It’s a question of huge importance and depends heavily on which sport you are talking about. Even after you nail that down, there are several different areas that fall under the ‘training’ umbrella – skill, strength, conditioning, mentality, strategy, and knowledge of the sport just to name a handful.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the conditioning aspect. Since it would be extremely difficult to cover every single sport, my goal is to give you some guidance on how to think rather than workouts specific to each sport. That way, you can come up with your own training plans based on principles (but there are a few example workout ideas at the end of the article!).
We’ll start by laying out (hopefully in simple terms) the three different energy pathways and how each one applies to various aspects of sport:
-Phosphagen – also known as:
-Anaerobic Glycolysis – also known as:
I’ll refer to these systems as the phosphagen system, anaerobic system, and aerobic system to keep things simple. But you probably don’t care about what they’re called – what do they actually do?
Let’s start with the phosphagen system because it’s the first energy pathway to kick in during activity. While all three energy pathways are almost always active to some degree, there is usually a pathway that contributes the vast majority of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), the energy ‘currency’ that muscles need in order to work, at any one time.
What Do They Do?
Before you begin – if you don’t care about the science-y stuff and you’re only concerned with how to train each pathway, go ahead and skip ahead to the “How do I Train For My Sport?” section. Otherwise, continue on!
Here are the key things you need to know about the phosphagen system:
-Used for only the first 5-10 seconds of explosive maximum effort
-Energy comes from muscle ATP and Creatine Phosphate (CP) WITHOUT oxygen
-Only small amounts of this ‘kind’ of energy can be stored, hence the very short duration
-Example activities include:
One-rep max lifting
Wrestling scramble or a scoring situation
Making a tackle in football
Swinging a baseball bat or making a pitch
Dunking a basketball
Kicking a soccer ball or football
-It delivers ATP to muscles the most quickly of the three pathways
-Can be replenished in minutes depending on the conditioning level of the athlete
-It is replenished logarithmically. Depending on the conditioning level of the athlete, roughly 60% of the energy stores used in this pathway are replenished in about 30 seconds of recovery time, but it takes up to five minutes or more to be 100% replenished after maximum effort activity stops.
Here are the key things you need to know about the anaerobic system:
-Used for up to two minutes of high-intensity, near maximum effort activity
-Energy comes from muscle glycogen WITHOUT oxygen
-Involves the breakdown of glucose or glycogen through 10 reactions
-Pyruvic acid and lactic acid (if no oxygen is present) are byproducts of creating ATP through the Anaerobic system and contribute to muscle fatigue, which is why this pathway can only be used for about 2 minutes
-Example activities include
~100 to 800-meter race (after depleting phosphagen system)
Most of a wrestling match excluding scoring situations and short scrambles
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
Portions of a soccer game
Many swimming events
-Delivers ATP to muscles more slowly than the phosphagen system
-Takes much longer to replenish than the phosphagen system energy stores
As a side note, I’ll admit that wrestling was a big part of my life and I am biased in some ways toward the unique difficulties of training for wrestling. I’ll point to the narrow number of example activities for the anaerobic system as evidence for that difficulty. Most sports cycle between requiring use of the phosphagen system and the aerobic system we’re about to discuss. Most football plays last about 6 seconds or less. Basketball cycles between short bursts of activity and jogging up and down the court. Baseball also cycles between very short ‘plays’ and resting.
While wrestling also does cycle between maximum effort and sub-maximal effort to varying degrees depending on the level of competition, I would argue that the anaerobic system is far more prevalent in general than the aerobic system for most matches. This explains why, no matter how well-trained you are from fall sports such as cross-country or football, you still feel relatively out of shape when you step on the mat as wrestling season begins. In short, I would argue that few sports utilize the anaerobic system as much as wrestling does overall which makes it uniquely difficult to train for compared to other sports.
Here are the key things you need to know about the aerobic system:
-Used for steady-state activities such as walking or running longer than 2 to 3 minutes
-Energy comes from breakdown of carbohydrates and fats in the presence of oxygen
-Example activities include
Running, biking, swimming, jumping rope, etc for longer than 2 to 3 minutes
Track meets longer than ~800 meters
-It delivers ATP to muscles the most slowly of the three pathways
-Reverts lactic acid produced by the anaerobic system back to pyruvic acid which can be used to create ATP using the citric acid/Krebs cycle
That last point is important because it offers insight into how to recover more quickly after large exposures to anaerobic activity, such as after a wrestling tournament or a short/middle-distance track meet. We can utilize low-intensity steady state activity (easy jog, biking/cycling, swimming, etc) to ramp up the aerobic system and clear out some of the lactic acid that has accumulated.
Our bodies naturally rely primarily on the aerobic system for energy, but if we can cause it to cycle more frequently, we can ‘use up’ the lactic acid and dissipate fatigue more quickly than just resting. That’s why football coaches like to have light Saturday practices after Friday night games – they get the players’ heart rates up and keep their aerobic system working long enough to clear out some of the lactic acid that has presumably built up.
However, I question the usefulness of this method for football specifically due to the fact that very little of a football game demands use of the anaerobic system for most positions. With most plays lasting only a few seconds with about 40 seconds between most plays, players have plenty of time to replenish most of their phosphagen system energy stores and should rarely tap into their anaerobic energy systems with the exception of plays longer than about 6 or 7 seconds.
It seems that athletes who perform most of their sport activity using the anaerobic system would benefit much more from day-after low-intensity steady-state activity to speed up dissipation of muscle fatigue.
How Do I Train For My Sport?
Obviously, if you just play the sport that you are training for, you will naturally train the proper energy pathways due to the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle. But what happens in the off season when you don’t have another player or another team to compete against? How do you train then?
The good news is that each energy pathway is trainable and the general way to train each of them is simple – you use them! In this section we will discuss some specific methods that you can use to train each different energy pathway in the off season to be more prepared for your sport in-season.
Training Your Phosphagen System
As a quick reminder, the phosphagen system is dominant only in the first 5 to 10 seconds of activity before its energy reserves are depleted and roughly 60 percent of phosphagen energy stores are replenished in about 30 seconds of rest. Examples of activities that use the phosphagen system include sprinting, jumping, and any short bursts of maximum effort such as tackling, swinging, kicking, and scoring situations in wrestling.
If you are trying to specifically increase the capacity of your phosphagen system so that you can add another couple of seconds of maximal effort availability before your anaerobic system kicks in, here’s what you should do.
1. Pick an exercise that you can truly exert maximum effort in doing for about 10 seconds
a. Examples include:
ii. Stationary air bike
iii. Rowing machine
iv. Squat jumps or burpees
v. Jump rope double-unders
vi. High knees in place
2. Set a timer for 10 seconds and perform that exercise at maximum effort for 10 seconds
3. Rest (or do extremely low intensity activity) for 30 to 45 seconds
An example workout could be:
1. Stationary bike at maximum effort for 8-10 seconds – the upper limit to phosphagen system duration
2. Bike very slowly or rest for 45 seconds
3. Repeat for 10 rounds or until you begin to notice yourself slowing down after only 4 or 5 seconds during your maximum effort period
This would take you just under 10 minutes to do 10 rounds and it’s crazy how tired you can get from just 1 minute and 40 seconds of real work. You can increase the number or rounds you do or decrease the rest period over time (or both) but I do not recommend increasing the maximum effort time past 10 seconds if the phosphagen system is your focus being as 10 seconds is the upper limit for how long the phosphagen system can truly supply energy.
Training Your Anaerobic System
The anaerobic system can supply ATP for your body at near maximum effort for a maximum of 2 to 3 minutes. However, if you exhaust your anaerobic system you will experience significant muscle fatigue and decreased performance due to a buildup of lactic acid as a byproduct of the anaerobic system. Because of that I don’t recommend doing near-maximum effort level intervals for the upper limit of the anaerobic system time duration. Instead, an example workout could look something like this:
1. Stationary bike at maximum effort for 20-30 seconds. You will probably notice yourself slowing down and finding a maximum pace after about 8 to 10 seconds as your phosphagen system is depleted, but keep the effort level at near maximum during this time.
2. Rest (or bike very slowly) for 100 to 120 seconds. This gives your body time to transition to the anaerobic system to use up some of the pyruvic acid and lactic acid generated by your anaerobic system and also replenish your phosphagen system energy stores for the next bout of maximum effort.
3. Repeat for 10 rounds or until you feel your speed decrease even further more than 5 seconds before your maximum effort bout is complete.
As your anaerobic system becomes more trained, you can increase the maximum effort duration, decrease rest, increase the number of rounds, or do all three depending on your sport. This is just a starting point and you'll need to use your judgment to figure out which aspects are most important for the sport or sports you are concerned with (longer duration, shorter rest, or more rounds).
Again, you can use any exercise that you can truly exert maximum effort on. For example, it would be difficult to truly exert consistent maximum effort doing something like situps, so pick something that uses large muscle groups – ideally involving your legs. Most sports make heavy use of your legs anyways, so it’s hard to go wrong with a lower body movement and getting your upper body involved is just a bonus.
Remember that we’re focused on training the energy pathways here, not the muscles. The smaller muscle groups involved aren’t nearly as important as the level of effort that you can exert while training.
Training Your Aerobic System
This one is a little bit more straight forward. You can train your aerobic system by picking any steady-state activity and performing it at a moderate intensity for longer than 3 minutes – ideally 10 minutes or longer. I would recommend starting at 10 minutes of activity at an intensity level of 6 out of 10, meaning you can speak in complete sentences while performing the activity but it is still moderately hard. Increase the duration and intensity over time, emphasizing whatever is specific to your sport.
For example, if you are training for cross-country then intensity is more important than if you are training for walking a golf course during a golf meet. Longer duration at a lower intensity makes sense for the golf meet situation whereas higher intensity for shorter duration makes more sense for the cross-country meet.
If you are training for a sport biased toward shorter, high-intensity bursts of activity, like wrestling, baseball, or football, it still pays to train up a highly conditioned aerobic system.
A high-performing aerobic system will:
Allow your body to process more harmful metabolic byproducts like lactic acid and pyruvic acid more quickly during lower intensity activity, preventing muscle fatigue and allowing your phosphagen system to more quickly recharge
Increase the range of intensity that your aerobic system can be dominant in rather than using your anaerobic system. The more you can rely on your aerobic system versus your anaerobic system, the more prepared you will be for intense bursts of maximum effort activity and the less susceptible you will be to fatigue from anaerobic system byproducts.
This has all been a very, VERY high level overview of how the three different energy pathways work, when they work, and how to train them. We're just scratching the surface here. All the same, I hope you’ve learned something that you can apply it to your training to help you succeed in whatever upcoming sport season you will be competing in!
If you are looking for a one-stop shop for all of your training needs, check out the StrongFriends app available on the App Store and Google Play. It has hundreds of exercises, stretches, yoga positions, and text and video tutorials that you can use to build your own completely custom workouts, circuits, and supersets – complete with set and rest timers. You can even share workouts, circuits, and supersets with friends! Oh and the base version is free to use with no ads whatsoever.
There are also tools like a 1-rep max calculator, a time-splits calculator for pacing yourself, a plate calculator to tell you which plates to load on a barbell for a given weight, and a video recorder for iPhone that won’t stop your music while you record video. Check it out today!
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed!
(Disclaimer: This is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a certified personal trainer or a health professional. ALWAYS consult a doctor or another health professional before beginning any exercise program and STOP EXERCISING IMMEDIATELY if you feel weak, faint, light-headed, chest tightness, or are unsure in any way if you should continue.)
“Energy Pathways during the Workout.” Sportlyzer Academy, https://academy.sportlyzer.com/wiki/energy-pathways-during-the-workout/.
“The Three Primary Energy Pathways Explained.” ACE Fitness, 7 Mar. 2019, www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/3256/the-three-primary-energy-pathways-explained/.
Roth, Stephen M. “Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up in Muscles? And Why Does It Cause Soreness?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 23 Jan. 2006, www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-lactic-acid-buil/.