A Time and a Place for Cardio in Sports

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I was talking to one of my clients yesterday and she was telling me about the soccer team she would have played for if not for injury.

She told me that tryouts basically consisted of running 3 miles and other various forms of conditioning. The soccer balls were not even broken out.

I guess there is no better way to evaluate talent by running them into the ground.

To be honest, this is not far off to what most coaches think is appropriate for pre season training. I have heard this story before.

Cardio gets a really bad rap when we are talking about training for sport.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of its implementation by sports coaches to prepare for the season.

Most will argue that training slow will make you slow and cardio will take away all explosiveness.

That’s all well and good but I do not think young people train with the kind of frequency needed to make the muscular shift from fast twitch to slow twitch fibers.

The real problem with pounding the long distance cardio train is that the risk for injury increases and it is the wrong time of year to build the aerobic system.

Let’s take soccer in the above example. Soccer is played outside which means that the method of cardio being performed is running.


Prolonged long distance running can really beat the crap out of the joints. Combine that with the fact that these girls are probably playing year round, which means they do not ever get a break from the impact.

We now have a breeding ground for overuse injuries. The results were as expected; many girls on the team (at least 4 of her friends alone) suffered from these overuse injuries.

It is unfortunate that this is the reality of sport these days. There is no offseason and everyone wants to train harder and harder.

Most of the time these athletes need rest and they only get it when they are on the shelf because of injury.

I am not sure how to accomplish this but sport coaches need to be more educated on good conditioning practices.

When we are discussing conditioning it can be as simple or as difficult as we want to make it.

We must first determine the characteristics of the sport from an energy system standpoint.

Sticking with soccer for continuity, it is a sport of repeated sprints followed by long rest periods. No one is jogging for the whole 90 minute match.

When the ball is near the goal we see more sprinting. Players will sprint with the ball or to get open for a pass, meanwhile the defense needs to sprint to block such attempts.

These sprints probably last less than 10 seconds and are followed by light jogging, walking, or standing before more sprints take place.

Soccer is a sport based off of repeated sprints, sometimes with both long and short rest periods.

This is the kind of evaluation we need to do in any sport. Hockey is the same way. There is a sprint and then minimal movement takes place as the players are moving the puck or defending the play.

Once we have determined the primary energy demands of the sport we can work backwards from preseason to the offseason.


In the preseason we want to train these short sprints and the ability to repeat them with complete/incomplete rest. That should probably last about 4 weeks.

Prior to that we want to work on a different energy system which mostly lasts in the 90-120 second work range and double or triple the rest time. Again, about 4 weeks.

The first 4 weeks of a 12 week offseason can be based on building the aerobic base. This can combine methods of long, slow cardio and intervals.

If cardio is to be used I would recommend something to take the impact out like a bike or an elliptical. Training the aerobic system will provide the foundation for other conditioning qualities.

We can also perform intervals with even work to rest ratios (ex. :30/:30) to help build the aerobic system.

If we try to develop the aerobic system right before the season, it will be detrimental to the success of the team. It will be too late by then to really get the benefits of the training.

The game of soccer is not played in the aerobic energy system and therefore, the demands of playing will counteract the aerobic training. As a result, the body will not optimally adapt to either training type.

If cardio is to be used, it must take place months before the season starts. This applies to all sports we just have to critically think about the primary demands of the particular sport.

The outline I have provided is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of conditioning. It can be as simple as I have stated or as complicated as a physiology textbook.

The fact of the matter is that we cannot be training with long, slow distance cardio and expect good things from our athletes.

When we get closer to the season we need to be more specific to the energy requirements. Cardio should be utilized to build a good base, months ahead of time.

Maybe we can start to make the shift towards better training to reduce injuries and improve the on field performance of our athletes.