Endurance vs. Conditioning – The biggest misconception in sports specific training

Endurance vs. Conditioning – The biggest misconception in sports specific training

The statement is simple – Endurance is the most overrated of all sports specific qualities.
Because endurance is neither necessary nor the limiting factor in most sports.

going as far

Conditioning is. Where is the difference?

Definition of Endurance and Conditioning as follows:

Endurance is the ability to maintain a certain effort with minimal fatigue – A classic example is a marathon. In a marathon it’s crucial to run 2+ h in one go with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning is the ability to repeat a certain effort with minimal fatigue – Classic examples are team sports like football, American Football, Basketball and Rugby. In those sports it is crucial to keep fatigue between the first and the last sprint (and all the others in between) as minimal as possible.

Most Olympic, Team- and Combat Sports are cyclical, that means certain efforts must be repeated. A 100m sprinter has to repeat his performance in heats, semi-finals and finals. A thrower has 6 attempts per competition and an olympic weightlifter has 3 per discipline.  If the performance decreases too much from attempt to attempt then his conditioning is the limiting factor.

A more extensive example is football. Depending on the position of a player he runs about 8-12km per game. From which he runs 400-1200m above 85% of his top speed. The remaining 8-10km are walking, trotting and hardly relevant for the game.

These 400-1200m are crucial. The average sprinting distance is about 17m. Sprints over 30m, that´s the distance between mid- and penalty line, are very rare.

The critical distance is 0-5 m. That´s the famous “one step faster”. Based on player statistics of the Premier League, players with the highest salary, regardless of their position have one thing in common, they are the fastest over 0-5m.

At an average sprinting distance of about 17m and a game-relevant total distance of 400-1200m those are about 24 to 70 sprints per game. Assuming a uniform load density, it is a load of 2-3 seconds followed by a 1:20-4:00 minute break.

So what is critical for a game in this case in terms of physical qualities?

Endurance or Conditioning?

Critical are those 24 to 70 sprints in under 90 minutes game time and their repetition with minimal fatigue, not endurance. Endurance isn´t relevant in soccer because of the short bursts of sprints they do.

To run 10-60 minutes at once has very poor correlation with the ability to repeat 24 to 70 sprints in 90 minutes with minimal fatigue.
2 forms of Endurance
Endurance at high intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of high intensity with minimal fatigue. A good example is a 100m sprinter. A sprinter reaches his top speed after 30-50m. From 50m the critical factor becomes maintaining the top speed as long as possible without getting tired. In this case we speak of speed endurance. Usain Bolt is a great example for this. His greatest advantage over his opponents, and the reason why he is even more dominant over 200m than over 100m, is his exceptional speed endurance, the ability to maintain his top speed with minimal fatigue and leave all his opponents behind after 60-70m.

Endurance at low intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of low intensity with minimal fatigue. A good example is the marathon. In a marathon it´s crucial to maintain a performance for 2+ h with minimal fatigue. In one go and without interruptions.

Intensity – definition: Intensity is the load of a performance in relation to the maximal performance. A performance at high intensity for example is a sprint over 50 meters at maximum speed or BB Back Squats for 3 reps with 90 % of 1RM. In contrast to this, a performance of low intensity is a run over 10000m at maximum speed or squats for 25 reps with 50 % of 1RM. That means intensity is not defined on the subjective level of effort but correlates performance with maximum power/effort.

Both forms of endurance, especially the last one, are not relevant in most Olympic-, Team- and Combat Sports because the duration of the load in those sports is far lower.

In most Olympic-, Team- and Combat sports conditioning is critical. The ability to repeat a performance with minimal fatigue.
2 forms of Conditioning
Conditioning at high volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance very often with minimal fatigue.  The best example is football, where depending on the position of the player the average sprinting distance has to be repeated up to 70 times per game with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning at low volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance a few times with minimal fatigue. Best example is Olympic Weightlifting. There you only have to repeat an attempt 3 times per discipline and competition – so 3 Reps of the Snatch and 3 Reps of the Clean & Jerk, thats it.

The lower the volume, the more critical becomes the performance during the attempt itself. It is not that crucial to repeat that performance often.

The higher the volume, the more critical is the ability to repeat it. Therefore in weightlifting the ability to repeat a performance is less important than the absolute performance, namely to move maximal weight. In comparison with weightlifting, football players need lower maximal- and explosive strength level than weightlifters – but higher levels of conditioning. As the ability to repeat maximal Sprinting Speed for the 90 minute game is critical.

Training Endurance vs. Conditioning
The training for Endurance and Conditioning is obviously very different.

The Training of Endurance basically includes a higher volume of total work, a lower -if any – number and duration of breaks and lower average intensity of effort. While the training of conditioning basically comprises a lower total volume of work and an increased number and duration of breaks at higher average intensity of effort.


Sample training program for Conditioning in football.

This is a modified strongman medley used to condition a football player

A1 Forward Sleddrag, 20m, 5s rest

A2 Prowler Push, High Handle, elbows extended, 20m, 5s rest

A3 Sprint, 20m, 120s rest

Repeat 4-10 times depending on the current Conditioning Level of the Athletes

This is a solution for a player or a team whose physically limiting factor is fatigue in the latter part of the game.

The ability to repeat multiple blocks of three 20m efforts with minimal rest has clearly a higher correlation to football-specific performance than 10-60min straight jogging. To train the sprinting power, speed and conditioning at the same time a combination of strength- and conditioning training in the weightroom can also be utilized.


Conclusion: For a coach it is crucial to identify whether endurance and/or conditioning are necessary for a certain sports and disciplines. And to assess which the limiting factor of the individual athlete is. So the training program can be specifically tailored to the needs of the individual sport and the limiting factor of the individual athlete. To maximise the efficiency of training and therefore increase performance on the field, court or track

(c) Wolfgang Unsöld