So the off-season didn’t last long did it? Within a month or so from now the first few fixtures of the rugby and football seasons will be underway. That means one thing…
It’s time for pre-season training.
A phrase which, to most people, conjures memories of endless ascents of local sand-dunes, stadium steps or near-vertical hills culminating in a hefty vomit and a solid night’s sleep.
However, with methodical structuring, the pre-season needn’t be the traditional torturous period that most people associate with it.
A Sudden Increase in Load or Intensity
Personally, as a physiotherapist, pre-season can be a busy, busy time. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog (Injury prevention is tantamount to success), a sudden increase in the load or intensity of exercise is a major risk factor for injury. Therefore, six or more weeks of relatively low exercise (and probable poor diet) is not the optimum preparation for a period of sudden intensive exercise. The body is quite literally shocked at the start of pre-season and often this jolt is the catalyst for soft tissue injuries.
Interestingly too, is that physical and psychological fatigue which players’ experience in pre-season is thought to have a considerable impact on their ability to make good decisions. Bad decisions in training due to a sub-standard focus of concentration lead to people taking risks. Coaches, in my experience, dislike it when players take risks and physiotherapists, uncategorically, dislike it when players take risks. For instance, a footballer sliding in for a 50-50 challenge which he would, unfatigued, read as an unfavourable 70-30 challenge will invariably pick up a booking or an injury.
Maintain a baseline level of fitness
It is certainly better if a player can keep training during the off-season to maintain a baseline level of fitness. Something like a three-times-per week gym session encompassing, on different days, all major muscle groups and energy systems should keep you ticking along nicely in preparation for when the real graft starts.
On the whole, better, fitter players make better decisions and spend less time in the medical room.
Consider that injuries are “exposure beyond capacity”. Quite simply, if the capacity of an individual can be improved then injuries are less likely to occur. And if we take the aforementioned “capacity” to represent one’s ability to withstand heavy loads, sustained forces or rapidly applied forces, then improving these aspects can only result in performance benefits. Cue happy coaches, happy players and happy medical staff.
Create the correct environment
Understandably, pre-season is a minefield for all nature of injuries and it is something of a balancing act to create the correct environment to improve players physically whilst closely monitoring their fatigue and ability to recover so that they are not subject to any unnecessary risk.
Most top sports teams now employ a complex system for monitoring their player’s health and wellbeing, fatigue and recoverability. Devices like GPS vests identify all manner of data from how many metres are covered in a training session to how fast a given individual has run at any point. The GPS even gives an indication as to the quality of a players movements which, when erratic, is often a pre-cursor to injury.
A simple urine test can tell the medical and sports science team a lot about a player. For instance it can show the obvious hydration levels but also things like the concentration of proteins found in a urine sample after exercise is indicative of how hard that individual found the stresses of the exercise.
More recently, fitness tracker devices such as the Fitbit or Jawbone Up can monitor a range of health-related statistics for modern players. These devices can illustrate, for instance, not only how much sleep an individual is getting but also the quality of the sleep.
All of these things are simply small jigsaw pieces which, when combined, help the sports science and medical team to make an informed decision on a player’s fitness, wellbeing and readiness to perform. These are particularly important during a pre-season schedule so that the backroom team can gauge where to pitch the intensity and duration of training to maximise gains and minimise injury.
A structured strength and conditioning programme
Nevertheless, pre-season is an excellent opportunity to imbed a scientific system for strengthening all body systems which should carry over into the competitive season. A structured strength and conditioning programme which has been formulated with input from a physiotherapist can be a hugely effective way of improving performance and reducing injury risk. A methodical balance between concentric (muscle shortening), isometric (static muscle contraction) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) muscle use, utilising different speeds and angles of contraction will maximise possible gains on the field of play and keep you out of the physio room.
But what about when training has finished?
The recovery process is about far more than a couple of pints with your team mates, a kebab and a hangover the next day. The rest and recovery process is a neglected one. Used scientifically and correctly, it can be the difference between fitness and injury and between the best and the rest.
Nutrition plays a big role in the recovery process and may need to be monitored or modified during the pre-season. This is usually done on a person-by-person basis as a blanket approach rarely works for all players in a team. Some people may need a limited carb intake whilst others benefit from an eating schedule to reduce body fat percentage to optimum levels before the season begins. Remember, extra weight causes extra stresses on the body when exercising. Not only does it mean that it’ll feel tougher to lug yourself through that final box-to-box run, but the added forces through muscles and joints can often result in injury before the competitive season has even started.
Pre season diet
When it comes to pre-season diet, what is for certain is that replenishment of glycogen stores will be particularly essential whilst players are training at such high levels. Couple this with adequate protein intake to aid growth, repair and recovery and you go some way to ensuring a player’s potential to train again and again, with increasing intensities, is maximised.
>> Pure Whey Protein™ is a great source of high quality protein.
>> Vitargo, Dextrose and Complete Hydration™ are all good sources of fast release carbohydrates.
Another dietary consideration needs to be the intake of vital vitamins and minerals. During pre-season, a player’s immunity will be frequently depleted after training. This leaves a player more susceptible to illnesses and debilitating conditions. A well-balanced diet with fresh fruits and vegetables should be enough to maintain your vitamin and mineral levels. However some players may need supplementation in this area. A nutritionist will be able to help tailor an eating plan.
>> Complete Multivitamin Complex™
From an injury and performance perspective, one particularly important vitamin is Vitamin D. Vitamin D is sourced from sunlight, among other things. A lack of vitamin D can also leave you susceptible to illness, injury and even reduced physical performances. Some teams take the blanket approach to vitamin D by supplementing all players at regular periods during the season. Vitamin D is usually administered in tablet form.
>> Vitamin D3
Players can help their own recovery by use of a variety of gadgets like foam rollers, ice baths and ‘sticks’. There is, in reality, only likely to be a minimal actual physiological benefit from the use of these devices but psychologically, there is evidence to say that players’ enjoy using them and feel better afterwards which, in essence is usually all that matters.
Another way of facilitating happiness and improving mood is to sleep. There is strong evidence for taking afternoon naps and employing a structured nightly sleep pattern for enhancing recovery and creating the all-important positive attitude towards training.
Finally, communication is probably the most important factor to encourage during the pre-season. Remember effective communication presents itself in numerous forms; discussions with technical coaches; documentation of fatigue statistics from GPS for the sports science team; recording correct 1RM on exercise plans for the strength and conditioning coaches; educating the players as to how best to recovery and nourish…….the list is almost endless. If concise, clear communication can be achieved by all facets of the team from players to manager and everyone in between then there is a strong chance that goals can be met and gains can be made.
About the author:
Huw Roberts is a physiotherapist at Swansea City Football Club and a qualified strength & conditioning coach. He has over 8 years experience working with musculoskeletal disorders.