Conditioning for Athletes and Not Being A Bully

By Garrett Harty

Energy Systems and How They Relate to Conditioning

Image result for rugby runningGrowing up as an athlete competing in sports from the time I was a youngster to a college athlete, I was generally subjected to practices filled with conditioning that would last forever. In fact, I can remember back to my rugby days in college where every practices would start out with a 5k, or at least it felt that way. After a long distance jog we would hit the sled for about an hour, do some tackling drills, play small games, and then sprint at the end of practices. The long slow distance run in the beginning of the practices was time for us to catch up on our teammates lives and allow for general tomfoolery. The sprints at the end of practice were usually miserable and nothing more than an opportunity to show how tough you were. Theses sprints could last for what felt like an eternity, and the general thoughts that went through everyone’s mind were, “why are we being punished”, “this is going to suck”, or “there is no reason for this”. Chances are these are the thoughts that your athletes are having in their minds every time you say “it’s time for conditioning.”         

Why is it Important to Train Energy Systems?

As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, I asked myself “is there a more effective way to condition athletes for their sport aside from having them run for hours on end for no purpose?” Not only is this style of conditioning dreaded by everyone involved, it has little carryover to game speed conditioning. In reality, we are encouraging athletes to jog or do the “big boy shuffle” (walking with a hop), and then we chastise the athletes’ who are unfortunate enough to lag behind the pack. By punishing the stragglers, aren’t we just screaming-coachbeing bullies? What if it was you or your child at the back of the pack, being yelled at by the coaches? After being an athlete under this style of conditioning and watching the effects it’s had on teams, I, like many others have started using the same principles that we use for  weight training with conditioning.   

A Better Way to Conditioning

I’m not the first person to have these thoughts, and I’m not the first person desiring the development of an effective conditioning session. While an effective conditioning session will not stop the team from having a couple of athletes at the back, it will adhere to the SMART principle (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Repeatable, Timed) and lead to the questions/answers of just how prepared the team is for the session and why the team may be struggling to complete the training session.

traditional-periodization-model2So that leads us to the next logical step — how do we condition athletes with a purpose? There are a number of variables that influence this next step, including: the sport we are training for, the time of year, the dominate energy system used by that sport, and logistical considerations such as; time restrictions, number of sessions, and the location. Most coaches struggle with training the most dominant energy system because they need to  allowing their athletes to recover. The next section will cover why it is important to train the correct energy systems and why athletes need to recover between bouts of sprinting.

Energy Systems


The anaerobic and aerobic energy pathways combine to generate energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for the body. The anaerobic pathway can rapidly generate ATP However, it is less efficient than aerobic ATP generation in part because it does not incorporate oxygen.

Both the anaerobic and aerobic systems can be further broken down into two sub-pathways each. The Phosphagen and non-oxidative glycolytic pathways are both anaerobic. Since these pathways can rapidly generate ATP, the body utilizes them in the early stages—roughly the first two and a half minutes—of exercise. After the first two and a half minutes of continuous exercise, the more efficient, oxidative glycolytic and oxidative systems begin producing the lion’s share of generating the body’s ATP for the remainder of the activity.


The anaerobic system is broken down into two sub systems: The Phospagen (A lactic) and Non-Oxidative Glycolytic (Lactic).  

The Phospagen system is the initiation system used to start every movement.  The Phosphagen system uses ATP already stored in the muscle cells and creatine phosphate to accelerate the creation of ATP within the cell. The phosphate system is the dominant system for the first ten seconds of movement. This system is generally used in sports with a single max effort or repeated max efforts with a break or active rest periods, this occurs in most sport.

The Non-Oxidative Glycolytic occurs after the first ten seconds of activity, and is the dominant pathway until two minutes and thirty seconds have elapsed. This energy system metabolizes carbohydrates for energy by a process called glycolysis to produce ATP and pyruvate. Glycolysis is fast, but inefficient and produces just two molecules of ATP from a single molecule of carbohydrate. When muscle cells have sufficient oxygen, they can break down pyruvate aerobically to yield more ATP molecules through oxidative glycolysis. Since oxygen is limited during the early stages of activity, cells instead convert pyruvate into lactic acid, which accumulates in the form of lactate. Although lactate does not directly cause fatigue, high levels of lactate buildup in tissues during intense exercise can quickly lead to exhaustion. The non-oxidative glycolytic system is used in most sports…  

To train both the Phospagen and Non-Oxidative Glycolytic systems effectively, use repetitive short bursts of high intensity combined with a rest period of either no activity or light levels of activity between bursts. To train the Phospagen system, the recommended work to rest ratio is between 1:12 and 1:20. To train the non-oxidative glycolytic system, the recommended works to rest ratios is between 1:3 and 1:5. These recovery periods could have active rest drills build into them. An active rest drill is another that will allow the athlete to recover but keeps them moving, an in practices  example would be 30 secs. passing, 30 secs. dribbling, 30 secs. holding a plank, 60 secs. water, 30 secs. walking back into line and waiting to go. An conditioning only session example would be allowing the athletes to walk back and get back in line.   


The Aerobic systems are: the Oxidative Glycolytic and the oxidative. The Oxidative Glycolytic system uses oxygen to break down pyruvate to yield more ATP. Oxidative Glycolysis is the dominant energy system after the first two minutes and thirty seconds until twenty minutes of continuous activity. This system is generally used in sports such as distance running, swimming, and rowing.

The Oxidative energy system uses oxygen in combination with the metabolism of fat to create ATP. The Oxidative system is the dominant energy system after twenty minutes of continuous activity. When a runner says they hit a wall around the twenty-minute mark, it is because the body switches from metabolizing carbohydrates to metabolizing fat to make ATP. This system is generally used in sports such as distance running, swimming, and rowing.

To train both the Oxidative and Oxidative Glycolytic systems, move at a consistent pace and gradually increase time or speed for longer periods of time.  


brett-_092114_rmu_mens_soccer_720Since spring sports are about to start, let’s use Soccer as an example to implement the above principles. In this scenario, the goal of conditioning is to prepare the athletes for sport specific pre-season team practices. Now that we have a sport, and time of year, it’s time to pick an energy system to train. Like most field sports, soccer is a repetitive sprinting sport, with active recovery. This means that we should aim to train the Anaerobic Energy Systems. Next we need to determine the time period we have to train.  We will use the three weeks before camp, with the assumption the athlete has been  training all summer. Each of the three sessions will track the yardage of that session, as well as the total weekly yardage, with the goal of completing each session in 15-20 minutes. The program will build in a  Linear fashion. I like to use Word and Excel. This way I can look back at it when the session is over to reevaluate how it worked and to have something to build off of for next year.

Take home points:

A better way to Conditioning

  1. SMART Principle(Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Repeatable, Timed)
    1. S: Specific- Sport, Time of Year and Goals
    2. M:Measurable- Yardage of session/week and Time of session
    3. A:Attainable- is the program realistic
    4. R:Repeatable- Keeping data on your team’s thought the years
    5. T: Timed-How long will the program last
  2. Train the most dominant energy system
  3. Build in recovery periods

The Anaerobic sub systems:

  1. The Phospagen system (A lactic) / initial energy systems  
    1. Dominant for the first 10 sec.
    2. Work to rest ratios are: 1:12 – 1:20
    3. Sports: Olympic Sports
  2. Non-Oxidative Glycolysis (Lactic) system
    1. Dominant for the 10 sec.-2:30 mins.
    2. Work to rest ratios are:  1:3-1:5.
    3. Sports: Olympic sports

To effectively train both systems use repetitive short burst of high intensity with a recovery period of no activity  or active rest between burst.  We have found that the Non-Oxidative Glycolysis system is the most time efficient to train Olympic Sport athletes during the conditioning sessions  because of the overall time it takes to do, work to rest ratio is shorter. We have found  that for a team of 20 athletes a work rest ratio of 1:3-1:4 is the most effective for conditioning.

Aerobic Sub Systems:     

Oxidative Glycolytic

    1. Carbs and Oxygen to produce ATP
    2. Dominant energy system from 2:30 mins-20min
    3. Distance running, swimming, rowing


    1. Fats and Oxygen to produce ATP   
    2. Dominant energy system from 20 mins on
    3. Sports: Distance running, swimming, rowing



Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W., & National Strength & Conditioning Association (U.S.). (2000). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics.

Siff, M. C. (2000). Supertraining: [strength training for sporting excellence (Fifth edition.). Denver: Supertraining International.

Garrett Harty is an Assistant Strength and conditioning coach at Robert Morris University where he deals mostly with the Olympic Sports.  He has a bachelors degree in Exercise Science from West Chester University where he was a student Strength coach for the WCU gymnastics program. He has worked as an intern at Malvern Prep School, Arcadia University, Temple University and St Mary’s Hospital wellness center.  He is also an assistant instructor for Fit EDU, Level 1 Certified Kettlebell Coach (CKC-1) and a certified Yoga instructor.  He can be reached at



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