What is a conditioning program?

In psychology, conditioning is the process of modifying a person’s behavior. It refers to the use of a particular action to influence an individual’s learning. When it comes to sports and exercise, conditioning usually means the training that an athlete or athletic individual uses to improve his or her physical fitness or sports performance.

Physical conditioning usually has multiple components, including power, strength, speed, balance, agility, coordination, and endurance. Not every sport or form of exercise requires each component in equal proportion, if at all.

Running as part of a conditioning program

Improving an athlete’s conditioning

When an athlete wants to improve his or her physical conditioning, the first step is to design the program with the goals and needs of the sport in mind. The training program of a sprinter will differ significantly from that of a long-distance runner, for example. Football running backs might need more agility training, and gymnasts might need more balance work. Endurance is felt to be important in all sports and exercise, but even with endurance, some athletes might need more muscle endurance rather than cardiorespiratory endurance.

A strength and conditioning specialist can help by creating training programs that optimize performance and minimize the chance of injury. These trainers can evaluate athletes and their current levels of fitness, strength, and endurance and design programs based on specifically what each athlete needs.

Also read:
5 steps you can take to recover from injury without seeing a doctor

Another key component to conditioning programs involves crosstraining. Training with different types of exercise creates different physical stresses to the body than those to which the body is normally accustomed. These different stresses might help improve the athlete’s overall performance, but it also might decrease the chance of suffering an overuse injury.

Risks of conditioning

Injuries can and often do occur with conditioning programs. Acute musculoskeletal injuries, such as muscle strains, fractures, and dislocations typically involve a traumatic event. Treatment of these acute injuries depends on the nature and severity of the specific injury, but often more than simply rest from training is needed. Rest from the activity while applying compression and cold therapy and elevating the body part are the first treatments. Surgical fixation or repair, casts, splints, and many other treatments might be involved if the injury is more severe.

Overuse injuries also occur with training programs. Increasing the frequency, duration, intensity, or resistance to the training too rapidly can put too much stress on a part of the body. Examples of these overuse injuries include stress fractures, shin splints, and tendinitis around certain joints. Rest from the offending activity is the mainstay of treatment of overuse injuries, but other interventions might be needed depending on the type and severity of the specific injury.

Jogger with foot pain and possible stress fracture

Preventing conditioning injuries

Athletes should design their training programs with the end goal in mind. For instance, if a runner plans to run a marathon, she should give herself enough time to properly accelerate her training to have her body ready by that date. Trying to achieve the goal too quickly might force her to increase her distance run each week too rapidly and put her at risk for an overuse injury such as a stress fracture.

Athletes should also consider adding exercise or resistance programs that differ from their normal routines. This variability not only might improve strength, power, agility, or other fitness areas they might lack, but it might decrease the repetitive stress they apply to the one or two body parts that their maintenance program applies. For instance, a swimmer training for an upcoming meet might benefit from a long run once a week to decrease stress on her shoulder.

Also read:
When should you see a doctor for a sports or exercise injury?

While many athletic individuals participate in conditioning programs to lose weight, they need to ensure that they are eating enough calories and obtaining the proper vitamins, minerals, fluids, and supplements to meet the needs of their training. Consulting a sports nutritionist can be helpful. Also, ensuring that the athlete is getting enough sleep and enough rest between exercise sessions can help to optimize performance.

Before starting any exercise or fitness program, athletes or athletic individuals should consult with their medical doctor or a sports medicine physician. School or team athletes often undergo preparticipation physicals, and these concerns can be addressed at that time. Patients recovering from surgery or an injury should ask the treating physician or physical therapist about how to safely work back into sports. And anyone with an underlying medical condition should always make sure that it does not pose too high a risk with a certain exercise program.

Finally, while many avoid going to the doctor when suffering aches and pains for fear of being told to stop training, letting an injury go untreated can occasionally lead to worse problems. If an athlete has pain or another symptom with activity that is so severe that he can’t exercise at all, he should definitely go to his doctor. But if it is subtler, such that some symptom impairs performance even mildly, such as knee pain running down hills or trouble locating fastballs due to tightness in the shoulder, it is still a good idea to consult with a sports medicine specialist.

Note: The following posts was written to serve as a Sports Tip Sheet for the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and the STOP Sports Injuries campaign. Modified versions of this post will also appear as articles in upcoming issues of Cover 2 Cover Magazine and the Family Circle Tennis Center newsletter.