Running-based conditioning for team sports
General vs. specific debate
Click here for Part 1
Principle #5: Training transfer
I have touched upon training transfer in the discussion of work capacity. Transfer is defined as: if I improve in doing X how much will I improve in doing Y? Or in plain English: if I improve my squat strength, how much my 10m run will improve? These two qualities could be skills or motor abilities.
We tend to see higher ‘transfer’ between the exercises that look similar (if you improve vertical press, there is a more transfer to improve bench than squat), but on the flip side there are not a lot of studies on transfer mostly because it is hard to control it. We tend to see cross-sectional studies (throwers who throw X1-X2 tend to have bench press of Y1-Y2, and throwers who throw X2-X3 tend to have bench press Y1-Y2, or vertical jumpers of 30-40inches tend to have squat of 1,5-2,0BW), but they don’t provide any proof of causation: if I improve/change one aspect how much other aspect will improve/change in longitudinal way. Besides, no one is only training vertical press to see improvements in squat 5 weeks later, so it is hard to isolate training transfer from the training noise.
Training transfer tend to be positive, negative or neutral. Positive means that if you improve certain quality you tend to improve another related one. Negative mean that if you improve certain quality you tend to decrease another related one. And neutral transfer means there is no transfer. All this sounds great in theory and it is very nice intuitive concept, but I am still not familiar with sound studies on it using longitudinal approach. The ideas mostly come from the trenches of great coaches, like Anatoly Bondarchuk.
Another thing coaches tend to forget about training transfer is Production vs. Production Capacity. Thus they tend to over-emphasize ‘specific’ activities that look like movements in their sport for the sake of higher transfer (e.g. squats vs. single leg squats on balance board). But we also have Production Capacity transfer – if we perform activities that are not related to the competition activity, yet they tend to reduce injuries and increase availability of the players during the season, I would consider this transfer as well.
For the above reasons coaches tend to favor specific drills, but as we have seen they tend to have problems with specificity vs. overload principle and as we are going to see with specific chronic load syndrome. Besides they forget about transfer to Production Capacity as well.
If you want to learn more about this I suggest you also check the video by Joel Jamieson.
As with develop vs. express problem, training transfer tend to be a dynamic animal as well. For example, improving squat from 1,0 to 1,5xBW will increase your vertical jump in good degree. Improving it further from 1,5-2,0 will tend to improve it as well, but slightly less. Improving the squat from 2,0 to 2,5 will yield some benefits but they are going to be smaller and smaller, while the work that needs to be done is increasing as well the injury potential. This can be said for anything else from hammer throwing to soccer.
We tend to ask questions when is one too strong or possess too much endurance? This is the problem of transfer. With soccer for example, improving you endurance (MAS, VO2max, LT, etc) will yield improvements in game related parameters along with improvements in work capacity. But there is a tipping point where the transfer is neutral and becomes negative. This negative transfer might not be ‘direct’ per se, but rather the process of improving endurance to highest levels tend to distract you from the training that have bigger importance to you as a soccer player.
Same thing with strength training. Up to a certain point, squat strength improvements has great transfer to improvements in acceleration and jumping ability (Production), along with making you less injury prone (Production Capacity). This transfer tends to get smaller and smaller and building up more strength tend to demand more and more time and energy and end up distracting the players from more important training. Dan Baker talked about this as well in this PAPER from 2001.
The problem is identifying this tipping point, and the coaches tend to the ditch the whole strength thing because they tend to see things in black and white. Things like – if weightlifting makes better football players, let’s recruit weightlifters, or even worse – if weightlifting improves football, then football improves weightlifting, which comes back to develop vs. express discussion.
Going back to the soccer example and training transfer of endurance training. Since this is the dynamic process it is important to identify whether there is some potential for transfer of endurance training (running based conditioning) to game related performance and work capacity (as far as I know there is only one longitudinal study that involved mentioned hypothesis – a study done by Martin Buchheit et al. which I explained in the following post on RSA). And this is the tricky part. It might involve some experimenting and monitoring the effects. In my opinion, the running based conditioning is mostly suited for intermediate guys.
Let me explain. With kids and beginners there is no need to (specifically) improve capacities since they don’t have the skill to exploit it yet (see Verkhoshansky graph in part 1).
With highly advanced guys their capacities are (tend to be) very high (for their sport/position) and their skill to use them is very efficient (although there might be players who are more efficient in using what they have, and ones that are less efficient in using what they have, but they have better potential – training them might be different).
Improving their capacities might involve too intense training or too much volume that might yield no further benefit in terms of improvement of game related performance and that might make them too tired and drained. With these guys the key is to make them able to play year round without injuries and allowing them and the clubs to make God-knows how much billions $$$.
Even with those characteristic some things can still be improved. The problem is that their competition calendar (problem of context) is so dense that it is hard to improve anything in terms of physical quality to a higher degree. Strength and conditioning coaches that work with highest level clubs (especially soccer), and with the exception of the few, actually don’t do much serious physical preparation work – mostly prehab/rehab stuff, monitoring, warm-up, cool-downs, recovery sessions and everything else low intensity and low volume.
Sometimes the exceptions are off-season, pre-season and bench guys. But this depends on the sport, where soccer is the most notorious for such an example. If you are interested in hearing more about the problems of training in these situations please refer to the following article.
These are extreme cases, but coaches tend to pick them to rationalize their training methods (e.g. Messi is not doing squats, why should my players?). They forget how much genetically gifted these guys are, and how technical they are. Sport is full of example of the elite players that did jack sh*t in terms of physical preparation and were still dominating due their great genetical traits and supreme technical and tactical skills (and especially in sports that are more technical and tactical dependent than physical – rugby vs. soccer). It is erroneous to base our training to the few extreme examples.
That’s why the guys stuck in the middle (and that’s like 80-90% cases) can drain the most potential (training transfer) from more general activities, in this case running-based conditioning.
Principle #6: Specific chronic load syndrome
Specific chronic load syndrome is nothing else that saying differently that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. First time I’ve heard this concept formulated into ‘specific chronic load syndrome’ term was by Dan Pfaff
We can see this example popping out everywhere. In powerlifting, the debate variety vs. specificity gets another twist – by performing only (or having a great focus on) specific lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) ala Sheiko, one tend to ramp up the ‘groove’ or the skill part of those lifts, but also one tends to overload specific tissues that might needs some ‘rotation’, especially when done with high intensity, intensiveness and/or volume. This might results in chronic injury.
Going back to the running-based conditioning - if these are performed coaches tend to make them more sport-specific: a lot of start/stop and change of direction. Nothing wrong with this approach, but one needs to put things into context.
If the sport practices involve a lot of start/stop, change of direction done at high intensity, then putting more oil on the fire might end up with injury. I will get back to this idea in volume vs. intensity principle as well.
That’s why all general activities, involving running-based conditioning should supplement and complement sport practice.
For example, during the off-season when there is no or minimal sport practices, after one deals with injuries from the last season, it might not be very wise to base all of your conditioning to long slow running. Some more specific, higher intensive running with start/stop, change of direction might also be needed.
In pre-season where there is a lot of sport practices and small sided games, speed work and change of direction work, it might be wise to lower the number of running-based conditioning that involves a lot of start-stop and cutting action.
During the in-season, maybe all that is needed is high-intensity cross training on the bike or in the pool (non-impact). Yet, again this depends on the sport and athlete in question. Make sure to pay attention to acute relieving syndrome and work capacity as well.
All that is mentioned revolves around importance of context – thus there is no ideal solution without considering context.
Another aspect of Specific chronic load syndrome involves smart planning and variety. People tend to ‘adapt’ to certain type of exercises/method/load, both in physiological way and psychological (boredom?). This comes back to ‘periodization’ of training and smart rotation/modification of means, methods and loads to avoid Specific chronic load syndrome and avoid adaptation stiffness (term coined by late Charlie Francis)
Principle #7: Volume vs. Intensity
To improve one’s endurance, should one focus on long slow activities, or focus more on intensity activities? I don’t know any better free sources about it than the following ones:
Methods of Endurance Training by Lyle McDonald
Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training by Stephen Seiler
Quantifying training intensity distribution in elite endurance athletes by Stephen Seiler
Science of Running Literature Review by Steve Magness
Crossfit endurance, Tabata sprints, and why people just don’t get it by Steve Magness
What is the simple conclusion of these articles is that both extensive and intensive methods are important. It appears that elite endurance runners tend to distribute their workloads in polarized manner.
I don’t remember if the following research/case study is mentioned in the above links, but in a group of endurance athletes the improvements in performance correlated with increase in the amount of low intensity training rather than increase in high- and medium- intensity training.
Anyway, the question is how is this related to team sports (or mixed sports)?
There are two published papers on the subject of training distribution in soccer in this case, as far as I know:
Quantifying Training Intensity Distribution in a Group of Norwegian Professional Soccer Players. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2011, 6, 70-81
Effect of Training Intensity Distribution on Aerobic Fitness Variables in Elite Soccer Players: A Case Study. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):66-71.
In the study by Algroy the concluded that “present results demonstrate that soccer players do not employ a training intensity distribution typical of high-level endurance athlete training more total weekly hours. Instead, their training is marked by most training sessions having significant periods of time at or above the lactate threshold intensity.” (p. 79)
In a study by Castagna et. al they concluded that “Training spent at high intensity was significantly related to relative speed improvements at 2 mmol · L(-1) (r = 0.84, p < 0.001;) and 4 mmol · L(-1) (r = 0.65, p = 0.001). Players spent almost two-thirds of their training time at low intensities. However, only the time spent at high intensity (>90% of maximal HR) was related to changes in aerobic fitness. These results support the usefulness of the quantification of aerobic training load using HR. Furthermore, it stresses the effectiveness of the high-intensity training in soccer” (abstract)
There is an apparent difference in distribution in percentage (based on the data from the studies, without going into different methods of calculus):
Elite endurance athletes
As can be clearly seen from the table, soccer players spend a lot more time in Zone 2 (lactate threshold, around 80-90% HRmax, or 2-4 LA mmol/L) and a lot less time in Zone 3 (a.k.a. VO2max zone, above 90% HRmax and above 4 LA mmol/L). What does this tell us? Is increasing Zone 1, decreasing Zone 2 or increasing Zone 3 yield better endurance performance in soccer players?
One thing is sure – we need more data on this, especially longitudinal and how it relates to endurance qualities (VO2max, MAS, Yoyo, etc) and match-related performance.
What seems like an apparent conflict between the results of the studies it is actually a matter of context and level of the athletes. With high level endurance runners further improvements comes largely by increasing the amount of low intensity activities (aka junk miles) with intensification yielding some benefit as well (make sure not to ditch the medium ground completely).
Since they don’t need the extreme levels of endurance qualities nor any other quality in general (as explained in THIS article), mixed-sports like soccer players would probably beneficiary react to increasing the (absolute) amount of time spent in Zone 1, but that kind of endurance focused training will probably move them away from more important goals (see the transfer principle). What’s probably a good strategy is to avoid pounding more in the Zone2 and increasing the workloads in Zone3, at least when it comes to running-based conditioning (with the goal of improving aerobic capacities and endurance).
As study done by Wong et al. (2010) compared effects of concurrent training involving serious strength training (4 sets of 6RM on high-pull, jump squat, bench press, back half squat, and chin-up exercises) along with high intensity interval training 15/15 (15sec run, 15sec passive rest) at 120% MAS on the vertical jump, 10m sprint, 30m sprint, YOYO test and MAS test. There were also control group that only did usual soccer training. The results speak for themselves (page 657).
Does this (improved MAS, YOYO) directly transfer to game related performance, like distance run, or number of sprints? As Mendez-Villanueva and Martin Buchheit concluded this is “simply, more complex” (Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Sep;111(9):2387-9). You can read more about this in RSA is Overrated article.
Long story short, this is also a problem of develop vs. express principle. Having improved MAS and YOYO scores means having a higher potential, but finally the game constraints like tactics and skill level, limit your expression of this potential. Where is the tipping point, where further increase doesn’t bring any transfer to Production nor Production Capacity is yet unknown.
Even if the recent studies showed that higher ranked teams actually run LESS in a game (see study by DiSalvo in RSA is Overrated), they also tend to have higher potential (in a form of YOYO score) as shown in a study by Ingebrigsten et al. (J Sports Sci. 2012 Sep;30(13):1337-45), even if they are not from the same league.
One thing is sure – we lack longitudinal studies, where we compare training interventions and improvements in both potential and it’s transfer to game-related performance and injury tendencies (since Low injury rate strongly correlates with team success. Br J Sports Med. 2012 Sep 15)
At the moment I hold the following position – since both the extensive work and intensive work are important in improving endurance, in mixed-sports most of extensive work comes from practices and thus running-based conditioning should take care of higher intensity part of the equation. There are numerous studies to back up this claim (recent one by Gunnarsson et al.), along with opinions and work from experts like Dan Baker (see THIS and THIS), Inigo Mujika and many others.
Please note that the higher-intensity intervals doesn’t necessary involve ONLY glycolytic/anaerobic work (as excellently said in this article by Steve Magness), as aerobic training doesn’t only involve low intensity long duration steady state activity.
Most notably, they (higher intensity intervals) involve intervals above (or closely around) MAS. There are a lot of ways to program and individualize higher-intensity intervals based on MAS score or 30-15IFT and for this reason I suggest checking linked article by Dan Baker and the review paper by Martin Buchheit.
Another important thing to consider in this case is the context. If the sport practices are mostly extensive type work, then running-based conditioning (or general conditioning) should take care of higher intensity. If sport practices are very intense, then running-based conditioning (or general conditioning) should take care of lower intensity. If there are no practices, for example in off-season, then running-based conditioning should take care of both extensive and intensive aspects.
I would love to finish with modified Raymond Verheijen in-season periodization (that a lot of coaches are following at the moment). I basically reduced some of the volume in SSGs (small-sided games) and put some running-based conditioning of higher intensity. If the SSGs are of extensive type, then running-based conditioning is of higher intensity. If SSGs are of intensive type, then running-based conditioning is more extensive (but still intense). Please note that this is only an example.
Hopefully I succeeded in an effort to explain why it is important to implement some form of running-based conditioning into your training system, as long as you choose the best possible option by understanding the mentioned principles, your context, goals and players. This could be applied to all types of general training components as well.