“Cardio” for Football Players
The term “cardio” carries with it a lot of baggage. To most people, it’s synonymous with marathon training or hopping on an elliptical for hours on end—a placeholder word for long-duration, low-intensity, steady-state aerobic activity. In football training, “cardio” is often used interchangeably with “conditioning,” and both seem to be associated (in a coach’s mind) with an athlete’s ability to play well in the fourth quarter. But to improve a player’s ability to actually play the game, you need to get a lot more detailed in your conditioning program than simply forcing guys to do “cardio” on occasion—and “cardio” specific to football conditioning doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) mean hour-long jogs for the whole team.
Bioenergetics in Football
Before we jump into what a good aerobic conditioning for football looks like, first we’ve got to examine the game itself in terms of energy system requirements. As a quick refresher, the body uses three main energy systems: aerobic, lactic, and alactic. All three systems are always at work, to some extent, but depending on the type of activity needed fueling—a quick sprint vs. a slow jog—one system will be relied upon more heavily to produce the required energy.
Football is a game of power and speed, with gameplay organized into sequential bouts of near-all-out effort over the course of four 15-minute quarters. Athletes undergo a series of explosive bursts (5- to 10-seconds each) followed by a brief rest (5-30 seconds), with longer breaks following a kick, turnover, or score (plus halftime). Football is therefore predominantly alactic—meaning the majority of the game is fueled by the ATP-CP energy system (which provides fuel for high-intensity activities lasting 10 seconds and under). The alactic energy system is most susceptible to fatigue and requires 5-8 minutes of rest for the athlete to fully replenish their ATP-CP stores and fuel more bursts of activity.
Because players don’t rest 5-8 minutes between plays, this means that the other two energy systems MUST contribute to energy production during the game—especially the aerobic system, which is responsible for replenishing the alactic system. So football is, essentially, an alactic-aerobic sport (very high intensity plays with very low intensity intermittent recovery), and training must reflect the emphasis on both these systems. Where we start to see issues and injuries is when coaches assume that aerobic work equals long runs or 300-yd shuttles after practice, both of which tend to stress the lactic energy system most and can reinforce bad movement patterns or contribute to overuse injuries.
How Do We Develop the Aerobic Energy System?
Though it may not seem important, the aerobic energy pathway is absolutely essential in football. While the alactic side of the energy spectrum is responsible for fueling high-power, short-duration events, the aerobic system is needed to provide energy for basically everything else. When it comes to developing the aerobic system, past methods and cultural practices lead us to the slow, long-duration methods most people are familiar with (like a 60-minute slow run). Unfortunately, these aren’t the most optimal methods for football athletes because they can interfere directly with the goals of becoming more explosive and powerful—not to mention it’s pretty unsustainable to ask big linemen to pound pavement for an hour.
More ideal methods for developing the aerobic energy system will be more specific to the context of playing football, while remaining low-intensity enough so that athletes increase their ability to work for longer durations before fatigue interferes with performance.
Extensive Tempo Runs Based on Position Needs
An “extensive-tempo” effort is completed at a very sub-maximal intensity (about 70% max effort), and provides an opportunity for athletes to hone their running technique without the compromising wear-and-tear of a long jog. Extensive tempo runs—sub-100-yd repeats performed on a field—allow athletes to practice sprinting mechanics at a low intensity that can be repeated to accumulate a greater number of reps.
Athletes should run distances just beyond what their position might run, on average, in any one play during a game (30-50 yd for a lineman, 60-80+ yd for a running back, etc.). They should also aim to complete that distance at roughly 70% maximum effort—if you have hand-timed metrics on their sprinting speeds, this makes it much easier to objectively prescribe pacing guidelines for each run. Have athletes walk back to the start after each repeat, so every rep feels “fresh” and allows them to produce the highest-quality mechanics.
In terms of technique, have your athletes focus on running with the best possible form while staying rhythmic and springy in their stride. The reduced intensity of these runs can help highlight errors in running form, making them an excellent assessment tool for more technique-intensive alactic work. And instead of running in a straight line, you can have athletes run position-specific routes or drills to keep reps dynamic and fun. Make sure to split your team up into groups so athletes aren’t resting longer than necessary while waiting their turn. Athletes should NOT feel 100% gassed after an extensive tempo workout.
Another way to develop the aerobic system in a more football-specific method than a long job is through GPP circuits. The basic tenets of athleticism are developed through general physical preparedness—full-body movements that train the body to move well in all planes of movement. Creating a circuit that involves movements like hopping, skipping, jumping, landing, throwing, and body control can help athletes increase their base level of performance and work capacity, all while developing the aerobic energy system. After all, any activity that involves long, sub-maximal work trains the heart and lungs in the same way—regardless of the actual exercise protocol.
Build a circuit that will get your players moving for about 60 minutes, utilizing primarily bodyweight movements (to keep the intensity low enough for athletes to manage fatigue). Med balls can also be used to provide a more football-specific adaptation without overloading the body—countless variations of slams, throws, and passes can be used to keep the circuit feeling fresh and fun. The important thing to remember with GPP circuits is NOT to over-prescribe the workload. Doing more isn’t always better; focus instead on progressing the amount of work that can be done BEFORE athletes start to feel tired. The purpose of aerobic system training is to increase the amount of work an athlete can perform before they get tired and start gasping for breath—instruct players to move through their GPP circuits at a slow and steady pace, so they can be constantly moving throughout the lengthy workout duration.
Warm-ups, Cool-downs, and Lifestyle Changes
Another easy way to sneak an aerobic stimulus into workouts is by having athletes perform extensive warm-ups and cool-downs. Immediately before or following practice, if times allows, you can implement mobility-focused routines aimed at developing the aerobic system. This allows the athlete work on improving mobility and range of motion while keeping their heart rate in the right range for aerobic adaptation (around 155 bpm).
And, as always, no amount of good training practices can overcome poor habits. Encourage athletes to walk more, sit less, and do daily mobility and soft tissue work. Moving the body slowly through long ranges of motion while focusing on breathing and intent can help athletes recover more quickly from more-intense workouts. And while it’s tempting to go hard all the time, it may be even more important to devote one or two days per week to low-intensity work. Training the body to recover more efficiently will allow athletes to work HARDER during training sessions, without overreaching or overtraining. Investing time in the low-intensity end of the spectrum means you can extend the high-intensity end even further.
Aerobic fitness—sometimes known as “cardio”—is a critical component to success on the football field, and should not be neglected in a conditioning program. It’s equally important for coaches to realize that there are many different ways aerobic fitness can be developed, that DON’T include sending your players on long runs that may do them more harm than good. And always remember that the goal of training isn’t training itself: it’s to prepare athletes to play hard and recover efficiently. Devoting time to improving your athletes’ aerobic energy system will only pay off down the road—especially in the fourth quarter.
Free Resource for Football Coaches
Want to learn more about Volt’s position-specific football training programs? Check out Volt’s step-by-step guide to designing safe and effective football programs: “The Ultimate Guide to Off-Season Football Training.” Written by Volt’s Sport Performance department in collaboration with our Strength Coach Advisory Board, chaired by legendary hall of fame strength coach Boyd Epley of Nebraska, this free resource is great for any coach looking to expand their knowledge about strength and conditioning for football.
About the Author
Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the lead sport performance specialist at Volt Athletics, the official strength and conditioning provider of Football Canada and the Canadian National Teams. Volt provides individualized sport-specific training programs to athletes and teams, built by certified strength coaches, through Volt’s intelligent training system. To learn more about Volt, visit www.voltathletics.com and follow Volt on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more training tips.