5 Ways to Improve Your Conditioning


Getting in great shape might not be easy, but there’s more to conditioning than simply training as hard as you can. After all, if it was simply a matter of nothing more than hard work, professional fighters would never gas out. The following five tips will help you supercharge your conditioning and get the most out of your training by training smarter, not just harder.

Tip #1 Use the High/Low Model

Although the High/Low model was originally developed for track athletes, it can easily be effectively applied to combat sports and conditioning. The principle component of this system is to separate your training into high and low days. This allows for the body to perform at its peak when it’s ready to do so and then gives it a chance to recover in between hard training sessions.

On the high days, you’ll want to perform high-intensity intervals and explosive strength type exercises while keeping the overall volume moderate. On the low days, you’ll instead keep the intensity much more moderate and give your body a chance to recover fully. The low days are a perfect time to include technique work and drills and lower intensity conditioning like roadwork circuits.

Tip #2 Include roadwork circuits in your training

In recent years, roadwork has gotten a bad rap and largely shunned as an ineffective waste of time by many in the strength and conditioning community. The truth remains, however, that many of the best conditioned and most successful athletes in combat sports throughout history have always included some form of roadwork in their training and continue to do so.

Lower intensity work can speed up recovery, improve aerobic fitness, and doesn’t take as much of a toll on the joints as higher intensity interval training methods often can. This type of work doesn’t have to mean hitting the pavement, though, and more combat sport specific exercises can be used.

Try including 4-6 exercises such as shadowboxing, jump rope, med-ball throws, stationary bike, body weight exercises, etc. for 5-10 minutes performed in circuit fashion each once or twice a week. Keep your heart rate between 130-150bpm throughout the entire training session for maximum results

I wrote a previous article about Roadwork 2.0 that you can reference here.

Tip #3 Get a heart rate monitor and use it

A high quality heart rate monitor will help you get the most out of your conditioning work because it can help keep your heart rate in the right training ranges while also providing invaluable feedback so you can determine if your program is working the way it should be or not. Without this sort of objective feedback and information, a lot of your training becomes nothing more than guesswork.

You can use a heart rate monitor in several different ways to maximize your training. First, you can use it to get an accurate gauge of your resting heart rate, a good measure of overall aerobic fitness. Most top combat athletes have resting heart rates in the low to mid 50’s.

Next, you can use your heart rate recovery to help manage your rest intervals when training. When doing high intensity training to improve conditioning, an effective approach is to let your heart rate return to 130-140bpm before repeating an interval. This helps make sure you’ve recovered enough and are ready to push yourself to the max.

Finally, a heart rate monitor is absolutely essential to making sure your heart rate is in the right zone for conditioning methods like roadwork circuits and lactate threshold training. Without a heart rate monitor, there’s no real way to know where you’re at. When used properly, a high quality heart rate monitor is one of the best investments you can make in your training and is guaranteed to help you train smarter

Tip #4 Track and Monitor Your Conditioning

In order to really improve your conditioniong, you have to have some gauge of where it is at to begin with. After all, if you don’t really know where you are, how do know if you’re moving any closer your goal or not? Having no real measure of your current conditioning level and no way to track it is a surefire way to never really improve it.

For the purposes of simplicity, the four easiest ways to measure and keep track of your conditioning are the following tests:

  • Resting Heart Rate
  • 1.5 mile Run
  • Morpheus HRV Score
  • Heart Rate Recovery – 1 minute following 1.5 mile run

For the majority of combat athletes, the right target resting heart rate range is in the low to mid 50’s. Much higher than that, and it’s a good sign that your conditioning will be lacking. For the 1.5 mile run, you’re going to want to shoot for the 8 minute mark and just as importantly, you’ll need to be able to see your heart rate drop at least 30-40 beats within the first minute following the run.

If you’re using Morpheus, your average HRV score itself will be provide a good gauge of overall fitness and conditioning levels as well. The majority of well conditioned combat athletes will have an average HRV score in the mid-80’s and higher. If you’re not there, you can use the system track your changes in average HRV over time and monitor your progress.

Generally speaking, resting HR and HRV are indicators you can measure on a daily basis, while you might use the 1.5 mile run and heart rate recovery test every 4-6 weeks. Consistent measurement and monitoring is one of the most important steps to making sure your conditioning will improve. Far too many fighters want to improve their conditioning, but then they never try to accurately measure it and have no real way of knowing whether or not their program is actually producing the results it should be or not. Don’t make this mistake.

Tip #5: Increase Your Training Frequency

Regardless of what’s being put into the headlines these days, there is a reason that high level endurance athletes put in massive hours of training, because it works! Combat athletes don’t need the same level of aerobic fitness and they don’t need to spend hours and hours running or biking or doing activities like that, but if conditioning is the goal, you will need to put in the time to make it better, there are no shortcuts.

One of the biggest mistakes fighters often make is that when they want to improve their conditioning, they try to do so only by training harder. They up their intensity, start doing more intervals, hit the pads more, etc. While all this plays a role in conditioning, there is always a trade off between volume and intensity. You can’t train with both high intensity and high volume for long before you end up overtrained and/or injured.

The best way to improve your conditioning is to find the right balance between intensity, volume and frequency. The truth is that for the purposes of conditioning, frequency matters..a lot…and most athletes will get more out of putting in more time at a lower pace than killing themselves every time they hit the gym. If you train so hard that you can only really get in 3 solid workouts a week, that leaves 4 days you’re not training and that’s a conditioning killer.

The best solution to this problem is to train 2-3 days per week hard and 2-3 days per week easy. In other words, follow the high/low model described earlier. Even better, use Morpheus to decide which days should be your hard days and which days should be your easy days and you’ll be well on your way to having world-class conditioning.


  1. Good article, cheers.

    I have Bioforce HRV. If adopting the High/Low model, could I go Hard every time it’s green and Low every time it’s yellow, with say a full rest on red. Is this a sensible way to train; assuming a flexible enough schedule?

    As a quick second but related question. Where the book says you must take a week off for every 3 weeks on for methods such as the Tempo Method, does this apply even when you have Bioforce HRV? (the app will tell you if you are over-training…).

    1. No, you don’t want to go hard every time it’s green just because it’s green. With the high/low model you generally don’t go high more than 2-3 times per week and you typically don’t go two high two days in a row. Use HRV to make sure you’re ready to go high, but don’t use it as an excuse to train high as much as you possibly can, you still want to stick within the framework of the high/low system.

      Yes, you still wan to take a break with the tempo method every few weeks, HRV doesn’t change the way the body fundamentally works.

  2. Joel, your 8 minute goal for a 1.5 mile run may be fine for some people but at a 5:20/mile pace it sounds quite difficult for a non-trained runner. To be able to run that time the mile time would have to be about 5 minutes. As an example, that is about the pace needed by a female to run the Olympic marathon trials qualifying time of 2:45. I know because I coach a female close to that standard.

    I think a much better fitness test is the 6-minute test developed by Veronique Billat. Following is a link to a PDF file that compares it to the Cooper test and gives the reasons why it is better and gives some sample workouts. I coach distance runners and have been using it for about 10 years. The one thing I change is scheduling the vVO2Max workouts by known track distances rather than odd distances. Since I have a broad range of club runners that I work with their 3 (approximate) minute work intervals range from 600-1100 meters. Otherwise for 610 or 1083 meters I’d have to have to put cones all over the track. The workouts do improve fitness rather quickly and the 30/30 or 60/60 workouts might be very useful for MMA fighters that like to run. If you are interested I can send you a spreadsheet that I developed to compute the times/distances/velocity for any 6-minute test distance.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, an 8 minute 1.5 mile run is a high standard to be sure, but if you’re talking about being in shape to fight up to 5×5 minute rounds in MMA, guys need to be in that kind of shape and plenty of them do still run and can achieve these times. 8 minutes is just a general time frame as well, I probably should have said more like the 8-9 minute range, but I think you’d be surprised at how many of the top fighters are right in this range when their conditioning is good.

      I’ll certainly take a look at the link, thanks for providing that and feel free to send over your spreadsheet and I’ll take a look.


      1. Thanks for your interest. I realize I have no credentials in MMA, S&C , or track and field but I have been coaching some good club runners for many years and have seen the improvements in 6-8 weeks in their conditioning using Billat’s vVo2Max protocol. It is generally accepted that the faster you can run a short distance the faster you can run a longer distance and that means you are in better condition.

        Like anything else though, when it comes to the test, a lot depends on the motivation of the athlete as I’ve seen runners finish that don’t look very distressed and other runners ready to puke. It is not a fun test and most of the runners dread it. It is hard to get the best result from the test since you can’t run as fast as you can for 6 minutes without slowing down. However, all you really need is a good effort as a baseline and training pace. The amazing thing is that training at vVO2Max pace not only improves vVO2max but Lactate Threshold Running speed and running economy which may not be important for MMA, but shouldn’t hurt.

        I know that a lot of coaches/trainers are gung-ho on the HIIT protocol but I’ve also seen that many, including you, have realized that aerobic capacity is an important part of conditioning. I have known for a long time how important the aerobic component is for even relatively short races and for some reason that seemed to have been lost and I think it is great you have resurrected it. My son-in-law used to do a lot of kick boxing and he never lost a bout locally and sure never gassed. I used to give him those same vVo2Max workouts. The method used to improve conditioning is not as important as the fact that more than the anaerobic engine needs to be developed. Once that is understood the method is less important although using the 6-minute test is a great way to measure improvement. Scientifically, if you can’t measure it, then how do you know it is worthwhile?

        Where do you want me to send the spreadsheet? You can PM me if you prefer.

  3. Joel,

    are you using the 1.5 mile run and heart rate recovery test with your fighters also before and in training camp?

    So let´s say you do the first test 8wo and then another test mid-camp (4wo)?

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