Conditioning is important, but what exactly is conditioning? Athletes need to be fit to play their sport and in the majority of sport, repeat sprint ability is king/queen. Carl Valle asks some great questions in Repeat Sprint Ability and Dutch Tables.
I think a giant speed reserve helps with many things… and mechanical efficiency is going to be the driving force behind it. Maximal sprint training and mechanics are a must, and lead to very positive adaptations. Max speed and acceleration technique and training are very specific strength and create a level of competency that can present itself at many movement velocities less than maximum. Many coaches are afraid for their athletes to jog or run at slower speeds, and usually rightfully so, as many look like zombies because of weakness. However, jogging and slower running is inevitable, so how do you attack this glaring issue? One observation I have made is I don't see many high and elite level sprinters that jog poorly. On the other hand, I have not seen as many distance runners sprint well (a presentation of specific strength or lack of...).
Empirically, I competed in sprints in high school at a fairly honest level and the one thing I remember was that the better I got mechanically and the faster I got, the greater the ease at running at sub-maximal speeds. A simple thought experiment is to think of the ease at which Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt could run 110's (the common football conditioning run); run a 100 meter in 15 seconds? Sleeping.
Everything is relative, but working up and right on the force-velocity curve with special attention to mechanics leads to special abilities... or at the very least, great potential below and left of the curve.
The other thing that gets talked about so much is movement efficiency with screening galore, and lots of evaluation at slow speeds and "corrective exercise" at sometimes even slower speeds. This discussion on speed reserve is different and mechanical efficiency at high velocities is usually much different than movement at slow velocities; and sometimes my thoughts are that focus on developing efficiency at higher speeds may lead to improvements in the slower stuff, or maybe it doesn't matter (or maybe you can't because of dysfunction to being with???)... but sport is played fast, not slow.
Another aspect, depending on the sport, is sprint training becomes a discussion of absolute speed vs. acceleration...
My comments from the discussion at elitetrack from Carl's blog post above, "Obviously this discussion has taken a different route beyond repeated sprint ability and gone towards max velocity… but the way I look at it is; a sport like basketball does not specifically involve resisted back squats, cleans, or depth jumps, or rarely has athletes running at max velocity, however, running at max velocity does have some very unique biomechanical and neuromuscular qualities that make it fairly useful method such as the utilization of back squats, cleans, depth jumps, etc.
The “plyometric” effect of max velocity sprinting is pretty intense, and exposing the body’s systems to sprinting, may go a long way in getting and keeping athletes healthy, fast, and athletic. (read: Changes in muscle activity with increasing running speed. Kyrolainen, H. Avela, J. Komi, PV.)"
To add to the above statement, many small court and field sports require athletes to accelerate from tall positions, plus transitions out of runs and changes of direction with the potential to hit high velocities. I think regardless of the sport, max velocity sprinting has a place; Acceleration and Absolute Speed.
There are many questions that fall under the blanket term conditioning and the other is volume. How much is necessary? As Carl stated in his post and as was some discussion at GAIN, some teams are throwing out the old/traditional means to get fit for the specific sport (ex. gassers, shuttles). At the same time, there has been a resurgence of coaches advocating aerobic development; what and how much is necessary? The totality of training needs to be looked at carefully. Those teams that are training high intensity qualities such as speed, power, agility, strength, while doing lower intensity mobility, purposeful circuits, technique and skill work... how much more is necessary as far as specific aerobic or even anaerobic development? How much of the energy systems are developed through those means (i.e. cumulative)? Skillful movers are usually skillful movers and to develop leads to some great efficiency... a giant speed reserve. All this comes full circle with more questions of how much, how often, and how intense? The search continues...
A couple thoughts going into the 4th weekend:
-Jim Radcliffe eloquently stated at GAIN, "we learn to negotiate the ground well." Key word: LEARN.