Conditioning Considerations for Combat Sports Such as Wrestling
A wrestler since the eighth grade, I can still remember the feeling I had walking off of the mat after my first match in high school. I felt like I had gotten run over by a truck (which was ironic because I think I actually won by decision) and someone had set my lungs on fire. That burning in my lungs that I remember is very specific to the sport of wrestling. That burning is the standard I use to rate the difficulty of conditioning sessions to this day. I will admit that dragging a sled or pushing a prowler can get the lungs burning a bit and it does make me feel a bit of nostalgia bringing me back to my wrestling days but it is certainly not the same animal.
In this article, I would like to discuss the physiological demands of different bouts of wrestling and why the more traditional methods of cardiovascular training are not optimal for wrestling-specific conditioning. In the past I have joked that wrestling should be a requirement for one year in high school. Simply stated, once you have wrestled, every thing else in life seems really easy in comparison.
Intense activities lasting 1-3 minutes have been shown to stress the lactate system, which is crucial to develop in any type of combat sport. In research done by Dr. William Kraemer at the University of Wyoming, collegiate wrestlers participated in three two minute periods of wrestling. “Significant increases in blood lactate levels were observed from rest, between periods and up to five minutes post workout.”
In addition, in his article The Physiological Basis for Wrestling: Implications for Conditioning Programs, Dr. William Kraemer, et al states that “as a combative sport, wrestling imposes unique stresses on the body (8, 9). From a metabolic perspective, the acid-base balance is severely disrupted. For example, a college or freestyle match lasts between 6 and 8 minutes (including overtime) and can elevate blood lactate concentrations in excess of 15 mmol/L and sometimes reach nearly 20 mmol/L (5, 6)(Figure 1). In comparison, maximal treadmill tests may raise lactate levels to around 10 mmol/L (1)”.
It is clear from the above findings that long bouts of low intensity exercise are not optimal for developing the appropriate metabolic pathways for wrestling. An understanding of exercise physiology and the physiological demands of different bouts of activity are crucial in order to develop effective programs. Marathon runners do not require the same qualities as combat athletes and the old school idea of jogging does not make sense for wrestlers. I am astonished at the amount of wrestlers who will run cross country in the fall to “get in shape” for the winter. Think about it. Why would you perform hours of long, slow running for a sport that requires repeated, short, explosive bouts of activity followed by incomplete rest periods for typically no more than 6-8 minutes at a time? The hours spent jogging are a waste of precious training time that could be utilized much more effectively. These athletes would be much better off performing some type of interval training. Conditioning tools such as pushing/dragging sleds, Airdyne bikes, and battling ropes are great tools to make conditioning more appealing while developing sport-specific conditioning. Sport-specific is one of the biggest buzzwords in strength and conditioning right now and there is nothing less specific to wrestling than endless amounts of low intensity cardiovascular training.