Why Your Cardio Training May Not Be Helping You Play Better

One of our athletes, who is training to improve their speed, made an interesting comment the other day.
He told me that after fixing a deficiency in his sprint technique, he wasn't anywhere near as tired at the end of a weekend-long tournament as he normally is.
In essence, what he was saying was that not only did he play faster, but he also saw a noticeable jump his conditioning.
And it happened without doing 1 minute of cardio work.
How could that be?
Because of an under appreciated concept known as 'speed reserve'.
To understand how it works, let's say we have two players whose maximum speeds are 16 MPH (Player A) and 14 MPH (Player B).
Due to the demands of a game, both must run 14 miles per hour for bursts of 2 to 5 seconds repeatedly. These high speed events don't happen often, but they are almost certainly the most critical moments in the game.
These efforts require Player A to work at 85-90% of their sprint ability, but Player B must work at 100% effort each time the game demands faster play.
Because fatigue increases exponentially as we play closer to our intensity limits, Player B will gas out far sooner than Player A no matter what their underlying conditioning base is.
The lesson here?
Sometimes kids play poorly at the end of a game, or after repeated games, because their conditioning level is not good enough.
Other times, and perhaps far more often, a player wears out early simply because they have to work much, much harder to keep up with the speed of the game than a faster athlete does.
Coaches and parents have to make decisions all the time about how to best use an athlete's limited time and energy to get the most out of their talent.
Conditioning for sport is critical to success, but if you spend too much time working on it you won't be able to develop other physical skills.
Even worse, choosing endless conditioning over speed development may not even solve the problem you're trying to fix.
If Player B wanted to improve their performance for next year, they'd be well served to prioritize getting faster in their off-season training.
Not only would they be better prepared to compete against faster opponents, but they'll create the critical speed reserve they need to stay fresh right to the final buzzer.

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