Anyone who has played competitive sports through adolescence and into adulthood, knows that there are days and times that you are fatigued, sore and in some cases injured. Sports are demanding! Many high school and collegiate sports require practicing or playing games 6 days a week over the course of a 3-4 month season. Because of this, athletes not only have to build their bodies to be stronger in order to be above these demands before the season starts, they also need to keep that strength during the season in order to stay healthy and performing at a high level. Now you may be thinking that there are examples of athletes who only work on their sport skill and don't train to increase strength, speed or power in the off-season and certainly not during the season. You are correct. There are some high school athletes and much fewer college athletes who take this practice only approach to their sport. Anecdotally, those athletes are one's with a much greater risk of getting hurt and/or struggle with their performance due to the fact that it's hard for their body to keep up with the demands of playing and practicing almost everyday for 3-4 months. While nothing replaces the need to practice and develop the skills required to play a particular sport at a high level, developing strength that allows for better control of muscles, greater work capacity and ability to generate higher forces and power, not only can enhance skills but will create the resiliency needed to repeat those skills over a longer period of time. If you're injured and can't play or practice, or you're constantly sore and fatigued, it's nearly impossible for most athletes to play at a high level let alone improve in their respective sport.
So without question, the off-season is the most important time of the year to increase strength and prepare the body for the demands of a competitive season but an in-season training program in many ways can be equally impactful to the health and performance of an athlete and a team. For one, by continuing to train during the season, it helps maintain the levels of strength, power and speed acquired in the off-season. If the body is not stressed to maintain certain exercise loads and volumes, then it will begin to diminish over time and therefore the athlete can get weaker and potentially more susceptible to injuries and reduced skill. Two, training can help with muscle recovery by increasing blood flow, range of motion and neurological stimulus, which in return can promote rebuilding and regeneration of damaged muscle tissue. Lastly, an in-season training program when adjusted and applied inconsideration to an athlete's needs (e.g. the high school athlete example shared in the beginning), can instill confidence through the preparation and support. (1)
HOW TO TRAIN IN-SEASON
While many know the importance of working out during the season, there are team sports and athletes who still don't train in-season. For a lot of high schools and even some small colleges, it can be because the school doesn't have a qualified strength and conditioning personnel to design and instruct an in-season program. Sometimes, it's because they don't understand and/or value the importance of training during the season. Regardless, training in-season is extremely important to an athlete's health and performance and there are ways to do so in a safe and effective manner.
So for those athletes, coaches and parents wanting guidance on in-season training, here are some things to consider:
Train specifically to the demands of the sport. There are a lot of ways to train but not every workout is the best for you as an athlete. Each sport has specific skills and physiological demands that need to be the considered with any training program but especially during the season. A program designed for other demands and goals could have a detrimental effect on health and performance.
Workouts in-season should be designed in consideration of the athlete training experience, current training level, practice/game schedule and previous medical history.
For most sports, in-season training sessions should be relatively short and moderately intense (less than an hour) to reduce the potential for over training and mental burnout.
Technique over weight. While doing heavier external loads is important to maintain strength, good exercise technique during the season is more important for overall joint, tendon and muscle health. Don't sacrifice form to do a heavier weight.
Prioritize recovery! This may be the single most impactful element to any in-season program. Myofascial release, scrapping, hot/cold therapy are a few examples of recovery techniques/modalities can enhance the body's response time and recovery from workouts, practices and games.
When seeking training advice, guidance or services, look for a qualified strength and conditioning professional with the either RSCC credential or CSCS certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association or the SCCC certification from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. Each one of these signifies practical experience and knowledge specific to training athletes.
For more information and guidance on recovery techniques and modalities, you can check out our blog article How to Recover Better from Workouts and Games.
Thanks for reading.
1. Haff GG, Triplett NT. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th Edition. Human Kinetics; 2015