Is Cardio Training Maximizing Sports Performance?

Author: Brandan Fokken

Is Your Cardio Training Maximizing Your Sport Performance?

We all went through it growing up playing sports... That good old strength and conditioning program at the school. Obviously the strength part of that was much more enjoyable than the conditioning part. However, conditioning is a must if you are wanting to perform your best. Sport conditioning is similar, yet different than the average person’s cardio training. When it comes to sports, you’re probably not running constantly on the field/court for more than 15-20 minutes. Therefore, most athlete training programs stick to interval training – HIIT. It’s the explosive moves for a short period followed by a period of active rest that train your body to recover quicker which leads to an increase in endurance. Endurance is only part of the equation. Every sport has different demands of the body. For example, in football, soccer, basketball, etc. players must be able to change speed & direction very quickly; while those in cycling, running, or weight lifting don’t really have the need for agility. So, you can see how the cardio exercises and drills will vary based on what the sport demands of them. Let’s look a handful of major sports and talk about the best exercises to increase performance.


Weight Lifting

How about we kick things off with one that probably requires the least amount of cardio – weight lifting (or power lifting). No surprise there, these athletes are focused more on strength & muscle building than endurance. Why? Well the sport doesn’t demand much of endurance. Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s body is different so there are some people that will do as much cardio as the football player and others might not even do 30 minutes a week. Most weight lifters (that do cardio) will keep their sessions short. Nothing more than a couple 8-10 minute HIIT’s and maybe throwing in a 10-15 min LISS session or two. Cardio will eat up muscle when done in excessive amounts, and being that these athletes are all about strength & muscle, the shorter cardio sessions make sense. Now I ask all the weight lifters here, what do you do for your cardio – treadmill, bike, stair master? The treadmill is the most used piece of cardio equipment, but it’s still amateur hour so you can drop that from your routine. The stair master is good and the bike is great, it’s easy on the joints and has proven to aid in recovery more than others. Both are good ones to keep with you, but you can still do better. Instead of the same “moving in one place” exercises, try adding some HIIT’s that incorporate full body movements and exercises that will help with your main lifts. Here’s a few to give you a better idea of the type of exercises which work well with HIIT: kettlebell swings, battle ropes, weighted ball slams, tire flips, TRX push-ups and rows, etc. Now all you have to do is go all out for 30 seconds as many reps possible, follow that with one minute of active rest, and then repeat for 6-10 intervals.



On the other end of the spectrum we have the runners. We’re not too concerned about strength or muscle, just that our legs can take us from point A to point B as fast as they possibly can. Endurance is focus of runners, and their training reflects that. Depending on the length of the race one is training for, a cardio session can be anything from a handful of 800m sprints to a marathon. What do you think most runners do for cardio? Pretty obvious right… They run in a straight line for long periods of time. One thing you want to avoid when training for a race is the treadmill. It’s simply not the same as running on the ground. Plus, you want to train in the conditions of the race. Whether it’s running trails, the beach, or the road, that is what you want the bulk of your training to simulate. The smaller portion of your training (let’s say 30%) should consist of a variety of HIIT and aerobic endurance. A few good exercises for HIIT would be running hills, swimming, and cycling. And for the aerobic endurance you could try aqua jogging, swimming, and cycling again. Because running is more high impact and is a large part of a runner’s training, you want to give the joints a break without sacrificing days of cardio. You do that by adding those low impact aerobic exercises. And with the HIIT’s, you can always change the intervals. Instead of doing high intensity for 30 seconds, maybe try a minute followed by a minute or two of active rest.



It’s no surprise what the favorite piece of cardio equipment is here – the bike. But not the stationary bike. Just like runners, cyclists should stick to race conditions if they want to perform their best. To be honest, I can’t think of a better exercise that increases overall performance. However, there are a few things one could add to their program to further augment their performance. One which may be a surprise is running ladders. It’s a good combo of agility, cardiovascular, and strength training. You might be wondering why cyclists need to be agile. Well really they don’t, but it does help with coordination and balance which is very much needed when speeding down the road with a pack of cyclists around them. It also makes for a good HIIT session that will help during the sprinting parts of the race. Two other great exercises to incorporate are stair sprints and the row machine. While sprinting stairs is great for targeting the lower body, the row machine will also target the back and core. Because cyclists ride with their back at an angle or bent over, their backs must be strong as well as their core. This makes the row machine ideal for HIIT workouts and even some longer distance training.



Of the major sports, soccer is the one that requires the most running. It’s a large field with a ball that can move from one end to the other in a matter of seconds and just a few occasional substitutions. This means soccer players must have longer endurance like runners, and they must also have great agility & quickness. However, a lot of recreational and amateur players focus their training around endurance, some players will run for an hour or more each day. There’s nothing wrong with that, after all the sport demands the most running. There are better ways to split up your training. What these athletes want to do is find a balance between endurance training, interval training, and speed/power/agility drills. That balance will vary depending upon the player, but a good start would be to limit the longer endurance runs to 2-3 times per week. With the remaining days, split them equally between HIIT sprints and the speed/power/agility drills. We’ll say 2 days for each.

For the HIIT days, one day would focus on the short sprints – 10, 20, 30, all the way to 60 yard sprints. The other HIIT day would target the moderate distance runs, similar to the overall pace of play closer to jogging or a bit faster. Go by interval length of time instead of by distance for these. For example, you would do a 5-minute run (heart rate elevated to around 75-85% of max HR) followed by a 4-minute active rest period, and then repeat that 2-4 more times. You could follow that with shorter 2-3 minute runs (keeping HR around 90-95% of max) followed by 1-2 minutes of active rest, and then repeat that anywhere from 5 up to 10 more times.

The two days for footwork drills are pretty much the same. You want to mix and match a variety of speed/power movements along with footwork/coordination exercises (with a soccer ball and without a soccer ball) that cover every angle. A few drills that are great for agility and coordination are ladder drills, 5-dot footwork drill, cone course, shuffle reaction drills (follow direction of the ball as fast as you can), etc. When I think of speed and power, the first thing that comes to mind is the sled. There’s a couple ways to use the sled… You can throw on some heavier weight and work on that initial explosiveness, or you can keep it light and push a longer distance to focus more on endurance. Alternatives to the sled include the parachute harness and the long running resistance bands (person holding the bands follows behind and controls the amount of resistance). Here’s some other good exercises for speed and power: hang cleans, jump squats (preferably weighted), push presses, weighted or unweighted lunge jumps, row machine, broad jumps, and kettlebell swings. The nice thing about all those exercises is that you can incorporate them into a HIIT session, or you can add them into a circuit style workout where you would perform the exercise for 20-60 seconds immediately after a lifting set.



Basketball is one of the most selective sports and is ranked among the top for difficulty level alongside football, ice hockey and boxing. It is a very demanding sport requiring strength, endurance, balance, agility, and tremendous hand-eye coordination. I know we’re talking about cardio here, but this is a full body sport requiring strength so don’t neglect your weight training! A small chunk of the off season should be used to cut things back and let your body rest from the rigors of regular season (and playoffs if you’re good). The remainder of the off season you will use to build endurance, bring up weak areas, and hone in on your basketball skills. Again, you’ll want to split up and find a balance between weight training, cardio (HIIT & endurance training), and sport-specific drills. The training for basketball goes somewhat in stages.

The first stage you want to focus on building endurance. Without endurance, you won’t be on the court long and you most definitely won’t be performing at your best. To build that up, aim to do 3-4 moderate intensity sessions for 30-40 minutes. Most athletes will hop on a bike or treadmill to get these out of the way. Don’t be like most people. You will get the most benefits by doing full body exercises. Instead of jumping on a boring treadmill or bike, try swimming out for 30 minutes. With that, it never hurts to switch things up, so with each lap you do change up the swimming stroke. I’m sure you have a good idea of the next exercise… That’s it, the row machine! Full body workout that is great for endurance sessions and interval training.

Next we have the sprints/intervals stage. Here you will focus on those high intensity bursts and acclimating your body to that very nature of the game. Although basketball is a fast-paced game, you still have brief rest periods from timeouts, penalties, free throws, etc. By doing interval training you are getting your body accustomed to the nature of the gameplay. Therefore, you will be able to maintain that high intensity output throughout the entire game.

During this stage, you may still want to keep one endurance session per week and add in 2-3 interval sessions. The work/rest ratios you want to use are 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3. It’s ok to start out with longer interval times (i.e. 2 minutes active/2 minutes rest, 1 minute active/3 minutes rest, etc.) and feel free to mix up the ratios throughout a session. However, the second half of this stage you will want to simulate more game-like conditions. This means your intervals should drop in length, with most of the high intensity intervals under a minute. There’s quite a few things you can do for interval training here that beat the hell out of treadmill sprints (of course, the row machine is one). Here’s some exercises that even top the row machine: court agility drills (sprint to a point on the court, shuffle to the next, then back pedal and sprint to finish), ladder footwork drills, plyometrics (box jumps, lunge jumps, one-legged hops/jumps), and dot drills/quick feet. You can even throw in some power movements between sprints, exercises like clean & press, pull-ups, plyometric push-ups, and step ups.

The last stage is putting it all together by adding in the sport-specific drills. Most, if not all, of your cardio training should be done on the court. You shift focus from intervals to specific skills such as dribbling, jump shots, lay ups, etc. At this point you can drop the endurance session and move to 1-2 interval training days and 2-3 days of skill training. The skills training will be very similar to the interval style as far as the work/rest ratio. Essentially what you’re doing here is incorporating a basketball and game skills into a HIIT workout to increase your performance when you’re fighting fatigue toward the end of the game. A great drill for this stage is the sprint/free throw drill. Start by sprinting half the length of the court 15 times (down and back is 2) within a certain time frame (we’ll say 15 times in under 60 seconds). Immediately after the sprints shoot two free throws, two jump shots, and two 3-pointers (keep track of # of misses). Actively rest for 1.5-2 minutes, then sprint half the court again 12 more times in under 50 seconds. Grab a ball right away and take two of each shot like before. This time rest only one minute before sprinting half the court 9 more times trying to finish under 40 seconds. Again, take two of each shot right after sprinting and calculate your percentages for each different shot. You can deduct one sprint from the final set if your free throw percentage is greater than 75%. Deduct another one if your jump shot percentage is greater than 60%. Lastly, deduct another sprint if your 3-point conversion is greater than 35%. The last round of sprints can be anywhere from 8 sprints to 15 (or however many coach says). You can vary the amount of rounds and number of shots, but keep the rest times relative to the number of sprints and decrease it with each round to simulate faster gameplay like that before half time or the end of the game.

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