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Conditioning as a skill of the game.

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

One of my core roles with the Elite Rugby Program in Hong Kong is to manage the conditioning aspect of physical preparation. In this article I will attempt to articulate my philosophy, which has been refined over the last number of years, and discuss some of my key influences.

What is conditioning?

This definition by Joel Jamieson in Ultimate MMA Conditioning sums it up nicely, in my opinion:

“Conditioning is a measure of how well an athlete is able to meet the energy production demands of their sport.” – Joel Jamieson, Ultimate MMA Conditioning

Conditioning refers to training that:

  • maximizes all capacities of physical performance relative to the sport.

  • enables players to execute technical and tactical skills.

  • allows players to cope with demands of game/reduce injury risk.

If an athlete is well conditioned, she will be able to comfortably meet the energy production demands of her sport. If an athlete is poorly conditioned, she will struggle to meet the energy production demands of her sport, which can manifest as breakdown of technical skills, tactical skills, or injury.

The physiological component to conditioning can be broken down into:

  • mechanical work

  • metabolic response to mechanical work

Athletes win medals and trophies for the mechanical work they do (winning a race), not the metabolic response to the mechanical work - no player has ever won a medal for having the highest VO2 max.

Between the explanations of what conditioning is, and the breakdown of the physiological component of conditioning, it is clear that conditioning is a skill. As such, it must be trained like a skill. Looking at the image below - Newell's model of constraints - conditioning can be classified of the interaction between the player, environment and task, combined with information-movement coupling.

Davids et al. (2003). Newell’s model of interacting constraints adapted to illustrate

the resulting effects on variability of physical performance

Simply put, conditioning is fitness development in a contextual manner. Like speed development in a contextual manner (discussed here), there are a number of interrelated key principles that must be included in any task designed to enhance fitness in a contextual manner:

  • there must be perception-action within the task;

  • the task must be representative of the game;

  • the challenge point must be optimal for the individual players within the group.

A training modality that fits perfectly within these principles is small-sided games (SSG). The planning of SSG requires effective collaboration between coaching staff and performance staff, to ensure there is a good balance between technical demands of the game (to work the technical skills) and the physical demands (to work the physical skills). SSG can be adjusted to suit many training needs, technical, tactical or physical. For example, increasing pitch size will lead to players covering more distance. Increasing player numbers will increase agility demands. The aim of SSG should be to exceed match physical demands while improving skills and on-field decision making. This mode of training ticks all the boxes regarding the ecological dynamics principles to skill acquisition, namely:

  • perception-action coupling

  • representative task design

  • there can be effective task manipulations to encourage players to interact with affordances.

Touching on the second aspect of the physiological component of conditioning - metabolic response - a great analogy for this is that of the watering can. A gardener needs 1.5 liters of water to water all of his plants, and the watering can he has has a capacity of 2 liters. He fills the watering can with 1.5 litres of water to do the round, but discovers multiple holes in the can, which cause a leakage, so he is unable to water all of his plants. To correct this fault, he can either a) fill the watering can up with more water, or b) plug the energy leaks.

The same idea is applied to conditioning. For a player to enhance her conditioning, she can either develop her capacities more, or enhance her movement efficiency. This again highlights the value of fitness development in a contextual manner - simultaneously enhancing capacity and efficiency.

What is fitness/energy system development (ESD)

If conditioning refers to training that maximises all capacities of physical performance relative to the sport, then fitness refers to training that maximises all capacities of physical performance regardless of the sport. Referring to Newell's model of interacting constraints above, ESD only improves the individual, not performance as a whole.

There are three main energy systems, that are all in use all of the time, at different proportions - ATP-PCr, anaerobic and aerobic system (the names of each system may vary slightly from one program to another). Within rugby union, because there is such variety in the roles of each position, there is also a variety fitness profiles. For example, scrum-halves need a highly developed aerobic system to ensure they are able to get around from breakdown to breakdown. A prop also needs to be able to get around the pitch to remain onside for example, but would have a greater emphasis on their ATP-PCr and anaerobic systems, to ensure they can compete at set-piece.

To determine what qualities to develop, a test I have used in the past is the 30-15 IFT and I have combined that with sprint testing. The reason I like this is because it can help develop a metabolic profile of a player, and identify possible work-ons. There are similarities between a 30-15 IFT and a gold-standard VO2 max test - both are graded exercise tests and end at the point of volitional fatigue. The 30-15 IFT would be classed as an aerobic measure, resulting in a maximum velocity of intermittent fitness test (VIFT), and sprint testing would tell us a player's top speed (typical calculated from 30-40m in a sprint test), defined as maximal sprinting speed (MSS); and with the combination of these two measures we can calculate a players anaerobic speed reserve.

Expressing a players’ VIFT as a percentage of their MSS can assist with establishing individual player work-ons. For example:

  • Player A recorded the highest score in the 30-15 IFT, and highest percentage score when his VIFT was expressed as a percentage of his MSS. However, his MSS was the lowest of the group. This indicates that his weakness is anaerobic power/maximal sprinting speed.

  • Player B, on the other hand, recorded a worse score in the 30-15 IFT when his VIFT was expressed as a percentage of his MSS in comparison to Player A. This suggests that Player B has quite a strong anaerobic/neuromuscular system and his weakness is more likely his aerobic engine.

  • See here for further detail.

With all this information, it is easy to say that in the example above, player A needs to work on his maximal sprinting speed, and player B needs to work on his aerobic abilities. However, this is where the context comes in. Player A is a scrum half, so needs to be aerobically fit to do his job, while Player B is a winger, so does not need as much aerobic capacity. If we train all positions to have the same metabolic profile, we will end up training the strengths out of almost every player. Testing is one thing, interpreting the data is another.

Should players only perform conditioning?

An article that has had a massive influence on my thinking is this read by David Joyce. David talks about his time working with the Chinese Olympic swim team, and how the prevalent philosophy in China focuses on skill development. As an example:

"the technical coaches behind one of our swimming world record holders demand that he maintains perfect form whether completing a lap in 34 seconds or in 29 seconds. The aerobic capacity improvements that come about are almost a happy co-incidence, but certainly not the primary goal of training."

Fitness is a by-product of training, not the aim of it. When referring to the weightlifting programme, David says:

"At the last Olympics (2008), they won 8 gold medals. This was not because they pursued a programme of gaining strength by any means possible, but because they pursued technical excellence under the bar. The aim of adding more weight is not to attain larger muscle mass per se (this is the side effect rather than the goal), but to challenge technique under increasing demand."

Whether an Olympic lifter, a swimmer or a rugby player, the aim of a conditioning program is to minimise the decay in force production from the first rep to the last in competition - and as mentioned before this can be through an enhanced capacity to produce force, or through maximising movement efficiency. I'm not a fan of the idea of helping preparing a team to out-muscle or out-run their opposition, but I love the idea of helping to prepare a team to out-wit and out-smart their opposition. I want to help create the best team because they are the best team, not because they are the most physically dominant.

Having said all of this, sometimes pure capacity development is both useful and necessary, and there are definite advantages to ESD:

  • Return to play (either from injury or from an off-season break), ESD can provide a physical overload far beyond any SSG, and the workload can be better controlled. A simple look at a GPS comparison of a maximal aerobic speed running block against even the most intense game will highlight this.

  • As has been noted before, individual characteristics such as aerobic fitness are modifiable with training, and a maximal aerobic speed program can enhance aerobic fitness much more than a SSG program, no matter how well the SSG are planned.

  • Players will identify affordances based on their action capabilities in a game. If a player's aerobic capacity is poor, then they will possibly make decisions in a game that will minimise the need to stress their aerobic capacity. They will choose to pass rather than take their opponent on, for example. With an ESD block, players have no decisions to make, so this is a way to ensure they build their action capability. Players with a greater number of action capabilities will see a greater number of affordances on the field.

Taking the long-term view - the Michael Phelps story.

I have been fortunate to be exposed to both individual and team sports, and this has shaped my philosophy on conditioning and ESD. While I was an intern at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS), I was once tasked with summarising a Bob Bowman talk for the swim coaches within WAIS. Bob Bowman was the coach of Olympic legend Michael Phelps. When describing the metabolic profile of Michael Phelps, Bowman used the analogy of a cup. The size of the cup referred to the capacity of the athlete; what was in the cup referred to the utilisation.

Capacity is an aerobic base. If an athlete’s aerobic base is large, they can perform large amounts of anaerobic efforts, as their ability to recover (aerobic system) is large. This enables them to perform repeated anaerobic efforts. Utilization is anaerobic. It directly affects the ability of the athlete to perform a sprint effort. Ideally, the athlete will have a large aerobic base (capacity) to enable the coach and athlete to fill it up with a large amount of utilisation training. While capacity training will not directly affect the time achieved in a race, it will affect the level of training that will occur in preparation for a race, which will determine the race time.

Michael Phelps had spent much of his underage career developing is aerobic capacity through his high school training, or building a large cup. So when it came to preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Bowman was tasked with filling that cup up. And because Phelps had spent a long time developing his aerobic capacity, he was able to tolerate a high anaerobic workload. This is the value of a well developed aerobic system, in many sports.

Implementing this model over a 4 year period for an international rugby team aiming to "peak" at a world cup would be challenging. Again, going back to what conditioning refers to, a conditioning program should "maximise all aspects of physical performance relative to the sport". Simply focusing on aerobic energy system development (preferably through contextual training) for a 3 year period while players have to continuously play a game with a mixed metabolic profile would be detrimental to performance, as we would neglecting the energy systems that are in use for many key parts of the game.

Final thoughts.

In the same way that I asked if we could use an agility training program to build the skill of agility AND the capacity of COD here, I would ask: can we use a conditioning program to build the skill of conditioning AND fitness capacities? I think it's possible, although it requires a lot more thought and collaboration than simply putting players through a time trial and prescribing a maximal aerobic speed training program. I'm a purist, skills pay the bills. I think that players could and should only condition through the game they play or representative tasks, or that isolated fitness work only takes up a very small percentage of training time. I dream of a world without fitness tests and running blocks, however unrealistic that may be.

Throughout this piece, I have discussed some of my thought processes and experiences around conditioning for performance. I count myself very lucky to have experienced many different ways to skin the cat, both from a team and an individual sport perspective. Many thanks to all coaches and players I have worked with and learned from over the last 7 years. Every experience has contributed to my current philosophy. Three key resources in the space that have aided my development:

  • Ultimate MMA Conditioning, Joel Jamieson

  • The Science and Application of High Intensity Interval Training, Martin Bucheitt and Paul Laursen

  • High Performance Training for Sports (V1), David Joyce and Dan Lewindon (looking forward to V2 coming out this year).

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