Sports Specific Fitness: You're probably doing it wrong!

Fitness is a pretty interesting word. Talk to one person and it means freedom from injury, talk to another and it means being able to get above a 13 on the beep test, talk to a third and it means being able to do lots of pushups. The reason for this confusion is that there are actually as many types of fitness as there are tasks.

At its core, the term fitness simply means the ability of a person, or object, to perform a task.

For most sports, when we talk about fitness, what we generally mean is the cardiovascular type. Great cardiovascular fitness is what enables an athlete to play the entire game, and be as dominant down the stretch as they were in the first quarter.

These days training for cardiovascular fitness has lots of impressive names like repeat effort anaerobic capacity, and metabolic conditioning, but these names confuse rather than enlighten. I like the term energy system development, as I think it accurately describes what we are trying to do, which is quite simply maximise the athlete's ability to develop energy in the specific systems required for our sport. To understand energy system development you need a basic understanding about the three energy systems themselves, and when and how they operate.

Alactic Anaerobic (aka ATP-CP): The explosive system

This is the system designed to give short bursts (best for 1-5 seconds, but sometimes up to 10 seconds) of maximal or near maximal effort, like short sprints, etc. When we talk about great athletes in basketball for example, we are most often talking about their alactic qualities. Much of the work athletes do in our gym is geared towards this energy system.

Lactic Anaerobic: Feel the burn

When exercise moves beyond the 10 second mark we move into the lactic zone in which the body breaks down glycogen (stored carbohydrate in our muscles) to provide energy. This is done without oxygen (hence anaerobic). The by-product of this process is lactic acid (and a bunch of other stuff) which gives us the burning sensation in our muscles. Many team sports have a very high anaerobic demand.

The Aerobic System: Marathon time

If we are are able to work at a steady and slow pace, our body is capable of fully breaking down our stored glycogen (and fats) using oxygen without the build up of lactic acid. This is called staying below the anaerobic threshold. If you’ve ever been for a run and noticed it got magically easier at around the 10 minute mark, this is because you have transitioned to your aerobic system. The aerobic system is pretty cool as it takes hours to run dry, and it doesn't hurt (much).

A lot of people will emphasise the importance of first building an aerobic base then moving onto the other components, however the reality is you can actually work all three systems with a sprint based program provided you keep your rest periods short enough.  

NB. Although this all sounds very neat, its important to understand that any explanation of these systems is a bit of a simplification, as they all operate simultaneously. As we move between systems we are still using the others, just less so. It's more about which is the dominant system.

Which energy system should I focus on for my sport?

Below is a breakdown of the energy system requirements of several sports.  As you can see the aerobic component is the minority partner in all the team sports, and the majority contributor for endurance events.

Energy system interplay across a range of sports
Energy system interplay across a range of sports

The science of adaptation

If your fitness training is primarily long slow steady state work, then you are likely stimulating an adaptation in the wrong energy system. The law of specificity states that in order for an adaptive response to pay off it has to be in the right area, i.e. the training has to be specific to the needs of the sport. Sports scientists call it SAID; Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. If you want to get good at diving you practice diving, but if you want to get good at ball handling, then practice ball handling. There are some things that carry over between skills, for example squatting in the gym can have huge transfer into sport actions like jumping and landing, even without adding load. For this reason it is crucial to make sure that your energy system development work mimics the demands of your chosen sport.

Lets look at basketball as an example. In this case you want to make sure your fitness work is short and sharp with lots in 5 to 15 second recovery phases. Think about it: basketball is a game of four 8-12 minute quarters, multiple timeouts, a 24 second shot clock, free throws and lots of stoppages. Despite this being fairly common knowledge in the sports science community, many people are training the wrong system in the wrong place.

Aerobic work on the road...
Aerobic work on the beach...
Aerobic work in the park...
Aerobic work in the hills....... you get the idea!

The problem with all these activities is that they are:

  • Working the wrong energy system,
  • Using the wrong motor patterns and muscles (jogging instead of sprinting),
  • Running on the wrong surface.

At best they have limited transfer onto the court or field, and at worst higher potential for overuse injuries than game-like sprinting work.

The classic case is the 5km jog on concrete. The basketball court is 28 metres baseline to baseline and 16 metres foul line to foul line, it is also a sprung floor, yet year after year I have basketball athletes telling me about the 5km runs they do to maintain “basketball fitness”. Even if you ignore the potential for injury on concrete, running slowly for 5000 metres is a terrible way to prepare for a game that involves running fast for 20 metres or less. In fact, there aren't many sports where this makes sense. There is a better way, as I will show below.

What are the critical activities for your sports specific fitness?

Take care of your durability

Lift weights, roll, stretch, get massages, learn to land like a ninja. Do everything you can to maintain a healthy supple, explosive body.

Lift weights? Stretch? How on earth is that going to help my fitness?!

Lots actually.

If you devote enough time to keeping the body strong and supple, if you have rolling and stretching practice in place, if you run, jump and land with great technique, if you really look after all the little things that keep the body healthy and happy, then you never miss a practice or game. And that is the single best thing you can do to get really fit; not just in a general sense, but fit for the very specific demands of your sport.

This focus on health and functional strength has always been my approach, and it has worked pretty well. Of the 10 WNBL teams I have worked with, six have been grand-finalists and three have been champions. This last season with the Melbourne Boomers we had zero games lost to injury and were one of the fittest teams in the league despite never running for more than 20 metres at a time. Apart from tremendous talent, defence, desire and coaching these teams were all pretty healthy, which gave them the opportunity to build superior fitness on court.    

Avoid the stupid stuff

Unfortunately this is much easier said than done, quite of lot of the stupid stuff actually sounds quite smart. With this in mind I have created a few examples of stupid things to avoid:

  1. Long distance road running
    It is too slow, too jarring, and uses the wrong energy system and motor patterns.
  2. Running up sand dunes
    Great as a character building exercise, but it puts a huge strain on the groin to stabilise, and has zero carry over for most sport.
  3. Skipping in place (for fitness)
    Where do we even start?! How can skipping in place make you better at repeated effort sprints? Skipping is great for a sport like boxing as there is a lot of dancing around on the balls of the feet and zero running, however its no good for most team sports.
  4. Repeat effort 100 metre sprints on an athletics track
    This sounds great, right? Track work is short, sharp, and explosive. Everything you need right? Well nearly... But if you are a basketballer, 100 metres is 75 metres too long, and the rubber track actually bounces back at you so it isnt reducing the ground reaction forces so much as it is enhancing them.  

Get some game specific fitness

The best formula for a great sports specific fitness workout is actually really simple:

Play a game! Hard. Recover the next day. Repeat...

It's really that simple. Short sharp work that mimics the game precisely, because it is the game.

If you can't get a practice game or scrimmage going then try Game Fit - our workout designed to replicate the energy systems, movement patterns and muscles used in most team and ball sports (we find it is particularly accurate for Soccer, Basketball, Netball, Tennis, Futsal, Rugby and Aussie Rules - although for those last two you might want to do some longer sprints as well...)

It also means you are working on your skills at the same time, so it's way more fun and much more effective. If you want to get really advanced in practice you can do drills that emphasise the work phase even more, and push your fitness harder.  

Do some smart cardio (get your intervals on!)

Although it's simple and effective, game specific fitness has one downside; you can't do it every day, as you must give your joints, muscles and bones some recovery. This is where some smart cardio comes in. Smart cardio enables you to work the right energy systems without pounding the body. It's done on a spin bike with a smart phone app and is really simple. Smash it for 8 seconds, rest for 12 seconds. Repeat 60 times (for a 20 minute workout).

Smart cardio is the ultimate (non impact) fitness workout!

This is my favourite form of supplementary cardio workout. It is safe, unloaded in terms of ground reaction forces, and highly effective at targeting the alactic and lactic anaerobic systems. It also gives you a bigger aerobic tank as a by-product.

How do I get started with smart cardio workouts?

Download the Core Advantage Interval Timer App

We designed and custom built our own interval timer specifically for our Core Advantage interval workouts. It's available on iOS and Android and will work on both tablets and phones. And best of all, it's free.

Available for free in the App store and on Google Play. Just search "Core Advantage"
Available for free in the App store and on Google Play. Just search "Core Advantage", links at the bottom of the blog

Make sure it’s safe for you to do this workout

If you have asthma, a heart condition, have a problem with fainting etc. then I strongly suggest you get medical approval before trying this. In fact, even if you aren't aware of any problems a medical check is always a great idea!  

Set up for your workout

We use the Keiser spin bike, these are my favourite brand of stationary bikes as they have a quick shift lever that enables you to ramp up your resistance instantly as well as a friction based drive system that can't be bullied. The other thing I like about them is that the seat and handlebar positions are numbered so that once you work out your perfect setup you can make a note of it, and replicate it every time with zero fuss.

We use the Keiser spin bike, these are my favourite brand of stationary bikes as they have a quick shift lever that enables you to ramp up your resistance instantly as well as a friction based drive system that can't be bullied. The other thing I like about them is that the seat and handlebar positions are numbered so that once you work out your perfect setup you can make a note of it, and replicate it every time with zero fuss.

  1. Set your seat height
    Most people have their seat too low, which often leads to knee soreness, however too high and it’ll make your back sore, you want it just right. Just right is when there is a slight bend in your knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke with your ankle in plantar flexion (extended).  
  2. Set your handlebar height
    Unlike road cycling where a hunched over position creates an aerodynamic advantage, stationary bikes are best set up with high handlebars for a comfortable body position, find a level that works and stick with it.  
  3. Get your towel and water
    This is very important as you will get sweaty and thirsty  
  4. Get a bucket or bin
    Every now and then a rookie will go too hard on this workout and make themselves dizzy, queasy or spewy, as it is pretty intense. In the last 16 years we have only had three people vomit, however its nice to know you have a receptacle close at hand just for peace of mind!
    If you do feel funny back off immediately and just roll the legs over. DO NOT JUMP OFF THE BIKE. Jumping off the bike in the middle of high intensity cardio is guaranteed to make you sick. You must always gently cool down to avoid any ill effects. If you get queasy and your parents or friends laugh at you invite them to join you next time, it's great for bonding!
  5. Buckle your feet in nice and safe so the can't slip out
  6. Go for it!
    Press start on the app, warmup for 2 minutes and then ramp up the speed and resistance when the rest countdown is on 3 so you get the full 8 seconds of effort. On the rest period ease off the pedalling then flick the gear down to almost nothing and coast.

Final Thoughts on fitness for team sports

We think that the above interval workout is so great because it:

  • mirrors the work/rest ratio of many sports,
  • has zero impact on your joints, bones and muscles,
  • and it creates a post-exercise oxygen debt that ramps up your metabolism for several hours afterwards and helps you get ripped as well as fit.

However... It’s important to be clear that there is no substitute for game or match fitness.

Nothing can mimic the stop, start, shove, rest, sprint, jump nature of games. In fact, if our joints, bones and muscles would allow it, all of our fitness work would be done on court either in games or in game like simulations. The reality for both the junior and professional athlete alike is that when they need extra fitness (and not everyone does) they need to find it in ways that don’t beat up the body with extra pounding on top of their usually pretty overloaded schedule.  

In real terms this means getting a minimum of three game or game like sessions per week, as well as two or three bike sessions. Schedule the bike session the day after the court session so it can serve as a form of active recovery.  

So get stuck in and enjoy. As always, if your have any questions you can reach us via the contact page on this website.


Download the Core Advantage Interval timer for free:

The easiest way to time this workout is with the Core Advantage Interval timer, a smartphone app you can get for free.


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