Capacity), along with improving performance during the training/game (Production). The key is to use general running-based conditioning as a SUPPLEMENT and COMPLEMENT to specific training. No amount of solely running-based conditioning will improve you specific work capacity. That’s why both need to be present in sound training program in higher or lower degree.
Another key note to memorize here is that all physical workloads have training effects in both Production and Production Capacity in different degrees. For example, if certain methods/exercises don’t yield direct transfer to Production (performance on the game) it still might yield Production Capacity benefits (reducing injury risk, help to improve work capacity and availability of the players) and vice versa.
Principle #2: Stimulate vs. simulate
There is a lot of research involving time-motion analysis of sport performance. Thus coaches are able to provide more specific workout that mimic the game demands.
I have problem with this – why would you try to mimic the game, when you can actually play it? Also, a lot of time-motion analysis utilize mean values and we might miss the most strenuous parts of the game that need to be addressed (I wrote about this in RSA is Overrated series of articles). Thus, instead of mimicking game demands (simulate) we should sTimulate it. We should identify the most strenuous game demands (per position) for our playing style and stimulate with both specific and general training sessions. This brings me to the next principle, but before I address that one, we should also remember the first principle (Work Capacity) – we shouldn’t solely focus on game demands (Production), but also on training demands that precedes and follow those games (Production Capacity) and that allow players to be available the whole season.
Principle #3: Specificity-Overload tradeoff
A lot of coaches believe that they can solve everything with specific training. One of the problems with this kind of approach is that there is a tradeoff between specificity and overload.
Even if a game demands expression of speed, it doesn’t develop it in a degree that specific training aimed at speed development do (I will expand on this in the next principle). Even if a game demands expression of any technical or tactical skill, it doesn’t develop it in a degree that specific training aimed at skill development do. Even if a game demands expression of strength, it doesn’t develop it in a degree that strength training do. I can go on and on. I will be back to expressions vs. development later.
Coaches should understand that the more specific you get, the less overload you can create. Think of it as a race car. The best way to express all car performance is to actually drive it. But one cannot expect that tires, engine and brakes get any better from it (in this particular case they get worse). You need specific tweaking of them. You need to work on them. But you also need to drive to learn how to use those new add-ons. Again complementarity – you need both aspects.
Thus, even if you ‘feel your legs’ in 1v1 to 2v2 duels (small sided games), they don’t develop strength levels like (general) strength training (squats, split squats, RDLs, lunges, step-ups, calves, etc) do. Even if you feel your heart beating from 4v4-6v6 small sided games, they don’t develop specific underlying factors involved in oxygen transport like more general drills do. This doesn’t mean you should kick out specific work, but rather complement it with specific/general overloading workloads.
In the recent study by Casamichana et al. they compared physical performance during the friendly games and small sided games (ranging from 3v3 to 7v7 done in three modes: possession, small goals, big goals with goal keepers) using novel 10Hz GPS analysis. Here is what they concluded:
…Overall, the literature suggests that SGs do offer a specific method of training and manage to replicate most of the demands of competitive matches (14,16,18,37). However, the findings of this study showed that SGs are limited in relation to specific aspects of fitness, namely, the insufficient stimulation of high-intensity efforts and the small number of repeated sprints. This is so with work to rest times that differ considerably from what occurs in competition.
…At all events, the differences observed in physical profile might be even greater if SGs were compared with competitive rather than FMs.
…The results of this study provided evidence for the difference in activity patterns between SGs and FMs in male semiprofessional soccer players. Specifically, FMs showed higher demands in the high-intensity domain, questioning the original assumption of SG specificity.
…Given this, attention should be paid when using SGs for training prescription because this training method failed to provide stress on activity variables deemed to potentially promote adaptations for the development of game repeated sprint and repeated high-intensity activity
…Indeed, SGs should be used preferably for the development of greater technical-tactical skills and for aerobic-fitness development. (My note: here the authors think about more low-intensity activities at 7-13km/h)
What this tells us is that we cannot overload certain parts of the game by using ONLY small sided games.
Principle #4: Develop vs. express
The discussion on develop vs. express is one of the root principles of training theory. It does have many forms, like abilities vs. skill, training vs. practice, variety vs. specificity. I wrote one article covering this important principle that you can read HERE.
Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky identified this same dichotomy of the training process, and he stated that two complementary ways of improving (maximum and/or average) power in competition exercises are:
1. Increasing the athletes ‘motor potential’ (Specialized Morpho-Functional Structure – Anokhin’s theory of Functional Systems)
2. Improving the capacity to use that motor potential (technical/tactical skill – Bernstain’s Motor Control).
Verkhoshansky depicted the complementary process of these two dichotomies during the improvements of sporting result:
Coming back to our car driving example, when you start driving for the first time you basically start to learn how to use what you already have (expression – T curve on the graph). Then as you performance improves (S curve on the graph) you start to improve the car (development – P curve on the graph). This goes back and forth, with the intensiveness of both development and expression going exponentially up (R curve on the graph). This is of course over simplification, but the concept stands the ground.
Interestingly a lot of coaches have come to this root problem (being aware of it or not), not only in team sports, but in sports like powerlifting, marathon, sprint, hammer throwing, etc. And there are different coaches who lean to one side or another in higher or lower degree.
For example, Yuri Verkhoshanky block training system first improves “motor potential” and then switch to “capacity to use that motor potential” in sequential (block) manner. You can read more about it HERE.
On the flip side, one of the best coaches in history of hammer throwing Anatoly Bondarchuk, utilize more complex approach, where he is never away from expressing the motor potential in intensive competition exercises (in this case actually throwing the hammer, using the normal weight or slightly easier/heavier).
In powerlifting community there is a huge discussion regarding this concept, but in this case they identified it as variety vs. specificity. In Westside Barbell Club method (brainchild of Louie Simmons) one rotates a bunch of specific exercises every 1-2 weeks during the maximum effort days (ME). This way, according to Louie one is able to lift heavy all (or most of ) the time (90+% of 1RM) without burn-out and platoue (by rotating specific exercises).
On the flip side, Sheiko method utilize mostly specific lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) with higher volume and frequency (and thus lower intensity and intensiveness) along with some assistance lifts. You can read more about it HERE and HERE.
Renato Canova who is endurance running coach utilizes same principle to prepare his athletes for competition. He utilize blocks where he perform runs above and below specific speed (specific distance pace) and then he ‘funnels’ toward performing race-pace training. You can read more about it HERE.
In his Vertical Jump Bible book Kelly Baggett use the same principle, but he calls it Horsepower and Movement Efficiency.
Pretty much every coach has come to this (as I call it) root problem. I solve it by using complementary approach without leaning too much at either side (and the lean can change for certain sports, athletes, time of the year).
The key here is to have the dynamic look at it as well. Nothing (method or exercise) is either developmental or expression in their very nature, but vary depending on the sport, level of the athlete, age, training period, etc. What might be more or less developmental for someone, it might be more or less expression for other (i.e. squats for vertical jumper vs. squats for powerlifter).
I like to draw the following continuum (with vertical jump in mind):
This is very much in line with previous principle of specificity-overload trade-off.
During one’s career one method/mean might slide left or right. Also, the same method/mean might have different positions on develop-express continuum in speed, power, strength, endurance, tactics, etc. Thus what might have been developmental speed drills and expression tactical drill might become expression speed drill later on. The position changes, but the concept is still there. This is especially visible with youngsters – basically they can develop most qualities by playing the game and participating in the fun game-like activities.
Thus when it comes to small sided games, they might be developmental in technical and tactical way, expression in endurance and speed and they can change the position on the continuum during one athlete career. At certain level they might be only that’s needed (more on this later) when it comes to endurance.
In the Part Two I will cover the principles of Training Transfer, Specific Chronic Load Syndrome and Volume vs. Intensity. In the mean time I suggest to check Sebastian Kaindl take on this general vs. specific debate HERE
 Casamichana, D, Castellano, J, and Castagna, C. Comparing the physical demands of friendly matches and small-sided games in semiprofessional soccer players. J Strength Cond Res 26(3): 837–843, 2012