Taking the Monotony Out of Conditioning

March 27, 2019, 10:56 a.m. (ET)

By Nick Shedd, U.S. Women's National Team Strength and Conditioning Coach

Conditioning is a staple of a high-performance field hockey athlete’s preparation. After working with the U.S. Women’s National Team for more than two years, I have yet to hear an athlete say “I sure love doing 150-yard shuttles.” I’ll admit that the majority of the time, our conditioning is bland. Work periods, rest periods and intensities change frequently but for the most part, we simply allot time toward the end of a practice, line up and run. It may not be fun but being fit is part of our identity and helps us win games. We probably don’t do formal conditioning sessions as often as people think we do. The majority of conditioning effects we get are from field hockey, allowing us to keep the wind sprints short and sharp. All in all, it’s a necessary part of the game, practice and training. That extra sprint before packing up at the end of training can be all the difference in the big game in the final minutes. Important, yes, but never the most appealing objective an athlete looks forward to when walking on the pitch.

So let’s re-phrase the question then: how can you make running and sprinting more exciting, engaging or fun for athletes? Here’s just a couple quick ideas to help make it more appealing.

Use Field Hockey for Conditioning

If you want to avoid endless amounts of sprints, get your conditioning in by playing the very game you’re practicing! Your cardiovascular system has no idea whether you’re doing maximum aerobic speed (MAS) conditioning, playing in a real match or running from a lion. In order to get a significant conditioning effect, try reducing the density of players on the pitch. For example, instead of a 11 v 11 game played on a full field, try 8v8. This will increase the demanded work rates of each player. Another option is to maintain normal game density and increase the amount of time played. If your players typically are on the pitch for 10 minutes at a time, play for 12-15 minutes without stopping. A third option is to reduce rest time. If your players are typically on the pitch for 10 minutes, off for five, try having athletes play for 10 and only rest for three before playing another 10 minutes.

Conditioning with Set Pieces

To help break the monotony of sprints, try running between set pieces. For example, run four, 50-yard sprints, then line up and execute two to four penalty corners, repeating 4-6 times. Reducing the number of penalty corners between sprint clusters inherently reduces rest time. Therefore, field hockey athletes will tell you that this feels realistic to an in-game scenario. Players tend to enjoy it more because the running is broken up into segments. The only caution to this exercise is to be aware that penalty corner execution and coaching the corners can add time to the rest period. To get a positive adaptation to the conditioning, place the athletes under time constraints while executing the penalty corners. While this form of conditioning is relatively “specific” to the sport, I don’t recommend doing it all the time. Skill acquisition is poor under fatigue. If your players are learning a new penalty corner variation or a new position on corner attack or defense, I don’t recommend doing sprints in between. If your team’s penalty corner variations are looking sharp, have a go by adding in this extra game-like dimension!

Stop Running for Punishment

I am not a fan of using running as a form of punishment, especially with youth athletes. Whether or not negative reinforcement and physical discomfort are effective forms of behavioral modification is a topic that I am not qualified to discuss. However, by human nature, we like to do things we are good at. Kids that are good at running don’t mind running. Kids that are bad at running hate running. If we can acknowledge the benefits of running on athletic performance and health, and if we want athletes to be willing to voluntarily run, don’t create a negative association with it by using it to punish athletes for poor behavior or performance in practice or games.

Motivational Conditioning

Preparing mentally for a game or training session is just as important as prepping the body. Use mental motivational situations to help break through the barrier when conditioning. When your coach’s whistle blows to signal the next set of sprints, change your mindset when you’re on the line. Visualize that game-time scenario that this is all for: there is 20 seconds left in the game and your opponent is on a fast break towards the goal. That extra run in practice where you gave it your all could be that deciding factor. It won’t be long until your teammates and the coaching staff will notice the change of powering through to the final whistle. Even more so, running won’t seem like a punishment or necessity before going home, it will rightfully seem like training to gain an advantage next time your opponent think they can get the edge on you!

This article is featured in the 2019 issue of FHLife magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to our quarterly publication by clicking here.