Conditioning for Sports- Energy Systems 101

By examining your sport’s energy demands, and training in the appropriate energy systems, you can build sport specific conditioning.

First, let’s nail down exactly what an “energy system” is.  Depending on the task, your body can produce energy in a few different ways.  Different chemical reactions within your body create energy for different tasks.  Some are very powerful, but run out of gas quickly.  Some last longer.  Your body uses some combination of each to power you throughout your day.

The three energy systems we need to understand are Anaerobic Alactic, Anaerobic Lactic, and Aerobic. I’ll try to keep the boring science stuff to a minimum, but knowing how these systems interact will help you develop a crazy motor that just keeps-on-a-running.

The Alactic system is how we produce immediate energy for quick movements like punches, swinging a bat, or a vertical jump.  This system helps you explode with speed and power, but starts to burn out after only 10-15 seconds.  This is also the system used for sprinting.  Imagine sprinting at full speed.  After about 100 meters, or 10-15 seconds, I bet you’ll have to slow down.  That’s your Alactic system running out of gas.  Luckily, it can be re-charged with an efficient Aerobic system {more on this later}.

Next is your Lactic system.  This is the system you use for a 2 minute wall sit, a flexed arm hang, or fighting for a submission in grappling sports.  You can produce lots of strength, and it lasts a bit longer than Alactic power, but the Lactic system will start to run out of steam after 1-2 minutes.  Wrestlers, have you ever had to let go of a hold after fighting over it for 90 seconds?  Have you felt like your arms were made of lead, too heavy to even lift them from your sides?  That’s your Lactic energy system hitting the wall.

Finally, let’s talk about your Aerobic energy system.  The Aerobic system is very powerful.  It is responsible for producing energy beyond 2 minutes.  A well conditioned Aerobic system will keep going “forever”, without slowing down.  Just as importantly, the Aerobic system helps your Alactic and Lactic energy systems recover.  The better your Aerobic conditioning, the more quickly your Alactic and Lactic systems can reproduce maximum efforts.  Your Aerobic system is also what powers you through a slow and steady 5 mile run, etc.

Now that I understand those basics, if I’m an athlete conditioning for a specific sport, the next step is to analyze which systems you’ll use the most in your sport.  If you’re a baseball pitcher, you’ll explode (Alactic power) repeatedly over the course of a game, but you’ll probably never need to maintain an effort for over 1-2 minutes straight (Lactic power).  Neither will you need to maintain any low intensity efforts for over 2 minutes (Aerobic system).  So, as a baseball pitcher, 99% of your conditioning work should focus on the ability to repeat efforts with your Alactic system.  Explode for short bursts in your training.  Rest.  Explode again.

But what if you play a sport where you’ll use multiple energy systems in competition?  Many sports do.  I train lots of MMA athletes, and they need to produce power from all 3 of those energy systems over the course of a fight.  Let’s dive deep into that example:

How do we use this information when conditioning for an MMA fight?  Imagine you’re fighting for 3, 5 minute rounds.  That’s 15 minutes of work.  Strong Aerobic conditioning will be the key to going the distance, and to repeatedly producing efforts from your Alactic and Lactic energy systems later in the fight.

So, first, you’ll build a base of Aerobic conditioning.  This can be done with LSD (long slow duration) cardio.  These workouts can include long runs, low intensity circuits performed below your anaerobic threshold, or skills practices.  You should be able to speak a few words, without being impossibly out of breath during these training sessions.  If you can’t, slow the pace until you can.  Work smarter, not harder.  This is LONG SLOW duration cardio.

Next, develop the ability to produce explosive efforts using your Alactic energy system.  In a fight, you’ll probably explode with a flurry of punches for a few seconds, then back off and recover for a few seconds as you look for your next opportunity.  Then you’ll explode again to shoot that double-leg your opponent left wide open because HE’S tired.  You’ll need to explode a lot.  To work that repeated ability to explode, we can train drills for Alactic capacity.  Try to explode for 10-12 seconds, rest for 20, and repeat.  You can use sprints, jumps, or sport specific drills {e.g. throwing combos}.  These circuits, plus a highly developed Aerobic base, allowing you to recover more quickly when your Alactic system does get exhausted, will help you stay explosive right up until the final bell.

Alactic Capacity Circuit Demo:

Finally, in most fights, a time will come where you’re forced to battle for a submission, or fight repeatedly for position, in a struggle that lasts over 60 seconds.  It might not happen every round, but when it does happen; you want to be prepared.  Your arms will feel like they’re made of stone.  It can be a scary feeling in the middle of a fight, and you don’t want to have this experience for the first time in the cage.  Train your Lactic energy system using intervals with longer work duration {1-2 minutes at max. effort}, so that you’ll be ready.  However, this system does not improve as much with training as the other two.  It’s best to use these workouts sparingly.  Over-using Anaerobic Lactic conditioning drills is what I call “cross-fit syndrome”- just because you’re working hard, doesn’t mean you’re being effective.  Resist the urge to go, go, go, each workout without the proper rest periods.  Lactic conditioning will only improve your lactic conditioning.  Now that you understand what they are, don’t you want to build your alactic capacity and anaerobic power as well?

Train smarter, not harder.  Dial your training into the correct energy systems when conditioning for your sport and you’ll stay miles ahead of the competition.