The in-season period is a tricky time for strength and conditioning. As a player or coach you have to strike the fine balance between stimulating your body to retain or slowly build on the hard work you put in during pre-season, but also stay fresh for games each weekend.
Go too hard in training and you’ll carry fatigue into the weekend’s game. Your performance will suffer and your risk of preventable injuries goes up. But if you don’t train hard enough, you’ll progressively lose important physical abilities like speed, strength and power with the same results. Going into games physically underprepared equals sub-par performance and heightened injury risk.
The big 3 abilities of speed, strength and power are the trickiest abilities to train during the season. Lower level abilities like hypertrophy, aerobic endurance, mobility and skill are all relatively simple to train. They create little fatigue, they have long physiological residuals (the body needs very little training to retain these abilities) and they are quite friendly on the joints.
Speed, strength and power however are the most physically fatiguing training activities we can perform, they have some of the shortest residuals (perhaps only a few days), and they are the most stressful to the joints- particularly if one is carrying knocks from the previous game.
When faced by these problems too many players and coaches do away with these training modalities altogether. This is a big mistake in my opinion. Use it or lose it: though there is some carryover between training abilities, if you aren’t training speed, strength or power directly during the season, these qualities will likely be lost.
Instead a better solution is to keep these elements in the training programme year round, but modify them in a manner which allows for training to be done but at a lower then normal cost to fatigue and joint stress. Here are 3 tips I return to again and again during my in-season programming for high intensity abilities:
1. Remove or reduce the landing
One of the primary culprits of joint pain during the season is the impact forces of landing during high speed training means like jumps, plyometrics and ballistic power exercises like jump squats, bench press throws and the Olympic lifts (if you are inclined to use them).
With small modifications to the exercise it is possible to perform these exercises in a manner which is kinder to the joints, such as:
- Performing medicine ball throws on to a high jump pit
- Jumping up on to boxes
- Using partners to catch and reset the load during ballistic lifts like the jump squat (reducing landing forces to bodyweight only)
- Reducing Olympic lifting variations to high pulls only
- Dropping the load at the end of the concentric phase during appropriate exercises- jerk variations, dumbbell jump squats, trap bar jumps etc.
- Performing speed work on a slight incline or with a slight resistance (sled/run rocket)
It may be argued that by performing exercises in this manner one misses the benefit of a rapid eccentric contraction, but a healthy athlete with a slightly reduced training effect always beats an injured athlete with any training effect.
2. Drop to the minimum
To state the obvious, there is a minimum amount of intensity that must be utilised to overload the body and elicit an improvement (AKA the threshold of adaptation). Beyond this amount, additional intensity and/or volume will create a stronger signal for improvement up to an optimal point, beyond which adaptation and performance suffers (the inverted U of adaptation).
Naturally during pre-season our goal should be to identify the optimal amount of intensity and volume we need to maximally develop a particular physical quality- make hay whilst the sun shines! However what many people forget is that more training creates more fatigue. This is not necessarily a problem when there are fewer resources competing for recovery energy in pre-season.
But in-season there are far more drains on recovery energy- rugby training, games, travel etc. As such training should be shifted from optimum intensity and volume towards slightly above the bare minimum. In doing so, these physical abilities can continue to be slowly developed but at the expense of far less fatigue and its negative consequences to performance and injury risk. Here are the minimum intensities I use for various abilities during the season:
- Speed- 90% of maximum speed for a given distance
- Power- 90% of maximum speed/effort for a given load
- Strength- as little as 60% of 1 rep max as long as the load is accelerated with maximum effort (depends on training age)
- Hypertrophy- also around 60% of 1 rep max, even lower if tools like occlusion training are used
These numbers will vary according to your level of training. The less experienced you are, the less you need to continue to progress. How do you find the bare minimum for you? Drop the intensity, drop the volume, and see what happens. As a rule, the threshold is far lower than you think. How do you know what enough is, until you’ve done too little?!
3. Concentric only training
Even in traditional lifts which contain no sudden impact- squats, deadlifts, lunges etc- the eccentric portion of the lift may still be problematic, due to the soreness they create or aggravate (for example if an athlete is sore following a game). Removing this contraction type from the lift can substantially reduce muscle soreness and pain, whilst still allowing athletes to stimulate the retention/development of muscle strength and size. Here are a few of my favourite ways to implement this strategy:
- Get in position, lift the load, drop the load and reset. This is primarily limited to deadlifts but highly effective. If you are going to do this make sure you have bumper plates or you don’t care about your gym floor.
- 2-1 lifting: lift the load concentrically with one limb, lower eccentrically with two limbs. This a great option for exercises like single leg squats and leg curls. Whilst the eccentric portion is not totally removed here, there is still a substantial reduction in eccentric stress.
- Sled training: when using sled resistance rather then gravity of traditional weight training, it becomes possibly to train with very heavy loads with effectively zero eccentric stress. This is a great option for both upper body and lower body training.
Obviously in an ideal world we want to train everything normally during the season. However we do not live in an ideal world and sometimes the plan must change. To paraphrase track coach Dan Pfaff “make plan B as close as humanly possible to plan A”. You will enjoy better performance and more consistent progress by small tweaks like those above, rather than wholesale removal of training elements from the programme.
If you would like a more detailed insight into how I modify in-season training for my professional and online athletes, check out my 10 commandments of in-season training right here.