Witmer’s Wisdom: Your Guide To Training For Ultimate Frisbee

As many are gearing up for return to play, it’s a good time to review the basics of training for ultimate.

The biggest fitness mistake ultimate players make is focusing their efforts on exercises that won’t directly translate to athletic performance. It’s so easy to fall into general fitness training. It’s comfortable to do general fitness. It will likely be what most people you know are doing. It’s what your local gym will offer so that it can help the most people with the most amount of flexibility.

If ultimate frisbee is simply part of your healthy lifestyle — something you do to stay in shape — then general fitness training is totally fine. But, if you are looking for greater performance gains and want your training to be focused on ultimate, then you’ll need to do some planning.

As many are gearing up for a return to play, it’s a good time to review the basics of training for ultimate. For a more in-depth explanation of these concepts, along with videos and workout ideas, check out my newly released Ultimate Frisbee Workout Guide.

Here are a few principles that will help as you plan your workouts and your overall schedule.

Starting from Zero: Getting Back into Training

If the pandemic has left you a bit out of shape, this is the time that you will need some general fitness.

Starting from zero? Here’s how to get back into it:

  • Start with a few core stability exercises three times per week.
  • Ease into athletic movement with a dynamic warmup before each session. You can do this even on days when you are not working out to help get you back into solid athletic movement patterns.
  • Start with 20 minutes of any type of activity that elevates your heart rate twice per week. This can be short runs, dancing, brisk walking, moderate-intensity intervals of running and walking. Basically anything you already know how to do that will get you moving again.
  • After 2-3 weeks, add another day of activity.
  • In 4-6 weeks you’ll be ready to handle the demands required to start actually training again.

Getting in Shape for Ultimate

The main principle of conditioning for frisbee is that your workouts should mimic the movement and metabolic demands of ultimate.

Getting in shape is about helping the body to learn to process and use more oxygen. The greatest increases in aerobic fitness will occur by working out at the speed where you’re consuming the most oxygen. However, this pace can only be maintained for six minutes before fatigue sets in and you literally cannot continue at the same pace due to muscle fatigue.

This is why I recommend moderate-intensity intervals and include them in my 6 Week SAQ and Conditioning program. The basic point is you will do 20 seconds of running at about 80% of your sprint speed. This will feel like a run, but not a sprint. Then 40 seconds of walking during recovery. This is so that all of your movement in the workout has a large range of motion in the hips, versus a slow jog recovery which has very little range of motion in the hips.

Keep your speed low enough that it feels very easy for at least 3-4 repetitions. For getting back into shape, I recommend starting with just 6-8 repetitions. Even including a 10-minute warmup, this results in a very short training session to start. But over time, adding two repetitions each week, you will become a more durable athlete with quick recovery between bouts of effort.

The second part of getting in shape for ultimate is thinking about the types of movements you are doing. If all of your conditioning is on a track in a straight line, you may still become surprisingly tired when you step on the ultimate field despite having a good level of fitness. This is why we alternate the linear 80/20 sessions I describe above with multidirectional or lateral movement workouts.

Strength Training for Ultimate

If you are serious about training for ultimate, I strongly suggest getting a gym membership at a place that has free weights, squat racks, barbells, cable columns, and everything you need for a variety of exercises. This will ensure that your progress isn’t limited by the weights you have at home. If gyms aren’t open yet, or you are just getting started on your strength training journey, then a few sets of dumbbells will be a good place to start.

As you progress in your strength training journey in general you will…

  • Start with functional movement with little or no weight
  • Get comfortable with single limb and bilateral strength exercises
  • Emphasize developing more overall strength with the basic lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pullups)
  • Gain fully-developed single-leg strength and power

As with conditioning, the first priority is to focus on your ability to move in a coordinated manner with the basic movement patterns like lunges, pushups, squats, straight-legged deadlifts. Then you’ll be ready for a few functional strength exercises.

Speed and Agility Work

In order to get adaptation to speed and agility training, the training stimulus must be done at or above 90% of your current maximum ability. Quick example: if your max vertical jump is 20”, executing a jump above 18” will cause your body to adapt to jump higher. Any jump executed below 18” does not promote physical adaptation.

The truth is that many ultimate players are unlikely to properly do the type of training they need the most. This is because workouts that challenge the nervous system don’t feel difficult! Unlike cardiovascular training, you don’t get out of breath or feel tired. Unlike intense anaerobic training, you don’t feel any burn in your muscles. So it’s impossible to tell during the workout whether anything is happening.

For speed and agility work, you want a rest/work ratio of at least 10/1. A ratio of 15/1 is better if you are more highly trained because highly trained athletes can produce more power and therefore need more recovery.

There are an infinite variety of exercises you can do to work on speed and agility.1 The main thing to keep in mind is that you will get the most adaptation from speed and agility work at low volumes with great focus.

Putting it All Together in a Workout

The order you do things matters. If you put your conditioning first, for example, you won’t elicit adaptation in speed or agility.

As a general rule, you want to start with a warmup, then do anything targeting the nervous system and/or phosphagen metabolic pathway, and your conditioning will always be last.

When targeting multiple athletic qualities in the same workout, make sure you put them in the order as follows:

  • Warmup
  • Speed and Agility
  • Strength
  • Conditioning

The above order ensures that you’re more likely to get adaptation from your training time.

A combined workout like the above order is a good strategy when you are getting started in more ultimate-focused training. It’s also a reasonable strategy for maintenance. However, if you want to get more impressive athletic performance results, you will need more focus and an organized plan.

Long-Term Planning

If you want to succeed in ultimate, you need to think about your training in more than just the short term. Understanding the big picture can help you better focus on what needs to be done today in order to maximize performance many months from now when games matter most.

It’s tempting to want to improve everything at once. Workouts with a little strength, some agility work, ending in conditioning are popular. But the body adapts best to training when you focus on one main athletic quality at a time not only within a workout, but also within a training block.

A simple guideline is to focus on 1-2 complimentary athletic abilities at a time. You can focus on a particular athletic quality for about 4-6 weeks before you will see diminishing returns. Then, regardless of what you’ve done or what workouts have been left undone, it’s time to shift focus. This has a psychological benefit of giving you a deadline by which to do the training you intend to do for that particular focus area.

The order of your training blocks also matters. In general, you’ll want to put a focus on strength before a focus on power. You’ll want more sport-specific speed and agility to come closer to the start of your season.

Next Steps

Just get started! You don’t need a perfect plan in order to get moving. If you’re just coming out of hibernation, the Starting from Zero section will let you get moving while you sort out the rest. If you want to be confident you’re doing training that translates to the field on a schedule that’s most efficient, then obviously join us at The Ultimate Athlete Project. If you want to do it yourself, then bookmark this post or The Ultimate Frisbee Workout Guide to fill in the details.

Whatever you choose, good luck in your training this season!

  1. Find some examples in The Ultimate Frisbee Workout Guide. 

  1. Melissa Witmer

    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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