Ultimate Conditioning 101: Two Things you MUST Think About Before Your Next Workout

by | April 10, 2014, 8:48am 6

With college teams putting the final touch on fitness and club players gearing up for tryouts, it’s a great time to review the fundamentals of conditioning for ultimate.

When creating a sport-specific conditioning plan there are two factors you’ll want to consider: metabolic demands and movement demands. In this article we’ll look at both and how they apply to ultimate.

Metabolic Demands

Any time you exert effort, your body uses a continuum of metabolic pathways to produce energy. For low intensity effort over an extended period of time, your body uses primarily the aerobic energy pathway. For max effort under 15 seconds, your body uses primarily the phosphagen system. For high intensity efforts beyond 15 seconds, the anaerobic energy pathway predominates.  When you are engaging in a multi-sprint sport like ultimate, all three systems are used in varying amounts.

The best way to reflect the metabolic demands of the sport you’re training for is to mimic the time and intensity of effort most common on the field.

A study done by Xi Xia for The Huddle of 85 elite men’s ultimate points, tracked active play segments (time the disc was in play) and found that “The average Active Play Segment was 21.2 seconds. 75% of all Active Play Segments were 25 seconds or less.” This study doesn’t tell us anything about the intensity of effort or about movement by an individual. It does tell us that intervals of effort of about 20 seconds would be a good place to start with interval training for ultimate, especially if you are trying to play elite men’s ultimate.

If you take the time to watch an ultimate game closely, you’ll find that there is a lot more time standing around and in low intensity movement that you might suspect. It makes much more sense to train for ultimate with interval training than it does to train with steady state, aerobically dominated long distances.

Interval training does not have to mean high intensity interval training (HIIT) every day all the time.  I often run intervals of 70-85% intensity. You can do HIIT and you can also do intervals at lower intensities. Intervals helps train the body to recover from bouts of effort. If you do a long run, you only get to recover once. If you do intervals, you may get to practice recovering fifteen times or more.

Example Workout

A very simple workout that I use is the 20/40 workout. You’ll need a stopwatch and a good place to run – either a field or a track. Run 20 seconds at 70-85% of your sprint speed, walk for forty seconds and repeat. Start with as few as eight repetitions and work your way up to twenty reps by adding one or two repetitions each week. Though some might find this workout boring, I enjoy it’s simplicity and the opportunity it gives me to work on my running form. The speed is close enough to a sprint that the mechanics are the same. The effort is light enough and the time long enough to develop a good awareness for what your body is doing. This type of workout can be used as often as three or four times per week. I prefer keeping it moderately difficult and frequent versus once or twice per week and hard.

Movement Demands

If all of your conditioning is on a track in a straight line, you may still become surprisingly tired when you step on the ultimate field despite having a good level of fitness.

The muscle groups you use in conditioning matter because the body works as a whole system. Fitness gained by bicycling or swimming does not necessarily translate as well as you’d expect to running. And fitness gained by running in a straight line won’t translate well to a sport where you are starting, stopping, accelerating, and changing directions many times per point.

To learn more about movement demands of ultimate, I did a movement study by tracking individual male players over the course of several games of tournament play. Though the study had a very small sample size, it does highlight how ultimate players often move in multidirectional or lateral movement as opposed to linear movement.

Multidirectional movement and changes of direction require more core stability and strength than simply maintaining movement in the forward direction. Conditioning workouts should include decelerations and changes of direction in order to reflect the demands of ultimate.

Example Workout

I’ve talked about this workout, and several like it on my blog.

You’ll need a few cones, a stopwatch, and a flat area of about 4X15 yards. You will perform intervals of three movement patterns– skater hops, shuffles, and short shuttle runs. The work intervals are 30 seconds of max effort followed by 90 seconds of rest. Rest intervals can be shortened to 60 seconds as you increase in fitness.

Skater Hops

Shuffles

Short Shuttles

I like to alternate between this type of workout and the aforementioned 20/40 workout. This workout is more intense than the linear intervals and so I would not recommend doing it every day. Two or three times per week would be good to help you prepare for an upcoming ultimate season.

Creating your own workout – Making it Effective, Keeping it Simple

You can use the two workout examples above or create your own strategy as long as you keep in mind the principles of metabolic demand and movement demand.

Click here for more examples of interval protocols.

Click here for a simple workout format that’s flexible and works in small spaces.

If you want to get really sport specific, I love Michael Caldwell’s The Cutting Tree as an excellent workout that covers both the metabolic demands and movement demands very well. This workout is simple, yet easy to vary. You need four cones, a field, cleats, and maybe a stopwatch.

Using the cutting tree as a conditioning drill, it’s easy to progress by adding repetitions and decreasing rest time, doing several reps with no rest, etc. Caldwell’s comments from the same article offer great examples of how to vary your work and rest intervals with a focus on replicating the demands of the game:

“When you run the tree as described, you’ll cover between 60 and 75 yards in one full cycle. I’d recommend not doing more than four continuous cycles in a single rep – any more than that, and you start to get away from replicating the game.

Between reps, I’d recommend active, timed rest. Sprint to a spot relative to the tree that’s an approximation of the “cleared” position in your teams offense, and very lightly chop and shuffle your feet. Keep a ready stance, eyes up, the same way you would in a game if you were waiting your turn to cut.

If you’re looking to grind, I would do cycles-to-rest ratio of something like: 1 cycle to 10 sec, 2 cycles to 20-30 sec, 3 cycles to 40-50 sec, etc. If you’re working on speed and change-of-direction, rest 2 to 3 times longer between reps. If you’re working on visualization only, go slower to give your imagination time to work. Play with the size of the tree, make it small or make it huge.”

Whether you use my workouts, MC’s Cutting Tree, or your own design, keep in mind the principles of metabolic and movement demand to get the most out of your conditioning workouts this season.

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  • Great stuff, Melissa! :)

  • Qx1

    Thanks, lots of stuff to try out. How about the Tabata Protocol? Basically 20/10 for 4 minutes. Seems like it lines up well with the length of the average "Active Play Segment", and has good anaerobic and aerobic benefits. Plus, it makes me want to throw up, so it must be good!

    • Glad you like it! Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

      I really would like to avoid this " it makes me want to throw up, so it must be good!' mentality. I realize you're mostly joking. Still, I feel that's a major flaw in the training of many ultimate players. Conditioning does not have to feel crazy hard to get positive adaptations, especially if you plan far enough in advance in your training. I really prefer increasing frequency over increasing intensity for most conditioning work. Less difficult, more frequent sessions will get you better results over the long haul.

      A phase of very difficult, "makes me want to puke" work can be done once in awhile. A four week phase with workouts like that no more than twice per week would be great. But I wouldn't do a phase much longer than that. You would also want a base of fitness built up by less intense work before doing a tabata protocol.

      From a purist perspective, I take issue with the words "Tabata Protocol" being thrown around so loosely on the internet and in personal training circles. Having actually read the research done by Tabata and having done the Tabata protocol for a four week phase, I view it as an advanced type of training for those already at a very good level of fitness. I'd use it for biking or sprinting. I dislike the way it's being used by personal trainers for general fitness on people with low-mid level fitness and using random exercises for 20 seconds. When I was at an elite level of fitness, it was still extraordinarily difficult for me to maintain good running form with this protocol.

      If an athlete is to the point where they're barely moving and has terrible form as they're "sprinting", then it's not the right protocol for that athlete.

      • JRT6

        If other people really read key parts of the Tabata experiment they would find the sprint group did a LSD conditioning day a week and that all groups stopped progressing after four weeks. Too many people thing High Intensity Interval Training means ‘Maximum Effort” training.

  • Leslie Wu

    http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/pages/articlevi
    "From a practical point of view, a high aerobic fitness is a precious asset in counteracting fatigue in sports with numerous sprint repetitions."
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20872150
    "These data also confirm the importance of aerobic conditioning in sports, where repeating high-intensity/maximal efforts within a short time-period are required."

    #hmm

  • Leslie Wu

    Perhaps surprisingly, compared to what textbooks might say, "The crossover [from predominantly anaerobic] to predominantly aerobic energy system supply occurred between 15 and 30 s for the 400-, 800-, and 1500-m events." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11194103

    43% of the 400m is aerobic? hm part 2.