“Weeeeeeee’re a happy team at Hawthorn!” the echoes fade from the club rooms and the celebrations begin. This signals the end of a long period of intense physical exertion for all the players involved in the AFL Grand Final, and for all other winter sports athletes it is likely their competitions have wound up by now as well. For the professional football players, there will be a fairly structured off-season and pre-season plan (after all, they are payed hundreds of thousands of dollars, they can’t have too much time off!) but for many amateur and grass roots players there can be confusion about what is the best program to allow adequate rest, but to prepare the body for next year.
A good, structured off season involves several distinct stages – each with different goals and priorities;
Due to the incessant load of training and playing, all the kilometers of running, bashing into other players, running through mud etc, tendons accumulate microtears, muscle “corks” or haematomae leave scar tissue, and older knees, ankles and backs become tight and inflamed. For all these reasons, it is a good idea to have a few weeks (four to six) where the athlete does no strenuous exercise at all. This means no running, jumping, weights, or cross-fit type training. If losing cardiovascular fitness is a concern, then 2-3 sessions per week of cycling or swimming, and possibly some Clinical Pilates for core and postural strength would be perfect, but nothing that involves impact or high level strain.
This is the time when, for about six weeks, an athlete should focus on doing the heavy strength and conditioning work that can be difficult to manage during the season due to the impact on performance from stiffness, DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), or risk of muscle tear. Work outs should be very short, intense, and weights should be at around 80-90% of 1RM (the heaviest weight you can lift for one complete repetition). This often involves Olympic weightlifting techniques such as Power Clean, Snatch, Dead Lift etc due to these exercises involving many large muscle groups and being very functional. These exercises are very good at building muscle and strength quickly, but have a high risk of injury if done incorrectly, so only do these with a coach unless you’re experienced at them. Plyometrics (explosive jumping exercises involving maximal contraction after a “loading” stretch phase) should be employed but only once to twice per week.
By this time the athletes body has probably changed shape. Muscles will be a bit bigger and thicker, and body fat will likely be higher due to lower load of cardio exercise. Because of this, it is normal to be 5kg or more higher than “playing weight”. This is perfectly fine, and will strip down as the team training, running and summer heat come in to play after Christmas.
Usually during this phase the weight training and conditioning work shifts to “volume” work, meaning slightly lower weights, but more repetitions in longer sets. This trains the body to use the newly strengthened muscles, but improves their oxidative capacity (fitness). It is no good for sport to have massive muscles that fatigue after four or five contractions. It is good to add in some cross training to start getting some fitness back, so playing tennis, indoor soccer, beach cricket, and rock-climbing are all good examples of fun ways to get fit.
Towards the end of this phase it is good to start some running, beginning with a few kilometers and building up slowly. This often coincides with Christmas parties and end of year functions, so a little cardio wont hurt anybody, let’s be honest!
Often teams will begin a little preliminary team training just to blow off the cobwebs and start players thinking about their sport again, and to begin skills training so that these don’t get too rusty.
For most sub-elite teams, this starts in earnest after Christmas (for winter sports like football, basketball, soccer). This consists of LOADs of fitness work right in the heat of summer. This is usually a rude shock to the body after the mini-break over Christmas, and shows up those who haven’t done any of the preparatory steps above. Many athletes sustain tendon tears, shin splints, stress fractures etc due to sudden increase in training load on hard grounds etc. Appropriate footwear is essential, ice after training for any sore spots, and regular massage and time on foam roller or spiky ball.
Coaches use this time to teach teams how to run different offensive and defensive sets to be used during the year, and largely are pushing their team to ensure they are match fit by the time practice matches start in March.
So, while we might be a “happy team at Hawthorn”, don’t get too happy, for too long – pretty soon it’s time to get back to work!