In today’s blog I’m bringing you another Pacey Performance Podcast Review. Full disclosure, I’ve focused on part 1 of the podcast chat – which focuses more on the conditioning methods chat. Part 2 was all about the role of sport science, which I haven’t mentioned below, so if you’re interested in listening to what they spoke about on that topic, you’ll need to listen to part 2. This podcast came at a great time as I have been gearing up to support a few professional tennis players on their “pre-season.”
As Aaron discusses in the podcast chat, certain sports present certain challenges from a physical conditioning standpoint. Even though Aaron was talking about MMA and later on about baseball, I think almost all of the lessons apply to Tennis. In Tennis, you can compete year round, and as one of my colleagues in Tennis, Joe Reed mentioned during his first experience working in Tennis over 2 years ago,
“This opportunity opened my eyes to a new sport (tennis) which can only be described as potentially the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding out of any sport I’ve coached in. Due to the 11 ½ month competition schedule and non-existent off-season, which is seen in the majority of sports. The athletes are expected to endure long weeks in which they have to manage school, and tennis and maintain outside interests from the age of 10 and up. The realities of the sport gave me a true appreciation for the athletes that compete and the level of drive necessary to compete at the highest level.“
I’m not going to get into a mud slinging debate as to which sport is the toughest physically, or which one is the toughest to plan for physically. Let’s just leave it as tennis is right up there. As for the “non existent off-season” that Joe was describing, to give you a taster, the pro athlete I’m preparing a plan for is currently out competing, starting their second of three final events of the year. They will come back for a less than one week “off-season” over the Christmas period, and then doing a one month “pre-season” to prepare for playing around 60+ matches over at least 25 weeks of the year, that will start at the end of January 2024. Now, if that same player isn’t consistently qualifying through to Main Draw (which you need to do to earn professional ranking points) then they likely will need to play for more than 25 weeks to chase those ranking points.
Even though that might not sound quite as hectic as a baseball, cricket or basketball competition period, you have to remember that in reality most players trying to climb up the rankings are out there for 25+ weeks of the year in competition mode, have perhaps a few weeks at best completely off to rest, and 4 weeks “pre-season.” This leaves around 20 weeks to “top up” physical qualities, usually in mini training cycles of 7-21 days, often book-ended by travel from and to their next competition. So you have to allow a few days either side to manage fatigue. In reality you have to be really clear on what are the physical themes that will give you the most bang for your buck and push the physical envelope, as you might only have a 7-day window to create some adaptations that will support their physical development throughout the year.
Episode 473 – Aaron Cunanan – “What team sport coaches can learn from UFC about conditioning methods.”
In the Pacey Performance Podcast, host Rob Pacey engages with Aaron Cunanan, the Director of Applied Sports Science for the Cincinnati Reds, delving into various facets of his professional journey and perspectives on sports science. Cunanan begins by acknowledging the influence of mentors like Duncan French, Jeff Head, and John Wagle, who have significantly impacted his development both as a professional and an individual.
Cunanan’s career transition from a weightlifting athlete to a coach marks a pivotal point in his narrative. His initial coaching experiences under Dr. Kyle Pierce at the International Weightlifting Federation provided him with valuable insights into systematic and process-oriented coaching in Olympic sports.
🔉 Listen to the full episode here
”From an adaptation point of view, maybe the weightlifting comes first (to mind as a training tool, given your background in weightlifting), can you take us through an example where you intended to go with X in an ideal world, but because of A,B,C and X,Y, Z we have had to go this route?”
”During my time in the UFC and seeing those athletes train and looking at some situations where you have a long time before athletes fight, and they have several months before they next fight, you are able to go through an actual general [physical] preparation phase (GPP) where you might include some weightlifting movements and maybe you are starting out with someone who has zero resistance training experience, and you are going through basic barbell exercises and introducing some simple derivatives or variations from weightlifting. But the world of MMA is insane. There are so many different training elements that they are managing from day to day. You have striking, grappling, wrestling, Ju jitsu, then actual MMA training, then you throw the physical preparation on top of it, recovery and all that sort of stuff. They may be training for 5, 6, sometimes 7 days a week and maybe things are going great, like I said, you’re introducing these basic weightlifting variations, and suddenly they tweak their shoulder during Ju jitsu, or they tweak their knee. That may put certain exercises or variations off the table, at least in the short term, or maybe for the rest of the training block. So, during that general preparation phase you are trying to build general physical capacities, and if you have taken that specific exercise or group of exercises off the table, how are you going to adjust?
Maybe you switch over to loaded plyometrics, or something like that. So even in a world where resistance training hasn’t always been very embedded within martial arts and MMA (The UFC has done a great job of advancing the approaches to development and training within MMA) you are getting people that for the most part have a really low training age, and you really have to think about the other demands that are being placed upon them. A lot of time you do have the time from a learning standpoint and a physical development standpoint to make good use of the weightlifting movements but maybe because of all the other things they are doing that day, that week, those exercises are off the table because of not necessarily injuries, but slight tweaks, or soreness or fatigue that may just make that type of training ineffective. So you have to be able to understand what is the next best thing, or what else can I do in place of that?
Keeping in mind the quote,
there is no perfect fit. You do something to gain in these things, but you also may lose out on some other areas. As a practitioner, it is important to be able to and willing to stand behind your decisions and have a good rational and thought process in place for why you make those decisions to be able to defend them if you need to, and being aware of a variety of different modalities so if you do have to make an adjustment, you have different options that you are able to call upon.”
“We have seen that [sport] coaches are looking to track & field coaches for education, inspiration, knowledge, experience in building fast people and we are integrating that into team sports. I think that is definitely happening more in the conditioning world, people looking to different sports who are perhaps a little bit further ahead in the conditioning sphere, and trying to see how it can be transferred into baseball, for example. So, I’d just like to get your take on UFC and what you learnt there from a conditioning perspective, and how that’s influenced and helped you transition into other sports like baseball?”
“For me, one of the most exciting things as a practitioner and as a fan of MMA, I think it is the ultimate n = 1 sport in the world. You have so many different scenarios of working with a fighter who has just signed their first contract with UFC and they’re getting ready for their first fight, all the way through to champions in a weight class that are getting ready for a title defence, and everything in between, including fighters that are changing weight classes, so literally no two instances are the same with any of the fighters, so that can create a lot of challenges but that for me I think is one of the exciting things about trying to solve those challenges, and how you come up with appropriate “trade offs” for those scenarios. But it does create a lot of difficulties in dealing with these fractured time lines, or these unpredictable time lines.
You might get a scenario where you are working with a fighter who doesn’t have a fight scheduled and they get a call for a short notice fight in 2 weeks. So, what do from a conditioning standpoint for a fighter who has 2 weeks to prepare? Or what do you do with a fighter who is on an 8-week training plan, getting ready for a fight and then their opponent gets injured so then the fight gets pushed back another several weeks, so you have just completely disrupted the timelines there. So, from a periodisation standpoint there is certainly a lot of challenges in terms of how you go about approaching that and addressing that. But I think that utilising the principles of periodisation and periodised programming still can really help you address all of those different scenarios from a conditioning standpoint.
I talked earlier about all of the different training elements involved in an MMA athlete’s day to day, so you are really trying to make sure that you are aware of and managing all of the different units of training and you should be, I think, trying to maximise training economy. Where are those opportunities that you can work on conditioning, or specific elements of the conditioning, within some sort of sport specific martial arts practice versus what should you try to address within an S&C specific session? In an ideal world, if you have the ability to run a full quote unquote “training cycle”, principles of periodisation can be followed:
- Simple to complex
- General to specific
- High volume to low volume
- Less intense to more intense
From a conditioning standpoint, one of the clearest or most useful spectrums to think along is Global adaptation to local muscle endurance, and how that transitions or fits across that ideal timeline. You may start to work with a fighter at any point along that spectrum and they may not have already gone through a GPP phase, but you pick them up when they would be in a specific preparation phase (SPP) or in the case of a fighter who is taking a short notice fight, in 2 weeks. That is not enough time from a physiological standpoint to chase cardiac adaptation or any sort of big changes in capacity. That could be enough time to work on some high intensity endurance through high intensity intervals but with that comes some additional fatigue during a time when (especially if they weren’t specifically preparing for this fight) probably should be sharpening their skills or making sure they’re up to the task from a technical standpoint. So we know that there is a relationship between increased fatigue and technical execution so what’s the trade-off there that you’re willing to go after? Is that periodised training? If periodised training is aligning your goals and objective to the available timeline, then I think so. Some might argue otherwise but the reality of the situation is that you have to understand what adaptations are possible within a given timeline? What’s your proposed ideal plan for sequencing those adaptations? Then, being able to coordinate with the technical side of things and the sport specific training, I think that’s where you can make the biggest gains or have the biggest impact in terms of not adding too much additional fatigue outside of what they are already doing, but making sure you have a specific training effect to the adaptations or conditioning that they might need.
A realisation I’ve had, which is not something I expected, is that I see so many similarities in terms of weightlifting through to the MMA world through to the baseball world. Those tight schedules, a lot of training elements, high skill natured sport with focus on the technical execution and the importance of that.”
“From a conditioning point of view in baseball, moving to the present day, what does conditioning look like for your guys? Obviously there is probably multiple buckets of athletes depending on positional requirements, and scheduling wise, who’s involved, who’s not involved etc But what does it look like for you?”
“Going back to what are the demands of the sport, we can focus on pitching specifically, by and large it is not an aerobic task in the sense that it is not long continuous activity, but I would say that it is aerobic, or at least, has a high cardiac demand from the standpoint that when the pitcher is on the mound their heart rate is 85% plus of heart rate max the entire time they are on the mound, even though with the introduction of the pitch clock this last season, they are throwing a pitch every 15-20 seconds, depending on if there is a person on base or not. And so that ability to repeat those high intensity efforts of throwing a pitch at max or near max effort with an elevated heart rate for that prolonged period of time, I think, to me points towards the importance of having a strong cardiovascular system from a very basic standpoint. Then throw on top of that from a bioenergetic standpoint, rephosphorylation of creatine is primarily takes place through mitochondria respiration which requires aerobic capacity. So, not to dive into the physiology too much, I do think that there is a strong case for having a robust cardiovascular system to support the efforts of pitching both from the cardiovascular strain that these pitchers experience while they are on the mound, and then also from their recovery in between those high intensity efforts.
It’s pretty clear, you can go into any physiology text book, to see how to improve those things. Going back to talking about what we were talking about earlier, how do you do that within the environment that you are in, both in terms of equipment that is available, time that is available, when during the year you have the ability to work with these athletes? In terms of setting a base and foundation standpoint, I think that’s my general philosophy. And then obviously how that fits in with a specific pitching standpoint in terms of the arm and shoulder being conditioned and ready to throw at high intensity, and what the throwing programme looks like from the off-season, to preparing for that spring training camp, to getting ready for the season. Again, if we are looking from a macro periodisation standpoint, your off-season training, pre-season training and in-season training, sport specific activity from a throwing standpoint is going to be different just like any other team sport, or any other sport, your conditioning activities off the field should compliment what the objectives of the sport specific training are. So, you may go from more general aerobic capacities in the off-season from a conditioning standpoint, to more introduction of different circuits, whether that is plyometrics circuit or med ball circuits, or whatever, with just a little bit more higher intensity, repeated effort type circuits, to more pure high power output type activities as we get really close the the spring training period. Those timelines may shift, or emphasis may be more or less depending on the specific case but speaking in generalities that gives you the meat and potatoes of it.
“One of the easiest adaptations to go after in the off-season would be increasing left ventricular volume, and you do that through low-intensity steady state for really extended periods of time, it’s boring but it is super effective. From a compliance standpoint, there is probably a more nuanced conversation to land on what the exact training prescription is going to be but you are looking at heart rates at zone 2 (which is all the rage these days) for really extended periods of time, 30 minutes to an hour plus of uninterrupted zone 2 type training around that heart rate intensity. That helps to target the increase of the left ventricular volume to help increase the amount of blood that is getting pumped out with each beat to the periphery.
As you transition closer to the pre-season camp or your spring training, then you might be able to go after your longer intervals of 4-6 minutes at 80-90% heart rate max, or maybe a little bit higher depending on the fitness level. That’s where you are getting into stressing the cardiovascular system and the heart specifically to sustain that high heart rate for extended periods of time. So for me, that’s how I would manage that transition of building a capacity of the heart to fill and deliver blood to the periphery and then you’re making it a little bit more specific with the longer intervals at the higher intensities to be able to allow the heart to sustain and manage that workout or output for those extended periods of time. That would then probably shift into shorter intervals, not necessarily running or bike but more of the whole total body whether that is med ball or some sort of plyometric interval-based approach, where you are doing repeated high intensity outputs every 10-15-20 seconds, 3-5 reps of that, multiple sets of that to build in that robustness to be able to execute those near maximal or maximum efforts back to back to back. So that would be the general sequence of those type of activities that would be appropriate.”
Top 5 Take Away Points:
- Maximise training economy – Where are those opportunities that you can work on conditioning, or specific elements of the conditioning, within some sort of sport specific martial arts practice versus what should you try to address within an S&C specific session?
- Global adaptation to local muscle endurance – From a conditioning standpoint , one of the clearest or most useful spectrums to think along is Global adaptation to local muscle endurance, and how that transitions or fits across that ideal timeline of a training cycle.
- Utilising principles of Periodisation – you have to understand what adaptations are possible within a given timeline? What’s your proposed ideal plan for sequencing those adaptations?
- Pitching has an aerobic cost – heart rate is 85% plus of heart rate max the entire time they are on the mound.
- Conditioning should compliment not compete with technical practices – your conditioning activities off the field should compliment what the objectives of the sport specific training are.
Want more info on the stuff we have spoken about?
You may also like from PPP:
Episode 217, 51 Derek Evely
Episode 207, 3 Mike Young
Episode 192 Sprint Masterclass
Episode 87 Dan Pfaff
Episode 55 Jonas Dodoo
Episode 15 Carl Valle
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