Energy systems used in Sports and Training
By John R. Mishock, PT, DPT, DC

When training athletes it important to understand the energy system utilized to optimize the exercise routine for enhanced sports performance. The body’s ability to produce energy is a basic fundamental drive to support life. In that ability to survive and adapt is the opportunity to progress past limits and enhance human performance. The success of every athlete relies on the individual’s ability to produce adequate amounts of energy. This energy is needed in every cell in the body to obtain optimal sports performance. The brain, lungs, heart, muscle, and the endocrine system relies on the optimization of the energy system. For example, think of how much energy the brain needs to coordinate the intricate firing of hundreds of muscles in fractions of second to create a specific movements or athletic activity. Not to mention, the brains ability to regulate hear rate, blood flow and essential hormonals that are released to optimize an activity or event. An efficient highly functioning energy system is the basis for elite athletic performance.

There are three systems used by the body for energy during activity, this is known as the Aerobic-Anaerobic Continuum 1) Anaerobic/ATP-PC system, 2) Lactic acid system, and 3) Aerobic system. (1, 2, 3)

Anaerobic/ATP-PC system is used in explosive activities and sports, requiring 8-10 seconds of maximum output. Sprinters, jumpers, football players, and weightlifters all preferentially use this system.

Lactic acid system is for events of slightly longer duration, up to about 40 seconds. The 200m and 400m runs in track, speed skating, and some gymnastic events utilize the.

Aerobic system is utilized for sports lasting anywhere from 2-3 minutes to several hours. Examples of these include cross country running and cross country skiing.

In life and most sports we use all 3 energy systems at any given time. Many sports use a combination of systems during play such as; soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and volleyball just to name a few. Understanding the energy utilized in the sport and creating a program that replicates the sports related activity is integral for elite training and cross over from training to one’s sport. Researchers has found that the closer an athlete trains to the physiological demands of the sport the greater their ability to perform at high levels with superior skill under fatigue. Therefore, athletes may most benefit from game-specific skill training involving both physical conditioning and skill specific activities for optimal transfer relative to competitive performance.

Beyond this, the exercise routine must consider the energy needs for recovery following an athletic activity. The exercise routine should mimic the work to rest ratio in the given sport. In football for example, the average play runs 7-10 seconds with roughly 20-60 seconds of recovery. (4) In football the players are mainly using the ATP-PC system and the aerobic system. So when developing a training program it is important to no only mimic the work cycle of 7-10 seconds but to also mimic the rest cycle of 20-60 seconds of recovery. Another example is the NCAA division 1 mens basketball guard. The player averages 34.5 minutes of total playing time per game. He takes part in 8 series per half, each about 2.5 minutes long consisting of 19-22 intermittent work bouts. The average duration of these bouts is 8-9 seconds, with none exceeding 20 seconds. Forty seven percent of the bouts involve high-intensity effort, with the remainder performed at submaximal effort levels. During each series there is usually one short recovery interval (25-40 seconds long) every 11 bouts there is a longer 50 sec-2 minute time out every 19 bouts. (5, 6)

So in this case specific skill and conditioning training may involve 22 (full court) shuttle runs while dribbling a basketball taking 9 seconds to complete. Within the shuttle run props (cones, agility ladders, agility poles…) could be utilized to mimic defenders, which the player must navigate while dribbling. Between repetitions the player would be allowed 15 seconds to jog to the baseline while dribbling with his or her weak hand to line up for the next repetition. After the 11th shuttle run there would be 25-40 second break in which the individual would perform chest passes against the wall. There would be a 50 seconds to 2 minute break after the 19th set. This is an example of how a basketball coach or trainer could use all three energy systems during training while enhancing conditioning and basketball specific skill. Similarly, a wrestler competes in three-minute periods and may benefit from continuous activity for three minutes of varying intensity. Progressions could be made by increasing intensity or the amount of three-minute intervals performed.

In summary, being as specific to the demands of the sport based on the energy systems utilized will help prepare the athlete for the energy demands during competition minimizing fatigue and improve sports performance. When the energy system is challenged appropriately, there will be a training effect leading to increased athletic performance. If the energy is not supplied fast enough there will be a reduction in force, power and poor sports performance. In most sports energy is needed for a specific period of time. If the energy system is not efficient and economical the individual will run out of energy leading to altered performance. Lastly, the athlete needs to be able to recover quickly following bursts of activity. In first understanding the energy demands of the sport, a training program can be developed specifically to cause positive adaptations in the nervous system and cardiovascular system to meet the athlete’s demands.
Fig 1: The Predominant Energy System for the Selected Sports

Sport ATP-PC/Anaerobic Lactic Acid System Aerobic
100 meter sprint 98 2 –
50 meter swim 95 5 –
Football 90 10 –
Gymnastics 90 10 –
Volleyball 90 10 –
Baseball 80 15 5
100 meter swim 80 15 5
Basketball 80 10 10
Soccer backs, strikers 80 20 –
Ice Hockey forward/defense 80 20 –
Tennis (singles) 70 20 10
Field Hockey 60 20 20
Soccer midfielders 60 20 20
Wrestling 45 55 –
Rowing 20 30 70
1,500 meter swim 10 20 70
800 meter sprint 10 60 30
1,500 meter run 5 35 60

Adapter from Powers, Sk, Hawley, ET. Exercise Physiology: Therory and Application to Fitness and Performance: 4th ed. Boston, McGraw Hill, 2001

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5. Schelling Xavi, Torres-Ronda L. Conditioning for Basketball: Quality and Quantity of Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal; vol 35, number 6 Dec 2013.
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