Speed vs Conditioning – Quality vs Quantity

Recently, I’ve had several conversations with both parents and athletes about the difference between training for speed/power vs conditioning/fitness work.  These are two very different training methods that have very different goals and elicit very different results, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about this.

Think of it as QUALITY vs. QUANTITY.

I often hear parents & coaches wanting athletes to be constantly moving (QUANTITY) and feeling extremely tired from a workout.  Athletes who are used to practicing like this often feel like the quality of a training session is based on their level of exhaustion.

While I am certainly never opposed to high-intensity training and conditioning, this is VERY different than speed/power/technique training (QUALITY), so you first need to understand the goal, then match the training to get the effect you’re looking for.

To begin, we need to understand the role fatigue plays in a training session, and we need to understand that training the nervous system and the cardiovascular system are very different.

Whenever an athlete is learning a new skill, practicing technique on a skill or displaying maximum speed or power, they are predominantly using their nervous system and that training must be done when an athlete is fresh.  Maximum power output or speed can only be displayed briefly, and fatigue impacts these qualities quickly.

For example, an athlete can jump as high as possible 4-6 times before their jump height starts to drop.  After that, the nervous system can’t maintain that level of intensity, and performance drops off dramatically.  If you rest for a minute or two, you can recover and perform another 4-6 maximal jumps again.  But, if you only rest 15-20 seconds, you won’t be able to fully recover and you won’t jump nearly as high.  In other words, you won’t be able to maintain QUALITY because of fatigue.

The same goes for maximal sprinting speed.  Let’s say you’re working to improve your ability to accelerate (which is all about training the nervous system).  You’ll need to perform short sprints with long rest periods so you can give 100% on each rep.

This is focusing on the QUALITY of work.

Unfortunately, if you do your conditioning work BEFORE your acceleration work, you’ll be so tired that you won’t be able to perform at 100%.  You can give it your best effort, but you won’t be able to perform optimally like you can when you’re fresh.

This is why it’s an absolute MUST to take long rest periods when working on speed or power and do this work while you’re fresh.  The goal is to train the nervous system (QUALITY), not the cardiovascular system (QUANTITY).

Of course, I often hear comments like “we need to be able to perform when we’re tired.”  While I agree with that wholeheartedly, you first need to fully develop the nervous system (speed, power and skill), THEN you condition the cardiovascular system to the point where you can demonstrate those qualities over and over again.

If you skip right to the conditioning, you’ll never fully develop those important nervous system traits, and you’ll never reach your potential for speed/power.  You’ll be in great cardiovascular shape, but you won’t be as fast, powerful or technically proficient as you could be if you took the time to develop those traits first.

If the goal is simply to get in shape or do conditioning work, the training will be relatively high-paced, with short rest periods.  Athletes will feel like it’s a “hard” workout because their heart rate will be up and it will be metabolically demanding.  This will train the cardiovascular system and metabolic pathways necessary to play sports at a high level, but this is the QUANTITY work.

Don’t get caught in the trap of only doing QUANTITY work and not recognizing that QUALITY work, or nervous system training, simply has to be done differently.  Always do the QUALITY work BEFORE the QUANTITY work.

Both are very important parts of developing a complete athlete, and it’s critical to combine these methods appropriately.

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