Rethinking Conditioning: 110-Yard Sprints and “Gassers”

When anyone uses “Mental toughness” as their reasoning for doing a certain conditioning exercise, I feel myself die a little inside. Sometimes the intentions are good, but they are missing the ballpark when it comes to properly training their athletes. I cannot think of time when an athlete was excited to be doing 110-yard full sprints or “Gassers” for an arbitrary amount of reps with probably less than a 1-minute rest in-between. And there is a reason for that… it really freaking sucks. You feel completely wiped out, can’t catch your breath, or you feel like you are going to potentially pass out.

Yet time and time again, athletes have their head down in defeat as their body just went through a grueling workout and the only people happy at the end are the coaches. Somehow coaches think making athletes tired like this is the way to build “mental toughness”, but don’t realize how ineffective it is to actually improve sport performance. That’s not even mentioning the health risks that comes with this type of training, especially in the heat. In fact, when sports were able to resume practices again after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this summer, 2 kids (that I know of) have DIED from such conditioning workouts. Being an athlete should not carry a potential death sentence! Let me provide you some examples so you know what I’m talking about.

Before we begin, let’s define conditioning. According to, conditioning is “the process of training to become physically fit by a regimen of exercise, diet, and rest.” A key point about this definition? It is extremely vague. That is the point! Conditioning is not a one size fits all type of training.

Conditioning for a Cross-Country athlete compared to a Football athlete should not be the same. Athletes in one sport exert a continuous effort over miles of courses while the other is a full-out stop and go for 5-10s with ~1-min breaks in between. Yet, some of these anaerobic sports are training for the former. Heck, I’ve had to watch baseball athletes test their mile time as the Head Coach wanted to see who had been staying in shape during the winter break. When do baseball players run a mile in their sport? The answer is: they don’t. So why was the head coach testing them with it? I’ve had numerous Head Coaches wanting “sport specific” weight room programs for their athletes but some of these same coaches weren’t even doing “sport specific” conditioning workouts. Is running the mile inherently bad? No. Is it suitable for baseball players or other anaerobic sports? I don’t think so.

As athletes, sport coaches, or parents of athletes, you need to ask yourself when it comes to conditioning, “Conditioned to do what?” Here is a general check list of factors about your sport you should look at when writing or doing a conditioning workout:

In my sport, on average, I…

  • Full sprint or go full effort for [insert time here] before stopping or slowing down
  • Run (less than 100% effort) for [insert time here]
  • Rest or stop for [insert time here] before next play or effort is needed again

Let’s use football as an example:

In football, on average, I…

  • Full sprint or go full effort for 5-6s before stopping or slowing down
  • Run for 0s as each play is 100% effort
  • Rest or stop for 30-60s before next play

When you bring it all together, you have 5-6s of max effort with 30-60s rest in between, which is interval training! Just asking 3 questions about your sport can easily help athletes, coaches, and parents understand the basics of proper conditioning workouts.

Running miles, 110yd sprints, or doing gassers may improve your conditioning, but it’s conditioning you to run long distances at a slow pace, which is not what anaerobic sports consist of. There is a place to do aerobic type work for anaerobic sports as the aerobic system helps replenish your energy stores during your rest periods between sprints or max efforts, but doing that type of conditioning right before or during the season is a recipe for disaster. During the season, anaerobic sports should be focusing on speed and power development and, if practice is done correctly, they shouldn’t need any further conditioning!

In short, running for long periods of time or doing max sprinting with little rest in between conditions you to be slower as you are focusing on the aerobic energy system. Training with short bursts with proper rest (active or non-active recovery) in-between, similar to an athlete’s sport, will achieve greater success and have athletes “mentally tough” because they are confident they can play at full speed until the final minute. If you don’t believe me, let’s look at the science! Girard et al. (2011), reviewed studies to understand fatigue in short-duration sprints and this graph will summarize what they found (source of study can be found here

Graph showing the effects of rest duration on maximal 4 sec, cycle sprint performance. Intermittent sprints were performed every 2 min, whereas repeated sprints were executed every 30 sec. * Significantly different from sprint 1 in the repeated-sprint condition.

If you wanted to bet which group would last until the end of game and play at the same energy and intensity as the beginning of the game, the results speak for themselves. The shorter the rest period between sprints, the less work they can perform. My hope is that if you’re an athlete, parent of a athlete, or even a sport coach reading this, it’ll make you review how your (or your kid’s) conditioning workouts are going and whether they are actually helping the athlete perform at a high level all game long or if they are running that athlete to the ground and making them slower. Remember, if your coach or your kid’s coach tells you the reason they are doing a conditioning workout is to build “mental toughness” or “make-up for lost time,” that potentially could be a red flag, which may put you, your child’s, or your athlete’s sport performance and health at risk.

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