Clearing Up Common Conditioning Myths
Finding reliable information on the internet related to health, fitness, and athletic performance is like searching for a needle in a haystack. There has never been an easier time then now to access information, especially with all of the social media outlets and online platforms we have right at our finger tips. The problem with this wealth of information is that it is difficult to separate what is useful and what is garbage. Carbs are not the devil, more likely than not that “10 Day Beach Body” program isn’t going to result in a six-pack, and just because you cannot move the next day does not mean the training session was beneficial.
All of these topics can warrant an article on their own, but today I want to focus on clearing up some of the most common myths about conditioning. Most athletes and fitness enthusiasts do not love conditioning, but recognize that it is a vital piece of the puzzle for both performance and health. A simple way to define conditioning is physically preparing to meet the demands of a specific task. A cyclist competing in the Tour de France and an offensive lineman who is able to produce powerful bursts of energy for an entire game are conditioned in different ways, however both are physically prepared to excel in their specific sport.
Before I begin mythbusting, it is important to understand that there are three main systems that contribute to energy production. These three systems are the aerobic system, the anaerobic-lactic system, and the anaerobic-alactic system. Each system is always active; however, the length and intensity of the activity being performed will determine which system is providing the bulk of the energy. The anaerobic-alactic system is capable of rapidly supplying a ton of energy, however it can only remain active for about 10-12 seconds before it becomes exhausted. Luckily, this is when the anaerobic-lactic system kicks in. The anaerobic-lactic system is also able to supply an incredible amount of energy, although not as much as the anaerobic-alactic system, and can typically sustain production for up to ninety seconds. From here, the aerobic energy system will take over and is able to supply energy for hours, however it is not able to supply as much as the anaerobic pathways. There is an inverse relation between energy supplied and duration of production when it comes to these three systems. The anaerobic-alactic system can supply the most energy, but only for a short amount of time. Conversely, the aerobic system can supply the body with energy for hours but not nearly at the same rate as the other two systems. This is the exact reason why a cyclist and an offensive lineman may have different overall levels of conditioning, yet can be perfectly prepared for their respective sports. Now that you have a brief understanding of the three systems our body uses to supply energy, let’s begin to debunk some common myths about conditioning.
Myth 1: Performing Only Aerobic Activity Will Condition You for Your Sport
Now don’t get me wrong, the aerobic energy system is EXTREMELY important for both health and performance. However, unless you’re a long-distance runner, running three miles every day after practice isn’t necessarily going to translate to better conditioning within your sport. As mentioned above, the aerobic energy system is only one of the three different pathways our body uses to produce energy. Depending on the sport or activity you partake in, each of the three energy systems will be called upon differently. For example, soccer has a significantly higher aerobic component to it when compared with sports like football or baseball that are predominantly anaerobic. Again, just because you play a sport that is predominantly anaerobic does not mean you should neglect the aerobic system completely. It simply means you should mix in some conditioning that targets the two anaerobic systems as well. Short duration, high intensity intervals with full rest are great for accomplishing this goal.
Myth 2: Lactate Causes Muscular Soreness and Fatigue
I am sure somewhere down the line you’ve heard that the burning sensation you feel in your muscles is due to a buildup of lactic acid. Or maybe your coach told you to run a few laps around the track after a game to “flush” the lactic acid out of your system. Regardless of what you’ve heard, somewhere down the line lactic acid, or lactate, was mislabeled as a villain. In all reality, lactate is a vital source of energy for our muscles and does not cause fatigue, but rather helps to delay it! The best way to think about lactate is as the link between our anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. During exercise, lactate will build-up through the anaerobic energy production process and can either be used by the muscles that produced it, or shuttled to other parts of the body where it can be used in aerobic energy production. As you can see, lactate has been given a bad reputation when it actually plays a huge role in energy production!
Myth 3: Task-Specific Conditioning Isn’t Important
Alright, if we are being completely honest I am not sure if I can call this a “myth”, however I do think it is an idea that does not get enough attention and that athletes may not realize. You can train to improve the power and capacity of all three of the energy systems, but at the end of the day, the best conditioning for your sport is to actually play your sport! This is based on the Principle of Specificity. Simply put, the body will adapt to the specific demands you place on it. If you go on a bike ride every morning, your body is going to adapt to the demands of riding a bike and become more efficient at that activity. Likewise, if you run consistently, your body will adapt to running. General conditioning is important and should be emphasized, but specific conditioning will allow your body to adapt and become more efficient at whatever task it is you must perform to be successful. If you’re a pitcher, pitch! If you’re a sprinter, sprint! Practice and perfect your craft.
As you can see, conditioning is a lot more complex than most think. The human body has three different pathways that are used to produce energy. These systems are the anaerobic-alactic, anaerobic-lactic, and aerobic systems. Each is always functioning, but the system that is relied on most will depend on the duration and intensity of the activity being performed. Now, knowing that there are three different systems contributing to energy supply, we can dispel the idea that strictly aerobic exercise will properly prepare an athlete for their sport. In addition, we now have a better understanding of the role that lactate plays in our body. It’s not the culprit causing your muscle soreness, but rather helps to prevent your muscles from fatiguing. Finally, and maybe the most important lesson of the day, specificity is important! If you want to be efficient at your task, practice your task! Keep these ideas in mind and watch your conditioning improve tenfold!
Jamieson, J. (2009). Ultimate MMA conditioning. Performance Sports Inc.