Stop making your athletes run long distances.
The case against long distance running for power/speed based athletes
I’m sure an article on this exact subject has been written hundreds of times by hundreds of different strength coaches, but I keep running into the same issue with present and past athletes. The issue is two-fold - it relates to the knowledge of both the athlete and the sport coach.
I have so many athletes coming to me and saying how sore they are or how exhausted they are because they were made to run, either in the form of long distance or some arbitrary distance that makes the athletes out of breath. We now have to spend a day recovering instead of a day that could be spent on improving the qualities that will help them perform better. Don’t get me wrong - an athlete’s job is to play their sport, not to train, but at such young ages and with playing sports year-round, they do need to spend some time doing quality training that will help them to become a better athlete.
This issue lies in the dogma that has been ingrained in so many sport coaches’ minds, who are doing what they did when they played their respective sport, that long distance is the answer to getting athletes in shape for their sport. Don’t get me wrong, an aerobic base is important for athletes. I will touch on that later.
Take, for instance, the act of running poles for baseball. Now, if you do not know what running poles is, I will let Domingo Ayala enlighten you.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “How does running poles replicate anything that’s done on a baseball field?”, you’d be on the right track. The same goes for softball, volleyball, football, shot/discus, tennis, etc. All of these sports require explosive bursts or explosive bursts maintained over a short period of time. This is why I get so frustrated when athletes tell me their coach made them run miles and miles in order to get them in shape for their sport or they simply say “We are not in shape because we had a hard time doing some random conditioning test I thought looked hard.”
This rhetoric then, in turn, gets instilled into the athlete’s mind, who then go for jogs in order to prepare for their respective sport. Obviously, this is no fault of their own, they simply do it because they think they’re supposed to. If you’re a coach or an athlete reading this and you’re uncomfortable, then GOOD! You should be. That’s how you grow. In my opinion, an athlete coming into their competitive season SHOULD be in shape, but I think the definition of what it means to be in shape differs from performance/strength coaches to sport coaches.
Before we get into what exactly “getting into shape” for your sport means, you must have a basic understanding of the energy systems that are involved in sports.
Different sports rely on different energy systems. The energy systems that are primarily used during different sporting events depend directly on the duration and intensity of the exercise. These systems include the anaerobic ALACTIC system, anaerobic LACTIC system, and the aerobic system.
This system provides energy for short duration activities that last 8-10 seconds. These types of activities require speed and power. So, think of movements like a shot put, 100 M sprint, or performing hang cleans. If we want to get into the world of baseball, this is the exact system responsible for producing energy for pitching and hitting. An example of what training this system might look like is performing maximal effort squats or a maximal effort 20 yd dash.
This system, on the other hand, provides energy for high intensity, longer duration activities. These activities last anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds. This would include 200/400 M sprints, a hockey shift, or even downhill skiing. Both of the aforementioned systems produce energy in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic vs aerobic). Again, it is important to note that neither of these systems work alone but with different emphasis.
For instance, think of someone sprinting. In the first 8-10 seconds, the anaerobic alactic system provides the primary source of energy. At about 15 seconds in, the emphasis shifts to the lactic system. Both of these systems are also used in conjunction with fast twitch muscle fibers, or the muscles required to produce quick and powerful movements. Training these systems directly impacts the energy and tissue qualities needed for the power athlete to perform well.
Finally, we have the aerobic system, which provides energy for our muscles in the presence of oxygen or for activities lasting from one minute to three hours. You guessed it, typically long-distance running. As I mentioned either, we rely on this system heavily in order to function but to also recover. Our other energy systems depend on the aerobic system in order to recover as well.
For instance, our anaerobic alactic system functions with the use of creatine phosphate and creatine phosphate resynthesis relies on oxidative (aerobic) processes. With this in mind, a good aerobic base is critical for the repeatability of power/speed performance. With this knowledge, why do coaches insist on running their athletes long distances? It simply doesn't line up with the science.
Aerobic training for recovery and performance
Like I said earlier, not ALL aerobic training is bad. In fact, it is incredibly important for an athlete to have a good aerobic base, as it helps both the lactic and alactic systems recover. To get my point across I will use an example that was provided to us by Cal Dietz at the University of Minnesota.
If someone who knows Cal is reading this, forgive me if my account is wrong, but I will try my best. Cal had a group of throwers performing single reps of back squats at a certain percentage while hooked up to a tendo unit. In short, a tendo unit records bar speed. Without any prior establishment of an aerobic base, the athletes only performed around, what I believe was, 11-14 reps before they could not maintain a certain bar speed. When that same group had done some training to establish the aerobic base, the athletes were able to perform around 20-22 HIGH QUALITY reps before dropping off. In simple terms, an aerobic base allows us to recover substantially better between sets, workouts, and competition. Therefore, an aerobic base will allow athletes to train harder and longer while lasting longer in the competitive season.
Now, what these athletes did NOT do was go for long runs and they definitely didn’t do it as soon as their competitive season started. If a throwing coach made his or her throwers go for a long distance run on the first day of practice, my bet is that they’d be out of a job pretty quickly. So, why do we tolerate coaches of baseball, softball, football, or volleyball doing the same thing for their athletes? I believe pitching, hitting, or shorter sprint efforts are akin to
throwing a shot or disc, albeit in different parts of the strength-speed continuum (a spectrum that categorizes tasks from absolute strength to absolute speed) and being “in shape” for these types of events is not dictated by whether or not someone is out of breath from running laps.
Again, compare the act of performing back squats at a certain speed and maintaining that speed for as long as possible to the act of pitching in baseball. It’s virtually the same and makes it pretty clear why an aerobic base is so important. So again, I am not bashing the idea of training power/speed athletes aerobically. But, I am bashing how most sport coaches think it should be done and when they actually implement it in the name of being ‘’in shape” or punishment for that matter.
Negative effects of long distance running/Training the aerobic system for athletes
For power or speed-based athletes, there are much better/more efficient ways to improve the aerobic base, which is outside the scope of this article, besides running long distances. This is also known as GPP or general physical preparedness.
The way we train obviously has a direct impact on any adaptation our muscular system will see. Power and speed athletes rely heavily on fast twitch muscle fibers (Type II) compared to slow twitch fibers (Type I). Within the Type II muscle fibers are two subsets known at Type IIa and Type IIb/x. Aerobic training can cause Type IIb/x fibers to transition into Type IIa which increases their oxidative capacity and takes their contribution to powerful movements away.
Although the research doesn’t explicitly say how limiting this is to speed/power performances, at a highly competitive level, I would not want to waste my time running long distances if there is a chance of affecting the aforementioned muscle fibers or performance of my actual sport. I’ll play devil's advocate and even say the chances of it affecting your ability to move explosively is limited, but I would definitely not recommend high volume endurance running DURING the season for the sake of seeing if your team is in shape, or punishment for that matter. There is also a chance of developing overuse injuries, shin splints/patellar pain etc., which can be completely avoided by simply not running long distances.
At the same time, there are much more effective means for developing an aerobic base for the power athlete that can even carry over to their development in the weight room that long-distance running cannot mimic. Again, these are all done at the very BEGINNING of off-season training.
Luckily, the ability to get in shape (or conditioned) for an individual’s sport is relatively transient, which is why there is no way to get into better shape for your sport than by playing your sport. Take for instance fall camp for football. You can’t tell me that an up-tempo/two-a-day practice won’t prepare you for the actual competitive season. Some people may come into pre-season “out of shape” and lag behind those who put work in prior to pre-season, but they will quickly catch up. This is not an excuse, but just an example of why running long distances or running gassers just for the hell of it is counterintuitive. Not to mention, ingraining poor running mechanics because athletes are trying to sprint under a fatigued state.
As mentioned before, numerous times, the aerobic system is substantially important in order to replenish energy substrates for lactic and alactic activity but must be developed long before the competitive season, while being touched on every once in a while, as a deload. This is because the training residuals of the aerobic system last for about a month (see the chart of training residuals). Notice the training residuals of speed, the exact opposite of long distance running, are short-lived. (Hence why sprinting would be much more beneficial, say, the day before a game).
Time is better spent developing the qualities that contribute to fast and powerful motions. After all, most kids just need to get stronger and strength is the foundation of speed. This goes for endurance-based sports as well, such as cross country running, cycling, rowing, etc. There is plenty of research that shows endurance athletes can benefit from getting in the weight room. Aerobic based athletes can benefit from anaerobic training means and vice versa for anaerobic based athletes. It’s just how you go about it. XC runners aren’t performing power cleans and football players don’t run long distances to get in shape. There is a time, a place, and a way to train a power athlete aerobically but in-season, for the sake of punishment because they didn’t live up to whatever your standard of “being in shape” is, ain’t it. Don’t waste their time.