The Science of Sport Training and Conditioning


Though a great coach is always an artist in arranging a training system, the sport sciences are the underlying foundation of any successful training program. An overview of training science basics is the best starting point for every coach who wants to be a success.

Physiological Laws of Training

All training systems are affected by three physiological laws:
Law of overload
Law of specificity
Law of reversibility

Law of Overload
Any improvement in fitness requires an increased training load. That load is a stimulus to which the athlete's body reacts. If the load is greater than normal, the body becomes fatigued, and its fitness level falls. As the body recovers, though, its fitness level returns to normal. If the training load was optimal, the athlete will be more fit after recovery (overcompensation) than before the load
was applied.


Overcompensation is the central purpose of training. The coach plans a training load that produces a fitness increase after the athlete recovers. If the training load is too small, the training effect is less. If the load is too great, the athlete may not even rise to the original fitness level. Because each athlete reacts differently to training stimuli, training must be planned in terms of the
individual's abilities, needs, and potential.

The most effective training develops a base of general skills and fitness before developing the more specialized skills of each event. This goal is the major focus of the early part of the training year. The more balanced the body's early development is, the higher the performance levels it can attain later. This fact should be the major focus in training children and junior athletes.

Law of Specificity
The nature of the training load determines the training effect. An athlete needs training methods tailored to the specific demands of the event. The training load becomes specific when it has the proper training ratio (of load to recovery) and structure of loading (of intensity to load).
Intensity is the quality of the training load. Running speed is measured in meters per second (m/sec) or stride rate (s/sec). Strength is measured in pounds, kilograms, or tonnage moved. Jumps and throws are measured by height, distance, or number of efforts. The heart rate is a good guide for endurance running. The intensity of the effort is based on the percentage of the athlete's best effort.


The extent of the training load is the sum of training in terms of time, distance, accumulative weight, or other measures, while the duration is that part of the load that is devoted to a single unit or type of training. An athlete may run for 75 minutes (extent) yet elevate the heart rate over 150 beats per minute (BPM) for only 10 minutes (duration) of that time.
Specialization refers to training exercises that develop the capacities and techniques needed for a specific activity or event. Any thrower needs strength in specific areas of the body, while more specific motor skills are needed for each different throwing event. A runner needs speed and endurance, but the ratio depends on the length of the race. A runner must develop a technique
that is most efficient for the racing distance. All of these traits are developed by using specialized training. Elite training gradually changes the emphasis from general to specific training as the athlete ages.
Modeling is developing a model of the competitive event. The model is then used to develop a training pattern that simulates the competitive requirements of the event. Many years are needed to develop and perfect a model. It begins with the coach's analysis of the competitive event, but afterward the emphasis is upon trial-and-error refinement of the model.


Law of Reversibility
The training effect can reverse itself. If the training does not become more challenging, the fitness level plateaus (flattens out). If the training ends, the fitness level gradually falls. In fact, the training load must continue to increase if the athlete's general and specific fitness are to improve. If the training load remains at the same level, the fitness rises for a time, then begins to fall. The training load must increase regularly (progressive overload) for the performance level to improve (Figure 4-3), though the load may rise and fall (allowing recovery and compensation) across a given period of time. The training ratio (of load to recovery) is critical. The coach must determine how much recovery is needed within a session and between sessions.


At the same time, the planned training load must be realistic. The demand should not exceed the athlete's capabilities or rise too quickly, or it may be psychologically (and perhaps physically) destructive to the athlete's progress. The object of training is improvement, not discouragement or defeat.
Restoration is recovery from a high training load. Restoration is just as critical to the training effect as the training load itself. If too little restoration is allowed, the athlete will gradually lose fitness.
Active rest is a form of restoration (also used in the transition phase) that includes light physical activity. It may be jogging, or it may be participating in other sports. It allows the athlete to recover physically and psychologically, yet it helps maintain a base of general fitness.


The Components of Sports Fitness

Sports fitness has four basic components:

Sprint training
Time trials

Overdistance Training
Overdistance training is the essential element in the development of the endurance base. Coaches and athletes are learning that the intensity of training is more important than mileage. The super-heavy training loads of the 1960s and 1970s declined during the 1980s. Today, a typical training load for an elite runner at 10,000 meters and the marathon may be 80 to 90 miles per week, with considerably smaller loads for less experienced athletes. American marathoners who ran under 2: 15 to qualify for the 2004 US Olympic Trials reported an average training load of 96.7 miles per week, compared to 89.6 weekly miles for men who ran under 2:22. Women who qualified in under 2:40 averaged 84.4 miles a week, while those who ran under 2:48 averaged
69.2 miles a week.
Today, overdistance runs are becoming shorter and more intense. Runners use tempo running, shorter runs at a pace that causes an optimal pulse reading for a length of time, rather than "grinding out the miles" on long, slow runs. The training effect is much greater.

Interval Training
Interval training means running short distances (intervals), usually on a track. Interval training has five variables:
Length of the interval
Speed or intensity of the variable
Number of intervals
Length of the recovery
Nature of the recovery

Though interval training traditionally involves distances and times for those distances (such as 300m in 45 seconds), the work may be in terms of running set lengths of time at a given pulse rate or intensity level (such as 30 seconds at 170 to 180 BPM). The length of the work interval depends on the type of physiological improvement needed. The energy reserve of the muscles comes from ATP (adenosine triphosphate). It is produced by three pathways:
ATP-PC (phosphocreatine) system
Lactic acid (LA) system
Oxygen (O2) system

The ATP-PC and LA systems are anaerobic, working with little or no oxygen, while quickly producing ATP for a short time. The O2 system is aerobic (using oxygen) and produces ATP for a longer period of time. The choice of the interval depends upon the length of the race.


Repetition Running
Repetition running is a more intensive version of interval training. The intervals are run at a faster pace, with a nearly complete recovery between repetitions. Some coaches define intervals and repetitions according to their training emphasis. An interval focuses on the stress created by the pace and short recovery, while a repetition focuses on the pace itself, thus allowing a fuller recovery. In some training systems, repetitions are longer intervals, such as 800 meters or more.

Fartlek (speed play) is a less formal version of interval training that is especially suited to training away from the track. It mixes bursts of faster paced intervals of work with slower running within the context of a longer run on trails or a golf course. The length and the intensity of the faster runs are decided by the runner, depending upon what he needs and feels at the time. For more speed, shorter and faster bursts are used, while longer and less intense intervals are used for more endurance. Ideally, the training takes place on relatively soft surfaces, such as grass or sawdust trails.
Fartlek is a valuable training method because it allows a wide range of intensities, while also helping prevent the stress injuries that result from training on hard surfaces, such as pavement or running tracks. At the same time, it gives a more relaxing psychological setting and a chance to avoid the monotony of the track. It is more difficult for less experienced athletes, because they tend to turn it into a long, easy run with a few short accelerations. It has to be carefully taught to young runners. The use of heart monitors allows structured fartlek, a highly controlled training process, by monitoring and limiting the effort and recovery levels.

Sprint Training
Sprint training involves very short bursts of very fast running used primarily to improve the athlete's speed. It is also used for technique training. The recovery interval is almost complete, much like a short form of repetition running. Only a small number of repetitions are used, because fatigue changes the nature of the training. For distance runners, this technique is used in the final stages of
sharpening or peaking.


Time Trials
Time trials are mentioned because they are an easily abused aspect of the training program. Time trials have two functions: assessing progress and simulating competition. They should be conducted under meet conditions, more formal than a training session. They should be held no more often than two to three weeks apart, or they become meaningless. Unless a trial serves a
specific training function, it should not be used, because it reduces the number of effective training days. Frequent time trials are a sign of insecurity: the coach wants reassurance that the training system is working.


Strength-Development Programs

The order of strength-training exercises is critical in two respects. First, the larger muscle groups should be exercised before the smaller ones. Otherwise, overloading the large muscles is difficult because the smaller muscle groups tire more quickly. Second, no two exercises should train the same group of muscles consecutively, for the muscles would have too little recovery time.
The principle of specificity is extremely important. Strength development is specific to both the muscle group exercised and the pattern of movement used. You should duplicate the event movement pattern as closely as possible in the strength-training program. This specificity includes the joint angle at which the muscle is exercised and the type of contraction performed. Using
the proper joint angle and contraction is especially important in isometric training because the major strength gain in isometrics is only at the angle used in exercising the muscle.


Resistance-Training Procedures

Exercises are measured in repetitions (reps), usually divided into larger groups called sets. One set is a number of reps performed without interruption. Three sets of five reps (3 x 5) means to repeat the exercise five times without stopping, take a recovery rest, perform the exercise five more times, take a rest, then perform the exercise for a final five times, completing the three sets.
Resistance exercises are generally used three times a week, on alternating days to permit the muscles to recover. Strength specialists may train every day, but the muscle groups are divided so that no muscle group is trained on consecutive days. During the early competitive season, strength work drops to two days per week, then to once a week as the season nears its peak. At that
stage, the emphasis is on maintenance of strength. Improved technique makes up for any loss of strength. If strength training stops when the season begins, much of the strength gain would be lost before the end of the season.
Intensity is also a factor in strength activities. To lessen fatigue and improve efficiency, active rest is useful between lifts at higher intensities. This involves light or non-lifting movements directed toward other parts of the body after an intense exercise is completed.
Every athlete encounters "sticking points," performance plateaus that the athlete cannot pass. These points can result both from overtraining and from undertraining. Often a change in the workout load helps. Other causes may be poor diet or physical or mental fatigue (often called "staleness").
The starting weights are largely a matter of opinion and personal feeling. The coach or athlete should check the more scientifically oriented strength-training books. Starting weights may be based on a percentage of either the athlete's body weight or his best performance in each exercise. Strength training emphasizes either body development (hypertrophy) or strength, depending
upon the weight and number of repetitions of an exercise.


A General Weight-Training Program

This book will not suggest specific strength-training programs at this point, because it is better for coaches and athletes to develop their own programs. Many books deal primarily with such programs. In general, as athletes become more experienced, they will learn which exercises are most helpful on their own.


Plyometrics (jump training) is used to develop leg strength and resilience for explosive power. The most common forms of training are with multiple jumps (on one or both legs) on the ground and with jumps using boxes of varying heights. The training involves work with the muscles' stretch reflex. It will be discussed in more depth later. Plyometrics involves a high injury risk if too many
jumps are attempted, so caution is important.

Circuit Training

Circuit training uses a series of resistance exercises and calisthenics that follow a sequence, usually within an indoor area. The athlete moves quickly from one exercise station to the next, performing each exercise within a time limit. The circuit is finished when the performer completes the sequence. This approach is good for physical conditioning in limited areas, when bad weather conditions force athletes indoors, and for group exercises (athletes start at different stations, then move to the next station on a signal).
The parcourse is an outdoor version of circuit training, an exercise trail laid around a park or wooded area, with jogging or running between the stations. Oregon's 1984 Olympic 800-meter champion Joaquim Cruz used a similar course for his base conditioning, with a 10-station circuit at 100-meter intervals around a kilometer packed-sawdust loop.

Concerns in Training and Conditioning

Sex Differences in Sport Training
The training for both sexes is largely the same, differing primarily in terms of the loading. Until puberty, boys and girls have essentially the same abilities and capacities. During puberty, the differences are as great within a single sex as between the sexes. From about ages 10 to 16, adolescents show widely varying body sizes, strength, and levels of coordination, depending upon when a child goes through puberty and how quickly it happens. At this time (about the fifth through tenth grades), a teacher or coach needs to be as careful with single-sex classes as with a mixed class. However, both sexes can work at the same relative intensity.
After physical maturity (about age 18), several differences between the sexes affect physical capacity and performance. The typical male has about 12 to 15 percent body fat, compared to 26 percent for females. Women have more difficulty in reaching higher levels of performance because the additional body fat is "drag weight"; that is, it limits performance.
Body-fat levels may be very low in elite distance runners (2 to 6 percent in men and 10 to 15 percent in women). Menstrual irregularities may occur when a woman drops below 15 percent body fat, though research suggests training intensity or stress is a factor in this effect.' Among the potentially harmful effects of very low fat levels in women athletes are anorexia and the development of
osteoporosis, a dangerous thinning of bone density, which may not be recoverable in later years.
Women are more likely than men to suffer from anemia (iron deficiency). Heavy training increases this deficiency, so women in training may need iron supplements, though supplements should not be taken without medical consultation." Women's performances at different times in the menstrual cycle may vary, but the effect is highly individualized. Olympic medals have been won at all stages of the cycle.
Another major difference is the higher proportion of muscle tissue in men (about 60 percent) compared to women (about 40 percent). Because male hormones are a major factor in the development of muscular strength, women do not have the same potential for strength development that men have. Also, because of female hormones, it is very difficult for women to develop the
"bulky" muscles associated with male athletes." However, though a female athlete can become much stronger through training, even heavy weight training will not develop a "masculine-looking" woman. Women are both shorter and lighter than men, which has many effects in terms of biomechanics and potential power.
Although coaches are aware that some athletes may take steroids to help increase their strength, they should not forget a common hormonal treatment used by many women: birth-control pills. Younger women may be placed on the Pill by a physician to control menstrual disorders. Among the Pill's effects is
an increase in weight. Nausea may be a side effect when treatment starts, so the coach should be cautious in any interpretation of physical problems. However, never assume that any athlete's problem is only in their head.
Remember that the differences between the sexes are based on averages. An elite female athlete may be more capable than an average male athlete. Both women and men can benefit from intensive training programs; their capacities to endure such training are essentially the same. Some male coaches suggest that female athletes are less likely than men to complain about heavier
training loads.
Men and women who perform at the same level can be trained together, for their abilities are essentially the same. Coed teams have many benefits; the men's and women's teams usually are very supportive of each other, particularly if they are coached and trained together.

Warm-Up: Prelude to Exercise

A careful warm-up raises the body and muscle temperatures, which increase their working effectiveness. A warm-up stretches the muscles, which helps prevent injury. It should not be done to the point of fatigue, however. Because long-distance runners use a more limited range of motion than athletes in other events, they often do minimal warming up.
The athlete should wear a sweatsuit or other covering to promote the warming effect. Rubber suits should never be used because they prevent normal evaporation of sweat. The use of rubber suits raises the body temperature and can result in heat exhaustion or heart attacks (even in teenagers) in some situations.
A warm-up begins with a short, light jog, just long enough to raise the muscle temperature. Then, stretching exercises are used, beginning with light, gradual stretching and progressing over 10 to 20 minutes to more thorough exercises. All of the major muscle groups should be stretched. No sudden movements (such as bouncing or jerking) should be used, so the muscles are never strongly forced to stretch. The progress should be gentle and gradual. Brief calisthenics may follow stretching. The athlete should be warm and sweating after the warm-up, but not tired.
The closing part of the warm-up should be event-specific. The runners do a bit of running, with a few short bursts of faster runs. Sprinters take a few easy-to medium-effort starts, while hurdlers begin to work with lower hurdles. Throwers simulate parts of their throwing routine.

Warm-Up Exercises
Stretching improves performance because loose muscles perform more easily and are less prone to injury. Relaxation is a part of stretching. No sudden pulling or yanking motions should be used. Be careful of pairing athletes for stretching; no fast moves or forcing of stretching should be done. Lasting injuries may result from sudden stretching. The final stretched position should be held for 20 to 30 seconds, keeping in mind that it is a relaxed extension of the muscles, not a forced one.


Some calisthenics are also useful as warm-up and conditioning exercises. They should not be used too much because younger athletes quickly become
bored with them. The following are suggested exercises for specific body areas:
Shoulders and groin: jumping jacks
Ankles, toes and gastrocnemius: toe raises and running in place
Quadriceps: half-squats (no weights)
Shoulders, arms, and chest: push-ups
Abdominals: bent-knee sit-ups and bent-knee leg-raises
Straight-leg sit-ups and leg-raises should not be used because they create back strain rather than help develop the abdominals.


Special Environments

Much of the American training year involves dealing with weather that interferes with training. The most common concerns are heat and cold.

Much of the general or base training occurs during the hot summer months and is unsupervised. Only a few places in the United States do not have some problems of extremes in heat and humidity. In many heat conditions, the athlete's sweat does not evaporate quickly enough, which limits the ability to cool the body and may result in heat stress. Heat alone, common in the Southwest, can be dangerous; combined with high humidity, as in the Midwest, East, and South, it can be deadly. If the humidity is high, heat stress can appear in athletes before the temperature
reaches 70 degrees F (22 degrees C). Even with low humidity, temperatures above 80 degrees F (27 degrees C) can create the risk of stress. Symptoms of heat stress include headaches, dizziness, sudden tiring or weakness, a pounding sensation in the head, tingling or goose-bump sensations across the body, or the cessation of sweating.
The five levels of heat effects are cramps, syncope, two types of exhaustion (from water depletion and from salt depletion), and stroke. Muscle cramps result from excessive loss of salt through sweating. Taking salt tablets may increase the problem unless enough fluid is taken at the same time. In most cases, an athlete can eat enough salt with meals to avoid this problem."
Heat exhaustion causes collapse or fainting as the body tries to end the work that is causing stress. It results from severe loss of fluids or electrolytes that the body uses to assist in cooling itself.
Heat stroke is most noticeable when sweating stops. Failure to cool the body quickly may result in brain damage, coma, or even death. Although it does not commonly happen, runners die every year from heat stress, usually because they fail to exercise proper caution.
Sweating is the body's way of coping with heat and humidity. The humidity is important because the higher the level of water in the air, the less sweat that evaporates from the athlete. The evaporation, not the act of sweating, does the actual cooling. The athlete must stay aware of the following concerns:
Am I sweating?
Is my sweat evaporating?
Am I getting enough fluids?
In warm or humid training conditions, fluid intake is extremely important. The best, most easily, and most quickly absorbed fluid is water. Waiting until the training session is completed to drink fluids is extremely dangerous and does not help an athlete adapt to heat.
Adapting to heat is done best under natural conditions. To be able to race in heat, an athlete must train in heat. An athlete can train harder and longer, and run faster, in cooler conditions. However, if an important race will be run in hot or humid conditions, the athlete needs to train under those conditions. Adapting to heat takes about 10 to 14 days. The most useful training is to take longer, easier runs, being careful to drink enough fluids. However, as much as 50 percent of the body's adaptation to heat may come from the heat generated by interval training, regardless of the climate.

Cold weather creates its own training problems. Athletes must dress carefully for protection. Modern fabrics and layering allow less bulky training dress than in the past.
The most vulnerable parts of the body are the extremities. Thermal socks or layers of socks are needed for the feet, just as gloves are used for the hands. The material should absorb sweat so the body can cool itself properly within the warm bundles of protective gear (an athlete can suffer from heat exhaustion even in very cold weather). A cap that can cover the ears, or added
earmuffs, helps to protect the head. In extreme climates, an athlete may wear a ski mask to protect the face from frostbite.
A sunny, cold day or a windy day can create special problems. A well-dressed runner may overheat if the sun is out and the air is calm. The same effect is possible with a strong tailwind. On windy, cold days, an out-and-back run is best. The athlete is dressed to begin facing the wind, removing clothing while returning with the wind. If the process were reversed, the athlete would
overheat early, then chill and tire rapidly when running into the wind.
Athletes should be aware of the effects of the wind-chill factor: A strong wind in cool conditions may create far harsher cold than expected. Cold is as deadly as heat, and strong winds heighten the effect. Insisting on an outdoor run regardless of the weather conditions is not a virtue. It may be far wiser to skip a session or train indoors than to risk injury or worse. The smart coach and athlete always consider the possible effects of weather conditions on training and racing.


Sports Psychology and Motivation

Sport psychology is critical to the preparation of elite athletes. Psychology is used for more than just motivation. As Thomas Tutko noted, "On the whole, the psyching-up idea is more part of the problem than a solution?" because often it simply increases the athlete's anxieties, reducing performance effectiveness. Performers simply try too hard.

Richard M. Suinn's training book for athletes recommends a seven-step program of mental training to prepare athletes for competition:
Relaxation training
Stress management
Positive thought control
Mental rehearsal (visual motor behavior rehearsal)
Energy control

The focus is upon learning to control the athlete's emotions and channel them, dealing constructively with stress and maintaining a positive focus on training. The old concept of psyching up acted more as sensory overkill, putting some athletes almost out of control. Elite performance requires very calm, deliberate control of energy and skills, while a heated, emotional approach provides an unstable platform for performance. Thus, much of the focus of sport psychology is on relaxation, or stress and tension control.
The other aspect is the accent on the positive. The old coaching approach was to criticize and pressure athletes, forcing them to improve. It was similar to the old Theory X in business, the idea that people were inherently lazy and unwilling to perform unless threatened and forced to do well. The emphasis on the positive skips past Theory Y (people do want to perform well) to Theory Z, a cooperative approach between athlete and coach to training and performance. The coach tries to reinforce the positive aspects of training, encouraging and supporting the athletes as they proceed. Confident athletes perform far better than insecure ones.
The coach should evaluate athletes' performances objectively but should conclude with and emphasize the positive. Encourage the athletes and show them how they are progressing. An athlete who faces constant criticism will eventually quit and will leave with a poor self-image. Every performance has some positive aspects. The coach who encourages his athletes and maintains a positive attitude will generally be the most successful coach in the long run.

The Goal: Consistency in Training

Ultimately, the most successful training program is the one that is most consistent. Athletes must train for weeks, months, and years at a consistent, moderate level. This stability creates a solid foundation for future success. The athletes are not forced up and down the emotional scale by extreme psyching or negative criticism. They are not put through destructively hard training
sessions as "character builders:' Instead, they are brought along with a carefully designed, positively oriented program that gives them emotional support, encouragement, and pride at every step along the way. This approach is what good training is all about; it is the heart of sport for life.


FROM: BILL BOWERMAN'S High-Performance Training for Track and Field by William J. Bowerman and William H. Freeman via Ross Dunton