In-season training can be a mine field for the strength & conditioning professional. Accumulate too much fatigue and performance decreases... but if your team isn't fit, you'll be left in the dust when it matters. So the question remains: How much is enough? And how much is too much?
Is Practice Alone Enough?
If you speak to any football coach, they have the opinion that if practice is done at a high pace, then you don’t need to condition.
Now let me say that in more than two decades of being around the game of football from middle school up to FBS football, I have yet to see a team practice at a pace that requires cutting back on conditioning.
Said another way - just about every single team will benefit from some conditioning during or after their football practice.
The idea is nice in theory but in my experience, fails to be accomplished time after time after time.
So physically, yes coaches, your kids could use some interval sprints to ensure they are properly prepared for a week’s worth of practice and a weekend game.
Another reason I'm a fan of in-season conditioning is from the mental aspect of the players. A common theme I hear from all the mental toughness guru’s now-a-days is athletes must be comfortable being uncomfortable. What better to get your kids uncomfortable then to condition after they have gone through a hard practice.
Now I am in no way saying run the kids into the ground, but having the kids run drills that are demanding (yet able to be accomplished), builds their confidence. They will develop a toughness over time that will help during the season. Mental toughness has been developed using conditioning for a very long time and can benefit almost any team regardless of sport.
Image 1: Properly planned in-season conditioning can facilitate recovery while simultaneously improving sport specific conditioning. To find the appropriate prescription for your team, keep an eye on the well-conditioned athletes: if they're struggling, you're likely pushing your team too hard. Two to three weekly sessions will be plenty during the season.
During all conditioning sessions, I would highly suggest having an athletic trainer present. I always have one present whether at the college or high school level. Safety of the athlete is paramount and trumps all things.
One thing I always tried to evaluate when coaching kids to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it was to keep an eye on some of most conditioned athletes. If they were struggling, then I knew it was time to shut it down. If it was just the kids whose effort was in question, but everyone else was good, then I knew we were on point.
Coaches must make sure they progress their kids properly in conditioning just like they do with sets and reps in the weight room.
Making sure all the coaches are on board with the conditioning plan is something that starts from the top down. Getting the head football coach to believe in your conditioning plan is critical to the successful execution. In my experience, be sure you know how to speak with your staff as far as terminology. If your offense is a spread attack, then you need to speak in terms of tempo and making plays in space. If your defense is an attacking blitzing style team that plays a lot of man coverage, you must speak in terms of repeated sprints and battling the offense.
Your conditioning plan must also simulate your style of play; with high tempo you might need more conditioning if your offense was a I formation downhill running power football type game.
One thing that helped me in the past was offering a couple different options for the coaches to choose from to accomplish the proper result. Giving options allows for the coaching staff to feel they have input, which is a great way to build the bridge to getting what you want as a coach.
Image 2: In-season conditioning is a double-edged sword. If your athletes accumulate too much fatigue, your team will be at risk for injuries and performance will decline. On the other side of the coin, if you don't do enough conditioning during the season, you risk being left in the dust during the fourth quarter.
In-Season Conditioning Drills
The WHAT, in regard to in-season conditioning, comes down to what drills you prescribe and how they align to the biological principles of training and adaptation.
In my experience, using drills that are dead simple to execute is critical to the success of your in-season conditioning program.
The science behind the game of football is this: a play lasts 6 seconds and you get 36 seconds of rest. There are some coaches that say that ought to be our work/rest ratio to train athletes, but I would disagree.
I not only prepare my athletes for games, but I also must prepare the kids for practice as well. Working with lower work/rest ratios allows for both practice and game preparation.
Below are some examples of several types of drills I have used in the past:
Half gassers are probably the most well known football conditioning drill. It's dead simple: start on one sideline, run to the other, and run back. You can follow the standards I've outlined in the screenshot below, or set your own. It's important to give each position group a realistic target to shoot for.
Figure 1: Sample conditioning prescription for an in-season football team. Note the exercise notes include pass times for each position group as well as the prescribed rest interval. Using technology like TrainHeroic can help communciate the intent of the training session amongst your staff.
Here is a recommended 12-week progression. Notice how the volume cuts back near the end of the season.
- Run from the goal line to the 25 yard line and back 6 times
- Pass Times: College, Line – 70 seconds, Combo – 67 seconds, Skill – 64 seconds; High School, Line – 75 seconds, Combo – 70 seconds, Skill – 65 seconds
150-yard shuttles are a great drill as there is a decent amount of change of direction. This is a great drill to mix things up and keep it fresh.
- Run from the goal line to the 25yard line and back 3 times
- Pass Times: College, Line – 35 seconds, Combo – 32 seconds, and Skill 30 seconds; High School, Line – 37 seconds, Combo – 35 seconds, and Skill 33 seconds
- Run from the back of the end zone to the other goal line
- Rest Intervals: 45 seconds
- Pass Times: College, Line – 22 seconds, Combo – 20 seconds, Skill – 18 seconds; High School, Line – 24 seconds, Combo – 22 seconds, Skill – 20 seconds
- Reps: Wks 1-3 x 6 Reps, Wks 4-6 x 5 Reps, Wks 7-9 x 4 Reps, Wks 10-12 x 3 Reps
How To Plan In-Season Conditioning
The WHEN is something a coach can take in many different directions.
- The first is when during the football practice do you condition?
- The second is when during the year do you need to condition and for how long?
Both issues must be addressed with your football staff. And even if there are some disagreements, once the plan of action is decided, everyone must show a united front.
Most often, conditioning is done at the end of practice... typically 2-3 days per week. However, I have heard of some major college programs performing their conditioning in the middle of practice. I like this idea because it forces the players to focus when they are tired and physically stressed, just like they would be during a game.
The main thing a coach must remember when they perform conditioning in the middle of practice is they need to try and build in some sort of recovery after the session to allow the proper adaptation to occur.
Figure 2: Sample weely training prescription for a team that plays on Saturday. Notice that the strength and power work is pulled back in favor of one additional conditioning session.
Now the second part of WHEN: when do you condition and for how long?
Typically, when I conducted conditioning sessions for a football team during the season in college, we would condition Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday because Monday would be our off day (due to NCAA rules). If we took Sunday off, we would condition Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. For the high school schedule, I would suggest conditioning at the minimum Monday & Tuesday, if you take Saturday & Sunday off. If your kids come in during the weekend at the high school level, I would condition on that day as well.
The last portion of the second WHEN question, is how long during the season do you condition... meaning how many weeks of conditioning is enough? This is a very individualized question for each team and coach to answer.
In my experience, if you have conditioned all the way through camp and through the season, typically by week 7 of the season for a college player you should not require any heavy conditioning to stay in optimal shape. Now with that said, I would still suggest conditioning just a little bit, and I will explain that in my next part of the article.
Go Do It
In-Season conditioning helps bridge the gap between all the work put in during the off-season and summer program.
Having high levels of conditioning will allow for all your team's hard work to be shown at the most crucial time of the year. Continuing to condition during the season helps teams not only physically but also mentally to be as strong as possible as the season progresses. Combining a great in-season strength program sets a team up for success at the end of the season.