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Returning to Sport following Covid 19 – Some guidance on avoiding a 1-way ticket to destination fucked

We all started 2020 full of hopes and dreams. Ready to tackle the year, and dominate in our chosen sport. Make sick gains, and achieve all that we wanted. THIS WAS THE YEAR WE WERE GONNA MAKE IT (Don’t worry, we all gon make it brah’s)

And then along came Covid 19.

Aaaaaand the world ground to a halt. Lockdowns (to varying extents) were implemented around the world. A virus instilled terror and panic. Every man and their dog had cleared the supermarkets out of toilet roll (Still can’t figure that one out), paracetamol and dry food goods. US Doomsday preppers were READY for this moment (Then proceeded to lose their minds and turn up to protests with guns because ‘Murica –  Fuck you gonna do, shoot the virus?!). People ranged from sensible / cautious to mass hysteria. Cough in the streets and you were a social pariah who should be burned at the stake. In the UK, bars, restaurants, leisure facilities and gyms were all shut. Sports was cancelled indefinitely. For many, doomsday was upon us. For many it felt like it was never gonna end.

But, infection rate started to decline. Likely a multitude of reasons have impacted this such as lockdowns and people actually fucking washing their hands for a change. People started wearing masks and stopped licking dirty surfaces. A Phased return to “normality” began to occur.  Now (In Scotland), as of 07/09/2020, we have been back to the gym for a week. Phased return of non-contact sports training, with reduced numbers and social distance restrictions implemented, have also begun. However, competitive sport still appears to be a while away, which is great, because it gives coaches a chance to implement a proper “pre-season” with their athletes.

And with such a long lay off, they are going to need it.

If done correctly, the return to sport can be done safely and effectively. From a physical preparation perspective, athlete’s could be in a better position to return to sport than they were Pre Covid. However, most sports coaches don’t know dick about exercise physiology and biomechanics (This is why athlete’s should have a Strength and Conditioning coach). Ok, that might be a little harsh (sorry to any triggered skills coaches), but there is an element of truth in it.  Skills / sports coaches may also fall into the “this is how we did it in my day” camp. Sorry pal, but sports science has progressed since the cold war. Ask any athlete and they will have some utter horror stories from pre-season. Sessions which made them puke, a coach screaming “go hard or go home” or similar bullshit. That these sessions “build mental toughness” and getting thrown straight into intense fitness testing on the first session back? Sound familiar? For most it is.

That’s not to say pre-season should be easy. But, a normal pre-season can begin within 2-6 weeks from the end of the previous competitive season. In Scotland? We have been away from sport training for SIX. FUCKING. MONTHS. Having the attitude of absolutely killing your athletes on the first couple of sessions back is a one way ride to destination fucked with no return ticket. You do not need to test their fitness to “see where they are” because they are 100% de-conditioned for their sport, regardless of their activity over lockdown, for the simple reason they haven’t been exposed to competition nor the demands of competition.  The athletes as a cohort are gonna fall within one of 3 categories, and all need to be considered when restarting training from both a skills and physical preparation standpoint.

Athlete 1) – Athlete 1 is a dream. Despite not being able to play sports, they have worked hard to maintain as much fitness as they can. They have engaged in activities similar to the demands of their sport, and have kept up some sort of resistance training regime. Ideally, they will have had access to weights of some description, but will have still gotten by with a sensible bodyweight programme. They may not have engaged in some of the high intensity movements such as change of direction / agility work. But they have either maintained, or even improved both aerobic & anaerobic capacity. They may have maintained some levels of strength, possible even improved. Muscular endurance is maintained or even improved. Sprint performance may have been maintained, or again, maybe even improved.

Athlete 2 – They have done some work. They have lost some levels of activity, but have also let their foot off the gas a bit. They may have mitigated too much detraining effects. They have been dabbling between exercise and playing Fortnite. Overall, they are not in the worst shape, but they are definitely not match fit. They will likely have done 1-2 conditioning sessions and a couple of circuits. They may have had access to resistance training equipment, so may have maintained or even improved strength, but still lost fitness in other areas. Not ideal, but far from a nightmare.

Athlete 3 –  Probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out athlete 3. They have become full time Twitch streamers, and have binged Netflix. Not a series or 2, but Netflix. They have maybe done the odd bit of exercise sporadically, but realistically have done very little. Psychologically, they may actually be in a better place than athlete 2 & 3 as they have had a proper break. But physiologically, they are gonna out of shape, quite considerably. These athlete’s are at the highest risk for returning to play.

Similar to armour, you are only as strong as your weakest link. If you are a solo coach managing large groups of athlete’s, This may be frustrating for athlete’s 1 & 2, but they can be given supplemental work to ensure that they don’t detrain. If you treat everyone like athlete 1, you are seriously running the risk of overload injuries (Hamstrings strains / tears) and structural damage to the soft tissues. All of which can be avoided by a sensible reintroduction to training. So how should you go about that?

Start general

A general physical preparedness (GPP) block is 100% your first bet. Sport itself is not going to be back for a while, so you do not need to get straight back into high intensity sport specific skills. That’s not saying you shouldn’t do any skills, far from it, but you need to build a base. Start off low- moderate intensity and keep the volume sensible. Look to gradually increase this volume over time, and gradually bump the intensity where appropriate. Below, I have highlighted some considerations for different aspects of physical preparation.Speed training – If athlete’s have not been exposed to high speed running over lockdown, then this needs to be introduced carefully. Going straight into flying runs, sharp decels and pushing distance sprinting is significantly increasing the likelihood of a hamstring injury. With sprint work, start basic. Work on some positional work (A marches, A skips, B skips, wall drills etc) This is a great chance to work on some positional issues. It is also a chance to work on accelerations. Keep the volume low, and short distances for the sprints. Encourage a gradual run off as well, and not sharp decelerations. Make sure you are also allowing plenty of recovery. Sprinting and speed training is not anaerobic conditioning. Improving repeated sprint ability (RSA) is not the same as speed training. Going straight into on feet RSA work is also a bad idea. If you are hell bent on athlete’s doing RSA training, get them on a bike or rower.

Plyometric / jump training – again, keep it sensible. Don’t overload the volume straight off the bat. Keep the intensity / complexity low and gradually build back into it. You don’t want to risk developing a repetitive strain injury (RSI). It is worth doing a check on basic movements first (Landing, take off mechanics etc). Even if an athlete was competent before lockdown, if they haven’t been doing them then they will have likely need to relearn the neural pathways / technique required to perform them safely. It should be obvious (but ill say it anyway) diving into heavy shock training like depth landings / depth jumps from a high height is also not the wisest decision in the world. By slowly reintroducing plyo’s / jump training, then you are ensuring the connective / supportive tissues are not being overloaded, thus reducing the risk of injury.

Change of direction / Agility – These can be introduced from the start, but with caution and sense. Looking firstly at change of direction (COD – And no, not warzone get off your PlayStation), you want to start back gradually. Starting off slowly in terms of speed of approach into the cutting manoeuvre is a sensible approach. This is especially true of cutting angles / turns > 90°+. The reason for this is that cutting / changing direction involves multidirectional forces. Multidirectional forces are far more likely to cause injury than forces in a single plane of motion. A prime example of this is an ACL rupture where the ligament is exposed to high force under flexion and rotation (Such as a cutting manoeuvre) and the ligament snaps. This is even more likely if the knee is in a valgus (collapsed inward) position. Unsurprisingly, this is something we want to avoid.

So, to avoid injuries like an ACL rupture, the athlete’s need to be gradually exposed to these sharp cutting manoeuvres. They can be exposed to less sharp cuts (< 90°) at higher speeds. Curved linear running is also a useful tool here (running round in a circular/ oval line) to prepare the athlete’s for these kind of running angles. Over time, you can increase the severity of cutting angle, as well as speed into the cut until they are back up to “game speed”. By following this logic, you are helping the athlete (s) adjust to the stressors of the game / these higher force manoeuvres in a sensible, logical fashion. Win win.

Resistance / gym training – Swole may be the goal, and size may be the prize. But training like a fucking moron upon return to the gym will get you nowhere. If you are engaging in other sports training you need to be sensible. Hell, even if you aren’t and athlete and returning to the gym, then you need to be sensible. Going straight back into rep max testing to “see where you are at” is monumentally stupid. Don’t do it. And don’t base your numbers off old maxes, as they are more than likely well off as well. When getting back into hoisting tin, use some form of RPE / autoregulation for the first 4-6 weeks to let your body adapt to the stress of lifting again. You cannot make the body adapt faster just by absolutely beating yourself into the ground. Returning to sports training also needs to be considered. If you have a hard running / conditioning session the next day, doing your squats & / or deadlifts the night before is probably a bad idea. If you are doing your own S&C programming, consider all other training (much like you would normally) but right now its better to be over cautious. Similar to cooking a steak. If you under cook it, then you can throw it back on the pan. But if you over cook it, then its fucked.

As I mentioned, there are 3 types of athletes. From a coach’s perspective, you can give potentially athlete 2, and definitely athlete 1 some supplemental work to ensure that they don’t detrain. They are already ahead of athlete 3, but that doesn’t mean they are ready for sport. The same principles as above still apply, they are just going to be ready for action quicker. With the extended off season, you really have a fantastic opportunity to increase the physical parameters required for your sport, if you approach your training sensibly.

I hope this article has been informative, for both coaches and athlete’s alike. As always, if you have any questions then slide up in the DM’s on the socials (Links below)  or shoot me an email at stewartathleticdevelopment@gmail.com.

Until next time, and as always, stay strong

Callum

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