Chris Holder: Conditioning for Competition—More Than Just Running

Believe me when I tell you that it’s taken nearly two decades of coaching for me to come to terms with the notion that conditioning means more than just running.

If you knew where I came from, how I was trained as an athlete and how I have run my shop for years, you would understand how hard it is for me to admit this, but it is true. Conditioning an athlete for their respective sport is not forced into boxes . . .
Lifting for strength and power,
Stretching for flexibility and
Running for conditioning.

No, it’s much more than that.

Before I can dive too deep into this idea, let me give you just a glimpse of my experience as an athlete. I played college football in the late 90s. As a youth player, high school athlete and eventually a scholarship college athlete, the only solution for building significant amounts of what most of us consider to be athletic fitness was to run. And run. And run.

Most of the things we did when I played were of the “gasser” or 100-yard strider variety. I can’t tell you how many gassers (width of the field, back and forth three or four times) I have run, but I can assure you, I have a Ph.D in them. I played junior college football and my head coach loved “250s” . . . that’s goal post to goal post and back for time. The irony of it is, when during a game will a footballer run, 250 yards in one play? It never happens and has never happened.

It was a practice in misery, where we linemen would find ways to pace, something that you would never want in a football game from any athlete.

Later in the early years of my coaching career, I found much better ways to run my teams. My mentor taught me some genius-level drills to perfect our running program.

But, it was still running.

It wasn’t until I got out on my own, started playing with some of my own ideas and looking at athlete prep in a completely different way where I found complete freedom. Yes, running is critical; in most sports, especially football, it’s fundamental to the nature of the sport. But all sports, even football have what most would be considered “hidden” fitness needs that running cannot provide.

What’s the Task at Hand?
Understanding the sport you are programming for is important. Really important. What I mean by understanding is having a true appreciation of all of the fitness challenges that any given sport might demand.

I would have to admit that my biggest influence on this whole topic came from my own experience as an offensive lineman. I played 13 years at center. And, as I stated above, my coach’s approach was always to run us.

But what most people don’t understand is that a center does very little running in a game. The only time I can ever remember truly running during the game was the hand full of times we would call a screen pass and I would have to get out into the secondary of the defense and lead block, or if I was chasing down an opponent after an interception. The rest of the time (98% of the game,) I wasn’t running. It was grueling hand-to-hand combat, pushing and nearly wrestling with my opponent for position. Over and over, in five- or seven-second bursts every play.

There are sports, like soccer, where running makes up the bulk of the fitness demands, but they are the exception. And even with soccer, a lot of the time the athletes are jumping and jockeying for position which place different requirements metabolically on the athlete. If you spend any time thinking about each sport, each position within that sport and the individual demands those duties require from a fitness prospective, you realize that running should actually be further down the list than it tends to be.


Kinda Like CrossFit, but not Really
I might be the biggest CrossFit fan for someone who doesn’t CrossFit. I love what they are doing and there has been no singular fitness movement that has done more for weight training than CrossFit. Ever.

Their quest is beautiful: to create the perfect athlete—one who doesn’t specialize, one who isn’t a master of anything, yet is really good at everything. When applied to sport, there’s only one problem with what you would learn in a Level I cert: within a specified sport, many of the qualities that CrossFit trains aren’t ones that the sport itself needs to master. For example, my coaches don’t need to run athletes who need tremendous bursts for short durations like a cross country team. I can definitely borrow from CrossFit, but my athletes need to specialize in certain areas.

Where CrossFit has gotten it right is much of the “conditioning” that you are getting in the daily WOD is provided by tasks other than running. Much of the programming get the athletes huffing and puffing (like you might running) with a bar loaded with the day’s Rx, and not moving from one spot.

That’s the magic that inspired this article.

Kettlebells
If you know me, you knew this was coming. With that being said, there is nearly no other training tool that can condition the body and the lungs like a well thought out kettlebell smoker. We used to call them “man makers” when I started studying with the RKC. Anymore, we understand that nearly any combination of exercises, executed with the appropriate weight bell, can give a linebacker all he might need for his daily conditioning . . . all without running. I have libraries of workouts that I use to condition my guys and gals, in an attempt to not only stimulate their cardiovascular system, but to also save their legs from the continual pounding of what many running routines would bring.

I love the kettlebell swing. It is true genius simplified. And this lone exercise has elevated my program from good to great. What you need to understand is that it’s not just doing kettlebell swings that get my athletes prepared, it’s how we swing that does it. The swing is also the most bastardized lift you will ever see. Nine times out of 10, any video you might see on social media with someone swinging is done with a less than maximal effort. Yes, I am a kettlebell snob, but I can pick apart every and any video you might see. That’s not me being an egomaniac either. I have a very specific recipe that needs to be followed to bring about the adaptation that I’m reaching for.

What makes the kettlebell the perfect tool for athletes is the full-body, high-tension nature of the exercises. Take my lineman example earlier: We don’t really run. We are in the midst of hand-to-hand combat at all times and the only thing we are doing is trying to get the guy across from us to bend to our will. It’s arms, abs, hips and legs, all wrapped up into one brief burst after another. Much of the spike in heart rate is because we are pushing and pulling our opponents. Our midsection, upper backs, chests and arms being taxed is why my heart is racing, not because I’m racing some guy down the sidelines.

This is where programming all of the big kettlebell exercises in a rep-after-rep fashion pays the big dividends.

Where There’s a Sledgehammer, There’s a Way
I started tinkering with sledgehammer routines in 2008. I’ll never forget it. I coached a kid named Joe Nigos. Joe was, and is, a total savage. Little to no respect for his own safety, a literal absence of pain receptors and a true understanding of going balls-to-the-wall is what made Joe so special. We had tractor tires behind my facility in San Jose and I bought us a couple dozen hammers to create another way to condition my teams. It took one trip outside with Joe, an 8lb sledge and a directive to him to go as hard and as fast as possible for me to understand that we were onto something. First, Joe’s intensity was something to marvel at. And to be honest with each and every one of you, it was almost frightening to watch the level of fury that he would swing with.

What makes the sledge routines so powerful is that the work comes from the midsection and hips, not the legs. You can crucify an athlete with a handful of sets and the proper intensity. Moving the feet to different position, changing grips and dialing up the rage are all ways to turn a tractor tire and a hammer into championship-level conditioning.

The reason I love hammer training so much with my teams, especially football, is that the pounding on the legs is next to nothing, yet the spike in heart rate is next to nothing else. Because of the natural rotation component that is inherent in an appropriate sledgehammer swing, the dynamic movement of all sports begins to get addressed. Nearly all weight training is done with a braced, neutral spine. Zero sports are played with a braced neutral spine, and therein lies some of the concerns I have had with how we do things. Sledgehammer swings on a huge tire create real-world forces on the back, the abdominals and the all of the coiling muscles in the midsection that we will see during competition.

It’s the perfect exercise.

Sandbags, Prowlers, Indian Clubs and Tractor Tires
The list goes on and on.

All of the above “tools” create real-world stimulus for athletes prepping for competition. Most of these items are considered to be fringe implements for training fitness for athletes.

I say BS to that.

Many of the routines we have done with all of them are the perfect tools to simulate what a wrestler might encounter during a match, what a defensive end will encounter on a pass rush or a volleyballer might endure during a long point.

What can make all of these implements even more effective is mixing them within one routine. Summer 2017 was a dedicated practice in splitting our department-wide conditioning between nearly half-and-half, running and other. I’m gambling to a degree with my football team, scaling their running back dramatically, and leaning on these other approaches to fitness.

Between you and me, we are better than we have ever been.

Take Home
If you are like me and you are responsible for getting a team (or teams) in shape for their respective seasons, consider using unorthodox methods for conditioning. No, I’m not saying abandon running entirely, but what I am saying is you can get tons of value in ways you might not have considered.

Putting things together, look at what the sport demands. What type of fitness does your athlete need?
Is it like baseball and football where the entirety of the sport is multiple bouts of short large burst followed by 20-30 seconds rest?
Is it more like basketball, or wrestling where there’s continual movement spread out over several minutes at a time?
Or is it like cross country or long-distance swimming where the fitness needs to be deep and usable for very long bouts?

As you program for your sport, look at the metabolic needs. Take into account the types of demands that the athlete will encounter during competition and then try to mirror those stresses. If, for example, you are working with football, 10 kettlebell swings followed by 30 seconds rest for 20 rounds will simulate a long drive. This type of programming will begin to forge the type of fitness into your athletes that will be directly usable come game time.

Lastly, I want to build in options for my kids that will keep them engaged, on their toes and continue to force them to adapt to new stimuli. Look, running is great. Speed work and change of direction work are right in my wheel house. But the day after day of pounding the legs running can create costs that many of us don’t consider. Shin splints, plantar fasciitis and compartment syndrome are just a few of the problems that can be created with excessive pounding from running. Start thinking outside of the box and consider new and interesting ways to get your athletes ready for competition.


Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.


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