Frontiers Of Conditioning

Frontiers Of Conditioning

The purpose of this article is to share promising conditioning concepts with coaches to enhance common training practices in the field. Below are three innovative strength and conditioning coaches’ on-field summer conditioning programs. These concepts have strong physiological rationale, and are currently used with college-level athletes at several programs. A sample of each coach’s content is presented separately, with care taken to provide a brief outline of the context of how it is used.

While suggested progressions and volumes are provided, it is necessary to note that volumes, intensities, and rest intervals should be adapted for athletes according to their levels of development, conditioning, and the current emphasis of a program, especially with youth and high school athletes.

Cross-Field Tempo Running
Damon Harrington, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Grambling State University


Tempo running is a conditioning method made popular by Canadian national sprints coach Charlie Francis, among others. The tool is commonly used in some fashion nearly year-round for sprinters to develop and maintain aerobic conditioning, to drill proper sprinting technique, and to maintain or enhance body composition. This all takes place while reducing reliance on the glycolytic energy system and minimizing fatigue (in theory) and muscle damage that results from faster running paces upward of 75 percent of maximum speed.

According to Francis, a tempo session is performed up to three times per week for a sprinter. Optimal speed for extensive tempo running, as Francis called it, is 65 percent to 75 percent of the athlete’s surface-specific maximal speed. Repetition distances prescribed vary, with 100 meter specialists commonly running distances around 100 meters.

Total volume in one training session for a well-developed sprinter session is around 2,000 meters, therefore the athlete may accumulate 4,000 meters to 6,000 meters per week under tempo conditions.

In contrast, 400 meter specialists might run up to 4,000 meters per session, with similar rep schemes and slightly longer distances prescribed for each repetition. Francis implied, therefore, that specialists in shorter races would run shorter distances for tempo work.

During the summer, Coach Harrington uses the first and third training days for speed and deceleration training, then transitions to change-of-direction training in a circuit-based approach (not discussed in detail here), paired with lower body lifts.

On the second and fourth training sessions of the week, tempo running is performed on upper-body lift days through most of the summer. This is done to provide neurological consistency regarding high-force and high-power stimuli the lower body is exposed to.

During tempo running, he uses the typical three groups (big, mid, speedy) to increase his ability to observe his athletes’ mechanics and body language. He decided on the upper volumes of his tempo conditioning regimen after reviewing in-practice GPS data, where most athletes accumulated higher speed running (faster running and some sprinting) volumes upward of 2,000 yards per practice. Harrington considers this the target to prepare his athletes for, and in his own words: “There are a lot of ways to get to 2,000 yards.”

His players perform tempo runs across the field (53 1/3 yards) from sideline to sideline, with the volume increasing from 20 repetitions in the early summer to somewhere between 40-50 repetitions per session in mid-summer. The upper volume always depends on the fitness level of the athletes he is dealing with, with a reduction in quality determining the upper limit the athletes are exposed to over the summer—based on his coach’s eye.

More specifically, if a higher fitness level is evident, then he will provide slightly more challenge. If a group possesses a lower fitness level, then a lower volume is prescribed. The work-to-rest ratio progresses from 1:5 to 1:3 (See Table 1), and the first session begins with 50 percent or less of the upper volume the athletes will perform (20 reps with 60 seconds rest). About the fifth week of summer, Harrington replaces tempo running with a repeat sprint ability and anaerobic capacity emphasis programming on the second and fourth training days (also paired with upper-body lifts).

Table 1

One aspect of this method of tempo training that coaches may not consider initially is the impact of the crown of the field upon the quality of work. Athletes begin the tempo run at a mild incline, which requires a subtly increased forward lean, greater knee lift, and acceleration compared to flat surfaces. As they begin to run down the other side of the crown, the decline running may enable a slightly faster pace to be attained, which would present a slightly increased challenge to maintain technique.

A key coaching point for any tempo work is that purposeful attention to detail is applied to running technique. Athletes should demonstrate upright posture and high knee lift during the gait as they approach the higher speeds encountered during the drill, with coaches actively providing feedback to correct issues. If technical flaws are present, either the intensity (speed) is too high, the rest interval is too short for their level of conditioning, the volume is excessive, or a need for remedial technical work is apparent.

Sleds, Grappling and Shuttles
Kurt Hester, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Louisiana Tech University

Coach Hester designed his summer conditioning program to prepare his players for stressors encountered in camp, along with an 80-play game. Therefore, primary emphasis in the summer is on progressively accumulating volume of short-distance repeat sprinting. All players condition over summer in one of three traditional groups: big, mid, and speedy, then lift.

Speed and change-of-direction work occurs before a lift, and conditioning work detailed in this article occurs after a lift. Because of differing positional game demands, sessions are designed differently for linemen (big) and non-linemen (speedy and mid groups). Tempo runs (not detailed here) are performed on the first and third day, and the below conditioning methods occur on the second and fourth days of training (Tuesday and Friday).

Linemen – Linemen perform heavy sled work and grappling with a bar to prepare them for the rigors of engaging opponents. The sled demands are progressively increased according to Table 2. Rest intervals stay consistent between repetitions at 30 seconds, with 3 minutes rest between sets.

Table 2

Grappling work is performed after sled work; Hester calls it the “Fifth Quarter.” It involves two athletes paired up holding a 50-pound, custom 2-inch thick steel bar. This is done within a fixed 3×3 yard box with 4-6 repetitions per set and 25 seconds rest between repetitions.

Athletes begin in an athletic position holding the bar, then on the whistle attempt to push the other athlete backward using the bar. Grappling is added in to the last four weeks of summer conditioning, and builds progressively from 7-10 repetitions.

Hester has the linemen run in the early afternoon several times per week, beginning in June. This is done because the group takes longer to lift, but has the additional benefit of exposing the athletes to harsher environmental conditions so they can tolerate camp and daytime games in the early season. This group is particularly sensitive to these stressors due to increased body fat. For safety reasons, he very carefully watches his players’ body language and does not hesitate to increase rest periods or decrease repetitions based on what he sees, for any of the groups.

Speedy And Mids – Shuttle runs are performed by non-linemen on the second and fourth training sessions to target repeat sprint ability, in distances of 20 yards and 25 yards. The initial workout features four sets of four repetitions (16 total reps) with a 30-second rest interval between repetitions. Rest intervals between sets (quarters) are 2 minutes. Rest intervals are consistent throughout the program. The last session of summer conditioning features five sets of eight repetitions (40 total reps). In the fourth week through the end of the program, the conditioning session culminates in two 60-yard shuttle repetitions (30 yards down and back) where athletes compete one-on-one.

The RSA Grid
Bret Huth, Head Strength And Conditioning Coach, University Of The Incarnate Word

Bret Huth designed this drill to develop the quality of repeat sprint ability in his athletes, and help them tolerate progressively higher volumes of accelerative running. For context, Huth used this concept last summer on Monday training sessions, with tempo running on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and change-of-direction work on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Each position group’s distances and volumes are based on GPS analysis of athletes in camp and in season within the Air Raid offense. He decided upon a rolling start instead of a stance start. This was done with the intention of reducing soft-tissue stress while exposing the athletes to volumes of position-relevant accelerative running in order to improve tolerance to these conditions.

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To implement the concept with five athletes per line, organize the field with cones according to position groups and related distances (See Diagram 1). Group size and rest interval desired will dictate the number of lines. Coach Huth designed the drill to be implemented with between five and seven athletes per group; more athletes in each group will increase the rest intervals slightly.

Athletes always run to the right of the cones to ensure all of them can finish each repetition with intent and without obstacles. One coach will blow a whistle every three seconds to initiate movement, and the first players in line begin to walk on to the grid.

At the second whistle the second players start walking and the first players start to sprint the prescribed distance. As the fifth players in line finish their sprints, the first players in line begin to walk again coming back to the start cone. This process is repeated for the desired number of repetitions in the set.

Between sets, 3-5 minutes of recovery is recommended (begin with 5 and progressively decrease rest over time). It is important to maintain strict whistle tempo to keep the rest intervals and athlete sequencing consistent.

Diagram 1
Diagram 1

Recommended distances for each position group reflected in Diagram 1 are: big (5-10 yards), mid (10-15 yards), and speedy (15-20 yards). These are position-specific distances based on GPS data, therefore coaches are recommended to consult published studies, their own GPS data, or a series of personal observations to produce alterations to distances, if desired.

A sample program for a college team may include the information in Table 3. To control quality, coaches are advised to ensure running technique does not become degraded substantially during the set. If reasonable technique is compromised, distances should be decreased and/or longer breaks between sets applied.

Table 3

This article was written by Ben Gleason, PhD, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW2, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston High School.


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