Finding your fuel

What is an energy system and what does it have to do with youth sport or athletic development?

Energy systems are like the three grades of fuel: Leaded, unleaded and diesel. Every sport uses a different system and sometimes one sport can use more than one.

Now, the million-dollar question: If you have a car that uses unleaded petrol and you fill it up with diesel, what happens?

I’m not a mechanic, but I think you might be able to drive a short while before your car decides to stop. Luckily, if you train the wrong energy system your body won’t just stop working, but it will limit your performance.

Unfortunately, most youth/parent coaches believe that running long distances is the best way to get fit for field/court sports like tennis, rugby, cricket, netball, soccer, etc (this is not their fault as their true education lies with teaching in the classroom).

The three energy systems are:
– ATP?PC system (short duration)
– Glycolysis (medium duration)
– Aerobic system (long duration)

ATP-PC System (‘leaded fuel’)

This system is used in sports that need instant energy (one to seven seconds). An example of this would be 100m sprinting. The body needs approximately three to five minutes rest to replenish the energy used during the activity. This is the first of the anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems.

How do we train for this system?

Sprints or a high-intensity activity that lasts for four to seven seconds. The most important aspect of training for this system is to do it at full speed, as it won’t help you if you don’t give it your all.

Example: Three sets/10 reps of 30m sprints, 30 seconds rest between each rep and five minutes rest between each set.

Glycolysis system (‘unleaded fuel’)

In a sport that consists of 30 seconds to three minutes of continuous movement the glycolysis system would be utilised. If you look at rugby – even though a game is 80 minutes you don’t run continuously for that time (sometimes you stand at a lineout or a penalty kick). At most you would run for about three minutes non stop (like a 400 or 800m event in athletics). This system needs about 90 seconds rest to replenish the energy used.

One of the main goals of training this system is to try and remove the lactic acid (the burning feeling you get in your legs, also know as ‘heavy legs’) build-up as quickly as possible. This is done through specific training where you try and increase the time before the lactic acid builds up (aka your ‘lactic wall’). The glycolysis system is the second anaerobic system.

How do we train for this system?

Activity/exercise at a high intensity that lasts for a minimum of 30 seconds and a maximum of three minutes.

Example: Five reps of 300m sprints with 60 seconds rest between each rep.

Aerobic system (‘diesel’)

The aerobic system is the one system that everyone always trains, no matter the sport. Sport that uses about 65% effort (of your maximum heart rate) and that lasts for longer than three minutes is the perfect candidate for this system.

How do we train for this system?

Example: Running around the field a couple of times.

Don’t understand the aerobic and anaerobic systems?

The anaerobic system is like a tank with jet fuel – it will give you a sudden burst of energy, but it will be gone in an instant.

The aerobic system is more like the petrol you use in your car – it keeps you going for a longer (depending on the petrol price), but at a steadier pace.

So what does this mean?

Stop just running 5km to get fit for field and court sports – it’s mostly a waste of time and counter-productive (there is some use in doing this, but don’t just do this for conditioning/fitness purposes).

Energy system training is an important part of the coaching skill that any coach should possess. Always study your sports’ needs so that you understand how to adapt the training program and ultimately create a system for long-term athletic development.

By Stian Weideman

– Contact Weideman at [email protected] For a free warm-up report, visit his website at